Vincent Hogan: Football carries Tipp manager Evans with the greatest of ease
The dreams of John Evans have a special sound. Maybe it comes from believing in angels, from that habit he has of smiling a smile of deference to some higher power. You see, you talk to him about football and you come away thinking about faith. He has that quiet grace of the enlightened.
Evans knows a man can be hard in a thousand different ways and, still, be vulnerable as a leaf. And there's something dignified and ennobling about how he imparts that knowledge.
His son, Sean, is everywhere, he says. "We draw him like a six-gun," he smiles of the boy lost to cancer before his 16th birthday. "Morning, noon and night, he's in our conversation."
Maybe it doesn't matter what name you attach to your God, because some things bypass labels. Tomorrow, Evans' youngest boy, Eoin, will be in Semple Stadium, wearing a green and gold scarf. Eoin was born to John and Bridie on January 4, 2000. Sean's birthday.
John Evans is, of course, a Kerry man in charge of the Tipperary football team. He's not especially religious and he doesn't appoint himself as any kind of moral lightning rod. But there have been days in his life when God, whoever that may be, seemed to be all but laughing in his face. So, his story is a parable of how terrible things happen to ordinary people and there's just no knowing what the experience will leave behind.
He unspools a little memory from just a few months before Sean died. The whole family understood what was coming, but, somehow, kept running from the reality. It wasn't so much denial as a survival mechanism, their days spent skirting the thing, fleeing almost. Everyone talking in circles.
Except the kid in trouble.
Sean announced that he wanted to tell his sister, Tara, exactly what was looming. His older brother, Cian, already knew, but Tara was just 11 and -- seemingly -- unburdened by the starkness of it. "You can't do that, that's daft stuff," John protested.
"Dad, she's my only sister," came the answer.
Soon enough, Tara walked down the stairs and Sean got up from the couch. "Tara, you know things aren't going well," he said, the house falling quiet with a jolt.
"Well, I don't think they're going that well at all."
"I know that too."
And the words ended there, John Evans' two youngest children just falling into a long and tearful embrace. "Then Sean sat down," he remembers now. "Something was on the television and we looked at it for a couple of minutes.
"And I'm there thinking, 'Jesus Christ Almighty, an adult would have made a mess of that anyway ... '"
Football carries him at its ease, like an ocean bearing flotsam. He has been more than quarter of a century coaching teams, save a two-year gap after losing his son. The gift of seeing young men locate the best of themselves under pressure makes his days worthwhile.
Evans is a retired garda detective whose work led him to the worst of places. He dealt with awful crimes and wicked people. Yet, he always made a point of talking to them rather than radiating distaste. Maybe just a simple, 'How are you?'.
If there is anything he would say to a young garda now it is to remember that even the sinner is human.
In Killorglin this week, his missionary work has placed a soft distance between him and his neighbours. A few weeks back, he brought a Tipperary team to Tralee and coaxed the county's first Munster U-21 football crown out of them at Kerry's expense.
Evans knows precisely how the land lies now.
The local launderette owner is a Tipp man, but, beyond that, he reckons only Bridie and his own mother are firmly on his side this week.
His four brothers are "lunatic football supporters" who would have congratulated him on Tipp's U-21 triumph "only through gritted teeth".
He has an aunt, Eva, who is married to Jerome Conway, the Kerry county chairman. Another, Kitty, is married to James Coffey, the County Board treasurer for 30 or so years.
"I know where the line is," Evans smiles. "I'm a sort of an outsider in Killorglin now. But football is a love of my life."
Cut him and he probably bleeds green and gold. He coached Kerry to an U-21 All-Ireland and Laune Rangers to an All-Ireland club title. His whole life in football has been franked by little wisdoms learnt at home.
Jack O'Connor is a friend of his and actually asked him to come on board as a Kerry selector. Evans demurred. "Jack," he said. "We're both managers. You don't leave two women at the one sink."
The two of them still talk regularly, drawing information from one another like water from a well. Yet, this week, there is no ambiguity about the status of John Evans' relationship with his home place.
"There's huge fun in it," he chuckles. "Half that Kerry team I've probably coached at some stage or other, I've competed against them all, I've partied with most of them and travelled abroad with half of them, so no stories out of school ...
"Look, Jack and myself would be quite good friends. What will their thinking be? Jack will say, 'Evans is a cute hoor, he's after catching us with the U-21s lads, this guy needs a dusting. Tipperary need a dusting. We're not going to take a chance with this guy or his young team'.
"Look, Jack has all the firepower. He has the cannons. I know him inside out and he knows me. Then there's a few fellas below there that I've taken county championships off and they'd like to tan my ass as well (laughing). So they'll certainly not be complacent."
He's heard the violins play over Darragh's leaving and Diarmuid Murphy's and Tadhg Kennelly's and Tommy Walsh's and he's lapped up the leaks of alarm about the fitness of those other O Se boys, Tomas and Marc.
And all that Evans takes from it is a sense that Kerry, this year, will be more pared maybe than they've been in years.
"Let me tell you," he says, "you looked at that Kerry team that played Cork last year and they had fat arses and were wallowing. They had an easy league. They had an over-abundance of riches. And the trouble with that is, if you're No 30 in a hot-shot panel, you don't see yourself getting on the team. But these guys will have a cut in them.
"They're stripped bare and coming with a different psyche altogether. Then throw in the fact that Cork are going for three-in-a-row in Munster. Believe you me, this Kerry team will have an edge. You'll remember what I've said when they're playing Cork on June 6!"
Blink and you miss the roguery. To get that shot at Cork, the Kingdom must -- of course -- bring down Evans' Tipp tomorrow. The general expectation is that Tipp will be decent, but, ultimately, undramatic opponents.
Under Evans, they've gone from National League Division 4 to 2 in successive seasons, only to slip back to 3 again this spring. Kerry exist at a different altitude.
Evans points to the fact that they've both played Laois recently in challenges. Kerry had them washed and embalmed by half-time; Tipp found their game a struggle.
"Look I'm not going to come out and say, 'We're going to beat Kerry!'" he protests. "That would be madness, that would be just silly stuff, because we're not in the same league. But none of our guys will throw in the towel. There'll be no white feathers shown.
"If we go down, we'll go down decently. And the other thing I'd say clearly is, we'll be playing football. We won't be putting 14 men behind the ball, we won't be hitting guys off the ball, we'll be trying to play football.
"Look, we'll be honest and we'll be trying. I'd say to guys sometimes, 'I'll carry you home in the boot of the car bloodied, bandaged and broken, but don't sit up in the front with a clean togs, not having tried'.
"The one thing I'd be afraid of is that they might gun down our young fellas very easily, which might do a bit of psychological damage for a time. I'm aware of that as well. But, look, we're there to give it a shot."
His role is, of course, a good deal more holistic than just that of a big-day sniper.
For now, the position of Director of Football is, essentially, held in abeyance as Tipp's County Board seeks some form of resolution with Croke Park. Yet, Evans hands are all over football in the county now. Under a Munster Council initiative, he's been coaching in Abbey CBS, Tipperary Town, Colaiste Dun Iascaigh in Cahir and CBS High School in Clonmel. The High School won this year's All-Ireland 'B' title and had, maybe, half a dozen on the Tipp minor team squeezed out by Cork in last Wednesday's Munster semi-final.
Hurling still subsumes all else in Tipperary, but Evans is energised by the "sense of fairness" he encounters towards football across the county. He has a warm relationship with Liam Sheedy and they chat often, their squads training on adjoining fields every Tuesday and Thursday.
If anything, Evans believes that Tipp's proud hurling lineage can be a psychological oil-field for the footballers.
"Yes, it is a hurling county and a county that takes fierce pride in its hurling," he acknowledges. "The passion that's there is unreal. But I've tapped into it. You see, the guys that I took over in Division 4 were ambitious. I could see they had an ambition to win that other counties wouldn't have.
"Do you know where t'was coming from? From their grandmothers, grandfathers and great grandfathers, uncles and aunts and fathers. They know no other way, you see. It's there. They were familiar with winning, albeit it wasn't with football.
"You talk to a Tipperary guy and there's almost a swagger about them. They believe they're the best. I've tried to transfer that psyche into the football. But, if you go into a county that hasn't won in either code, they'd be just staring at you. You'd never get that swagger into them."
Football Board men like Barry O'Brien and Tim Floyd have been unstinting in their support. The squad was offered a team holiday as reward for successive promotions, but turned it down in favour of a training camp.
O'Brien called Evans a "brave b******" when he chose the venue for that camp, a 16th century convent converted into a hotel high in the hills of northern Spain. Others told him he was "mad" to take Tipp's county games from the comfortable familiarity of Ardfinnan into Semple Stadium.
"I know it'll be a clear advantage for Kerry this weekend," he accepts. "You're bringing the best team in Ireland into the best field. But, look, that's where we want to be. These guys are so young, they don't see danger. That said, they'll have to start learning fast!"
They did a deal with Sean before he died. If he came with them to Lourdes, they'd take him to EuroDisney in Paris. And, in Lourdes, John remembers praying: "Look, I know you're going to take him, but will you take him easy?"
Sean slipped away gently on October 14, 1998, leaving the family crushed and a little lost. For six months, Bridie walked three times daily to the grave. She lost weight, the grief ransacking her body of vitamins, her whole system coming under siege.
The pregnancy wasn't planned, but, instantly, it threw a little light into the blackest cranny of their lives. John remembers Tara, lying with her head on her mother's tummy, feeling the baby kick. He remembers Cian making plans for the new arrival.
Then himself and Bridie sat their 18-year-old son and 13-year-old daughter down one evening and told them they'd be the godparents.
Eoin was delivered by Caesarian on what would have been Sean's 17th birthday, a healthy boy sent to them from some higher power. "Losing a child is against nature, it's against everything," John says now.
"Your heart breaks into a thousand pieces but, whatever we as men do, I'll tell you it is nothing to what a mother goes through. So, if you talk about faith now, I'd talk more about about faith in wife and family.
"Sport does help in that it occupies you. But, look, it's the man above that decided this. I didn't go into the blame game, I didn't go looking for a crutch, I didn't say, 'Why me?' I wasn't angry. I don't know why.
"You just believe in that higher power I suppose. Sean was around for a very short time. A wonderful guy. Then Eoin comes along and brings life into the family. He's after making Bridie and me young again."
The baptism was almost as big as the funeral and, for a year or so, just about everyone he met in Killorglin told John Evans: "You've got an angel!"
He's never really doubted it and, if Kerry give Tipp a bit of a hiding in Thurles tomorrow, the defeated manager won't expect much sympathy from his 10-year-old son. In recent days, he's been giving Eoin grief about Manchester United's late-season fade-out.
The kid, he reckons, won't decline an opportunity to balance the books now.
Either way, John Evans will wear that gentle smile of his like a vestment. For, when dreams begin to waver, he can always call on that six-gun.