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Hand no longer chasing rainbows

WHEREVER he goes, people tell Eoin Hand that he was an unlucky manager.

He thinks about the decisions that went against him during his time as Ireland manager and says they have a point. Losing out on goal difference to Platini's France, finishing ahead of the World Cup runners-up Holland when he was 34 and working for an organisation that, if they were called Mickey Mouse, would have received cease and desist letters from the Disney Corporation.

There were bent referees and there was abuse. By the time he finished in 1985 at the age of 39, he'd had enough. He might have been unlucky, but when he thinks about the conditions he worked in, the incompetence above him in the FAI, he thinks maybe Ireland got what they deserved.

But he doesn't think he's unlucky, not when he thinks of the events of August 14, 1997. He weighs things up. "I may have been unlucky as Ireland manager, but I was lucky another time. And given the choice, I know when I'd rather have the luck."

In August 1997, Hand was on "a slippery slope". He had returned from South Africa the previous year where the last of his savings had been swallowed in a sports bar venture, but not before he nearly lost an eye following a bottle attack which was set up, he believes, to run him out of the business.

It worked. Before dawn one morning, Hand took down all the jerseys he'd had framed and hung on the walls of the bar and got out. He came home with nothing.

His marriage had collapsed before he left for Africa, and now he was back in Dublin, living in his mother's house in Drumcondra. "I was drinking too much," he remembered on Friday, sitting in his partner Pauline's house in Rathmines. "I couldn't handle the personal stuff that was going on - the marriage break-up and whatever. Everywhere I looked there were dead ends."

He thought about going to England, but felt, despite his years there as a player and his time as manager in Huddersfield, that it was a closed shop to all but the high profile.

"I wasn't alcoholic, I just couldn't see a solution to the problems I had so the easiest thing was to go jarring."

For 25 years in football, Hand considered himself "a good pro". He didn't miss training, didn't drink on a Thursday or Friday night. "I loved my pints and I could handle it." The structure of the professional game was missing when he came back to Dublin.

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Instead, he would find himself in the pub at lunchtime, drinking with strangers, "talking shite", then heading back home to write job applications.

He'd pinned his financial hopes on a testimonial, but the date wasn't good for pulling a crowd. Drink was his only sustenance. "I'd stopped eating, that was the worst part." For six months, he drank too much.

"I was fully aware that I was doing my body damage, fully aware that something had to give. It was as if I wanted something to give because everything else was so flippin' bad. I was feeling sorry for myself and it was easy to have four pints at lunchtime, another five pints before dinnertime. Then everybody else would go for their dinner but I wouldn't. I'd go off and watch telly and then I'd be back down the pub and finish off with another six or seven pints."

Despite the staggering consumption, he never got into trouble. He was, he insists, there for company, for the sing-songs. "When I was in Saudi Arabia for a year and a half, I never touched anything. Some of the lads would be making sidiqui, they called it, but I never touched it. I was a social drinker."

But there was another reason for his drinking. He had developed a severe pain on the upper left hand side of his stomach while he was in South Africa. They stuck tubes up him and gave him a diagnosis. The wrong diagnosis. Back in Dublin, the drinking seemed to help.

"The pain was getting worse and I was drinking more to kill the pain. It worked. The anaesthetic was alcohol but then I'd wake up in the middle of night and the pain was ferocious." On August 14, 1997, he collapsed in his mother's house. His mother wanted to call an ambulance, but his pride insisted that he take a taxi.

"I went to the A&E in the Mater and I was crying for something to stop the pain. I'll never forget that they asked me if I'd been drinking and I said, 'Yes, of course, I've been drinking much too much.'"

It was a Tuesday and Hand took them through his weekend's consumption which was close to 60 pints. The medical staff were staggered and immediately suspected pancreatitis. Two days later, he was taken into intensive care.

"The enzymes attack all the organs and my lungs were collapsing. I went into a bit of a coma. They rang my mother and said 'We need to operate immediately' because I was failing, I was gone. I had the last rites. The operation for pancreatitis is a dodgy one. My mother said 'I'll come up to the hospital now' and they said, 'We have to go now'."

He was aware of what was going on, but he wasn't afraid. "I wasn't scared. I was thinking that I didn't want any sanctimonious shit. I don't know if it's a common feeling in that situation but you can do nothing. It's going to be someone else who will pull you out of the situation. I could battle but I was in the doctors' hands."

After a 12-hour operation, he pulled through, but Hand was told he could never drink again. He saw four different surgeons and each time he asked, "not even a glass of wine in a couple of years?" Nothing, they responded. So he stopped, cutting out the cigarettes as well (he was smoking 50 a day at the end).

But he continued to live his life. He still loves a sing-song, still loves a night out. "I say to people I still drink, I just don't drink alcohol."

Everything changed. "My attitude to life has changed, smell the roses and all that. I'm not religious and I'm not a church-going guy, but I acknowledge God. Just don't give me any sanctimonious shit. I now accept what is. The reason I was drinking was because I couldn't come to terms with what was. It's now a question of whether I want to live or I want to snuff it. If I want to snuff it, I can just go drinking again because if I get one more attack that's it."

HE has brought order to his life. He built a house in Kerry where he spent his holidays as a child and he works from there and from his mother's house in Drumcondra. Occasionally, he misses a pint after a round of golf, maybe, when the sun is setting and he'd like to unwind and sing a song with a few scoops.

But he weighs it up, again, remembers the good times he's had without drink, thinks about his house in Kerry which he was able to build in part because his money wasn't being drunk away and thinks it's okay. And he has his job.

Ask Eoin Hand if, in his late 50s, he has found his calling in life and he hesitates. "I've stopped chasing the rainbow," he says. The chase took him around the world. Saudi Arabia put him back on his feet financially; South Africa took it all away from under him. He had gone out there with the carrot that he could become coach of the national team, but stayed to manage Amazulu who agreed to pay him $10,000 dollars a month. "But they knew what they were doing, I only lasted five weeks. We hadn't even played a game and I was being spat at."

'I wasn't alcoholic, I just couldn't see a solution to the problems I had so the easiest thing was to go jarring'

It was post-apartheid and Hand was told they didn't want a white coach. One night, after training, the situation was made clear. The session took place in front of a large crowd. The players urged Hand to leave. He refused. The next thing the players walked off, ignoring Hand's shouts that they had not finished. "Next thing, this big guy comes in and says he wants to see me. 'We wish to tell you that you are not welcome. You must GO!' and I said 'I've had enough of this. You're harassing me, I'm trying to work in a job, I've got no political affiliations. This is not racism, this is football'. I'm giving it the whole bit. The next thing one guy steps forward who hadn't said a word and says, 'You must listen. We are telling you, you must go. If you come back, we will kill you.' So I just thought, 'Oh well, that's different. Good night, Good night.'" He packed it in the next day, headed for Johannesburg and opened a sports bar, still chasing the rainbow.

For fiascos, it's hard to beat his time as Ireland manager. He ended up doing all the secretarial work himself, frustrated at the amount of times players wouldn't be notified of a call-up. The tour of South America in 1982 stands out. In the middle of the Falklands War, the FAI arranged a tour. Hand was pleased when he was told that they'd be playing Brazil, less so when Argentina was added to the itinerary. "I said to them 'you can't play Argentina, they're at war with England. Some of our players hold English passports and they all play in England.'

"They said 'That shouldn't make a difference'. So I said let me approach the managers. I went to Ron Atkinson at United and Keith Burkinshaw at Spurs. I said 'Would you let us have the players for a South American tour?' They asked, 'Who you playing?' 'Argentina' 'Ah, Fuck off!' I asked them was that their official response and they said it was."

Argentina was scratched from the schedule, but the players were gone and the FAI were meddling. One of Hand's players received a message at Heathrow Airport telling him that he was no longer needed. Hand needed him, the FAI finances didn't. Hand knew nothing about it until he returned with a 7-0 defeat to Brazil as an excess part of his baggage.

His management style, he says, was twisted by his critics, especially Eamon Dunphy with whom he grew up in Drumcondra. Dunphy went for Hand with a vengeance that he can't forget. "It had a huge affect on my children who were bullied at school after his articles appeared."

The players didn't call the shots, he insists, but he would inform Liam Brady, if he was captain, how he planned to play. He wasn't going to roar from the sidelines, he thinks those who do are bullshitting and with players like Brady, Lawrenson and Stapleton, he had the talent and the intelligence on the field.

"I didn't come in with the clout Charlton had. I came in with a second division pedigree. My attitude was that I was going to try and find out as much as I can and improve as much as I can in terms of facilities and being professional."

He fought a lonely battle. Perhaps, he acknowledges, he could have been stronger at times and his loyalty to the players didn't always help him. "I protected the players, but they didn't always protect me. There were a few little shit stirrers there."

Jack Charlton was not the first to single out David O'Leary. "He was a very good player but at times he would just stroll through games. I dropped David for the first time in his career. I told him I was going to do it. He'd come off the pitch and his shorts would be whiter than white. He went up for corner-kicks hundreds of times for Ireland and thousands of times for Arsenal and he only every scored two goals. He sulked big-time when I left him out."

After Hand left, relieved to be out - "I felt like a criminal" - he briefed Jack Charlton for two hours, particularly on the problems with the FAI. Charlton, he says, was totally insensitive to other people and when Hand asked him in 1990 if he could do some scouting for him at the World Cup in Italy, Jack grumbled and declined, embarrassing Hand who regretted ever asking him. When he went to Charlton later, asking for help with his testimonial, Charlton grumbled about the number of players looking for benefit matches and Hand was shot down again.

A generation was lost, he says, while Maurice Setters was running underage football, even if the structures changed with Charlton's brusqueness and he was the one who made the breakthrough - "the rest of us can just offer excuses".

The FAI, far from perfect, is now a much-improved organisation. "I travel with the team now and I see the changes. There is also a lot of good work being done with the regional development officers around the country. Fran Rooney is very attentive to the needs of underage football."

But it may be for his work as Career Guidance Officer that he will be remembered. He devised the job himself, noting the number of parents who asked him for advice about their sons' chances at English clubs and approaching General Secretary Bernard O'Byrne. He was given a year's trial on a pittance. When the year ended, the FAI offered him an increase of 33 per cent, "but it was 33 per cent of nothing." He spoke to the Treasurer John Delaney, who he feels is the man within the FAI who can get things done, and a proper job with a proper salary was established.

'It had a huge affect on my children who were bullied at school after his (Dunphy's) articles appeared'

Last year, his work paid off with a FIFA ruling which established that the transfers of Irish players between English clubs were international transfers. This secured massive pay-outs for Crumlin United who nurtured Robbie Keane, following his transfer to Tottenham as well as Damien Duff's clubs, Lourdes Celtic, Leicester Celtic and St Kevin's Boys, after he joined Chelsea. "That gave me as much of a buzz as anything in my career."

He hears about the money clubs are offering and he talks to families. "I advise about the pitfalls and sometimes I have to tell myself not to sound so negative, it's a wonderful opportunity for a kid, but their chances of success are slim."

He wants kids to stay in Ireland, but to that end there has to be an academy. Clubs in England accuse him of destroying the dreams of kids, but he is dealing with the reality. If they are good enough, he believes, the clubs will still be there.

He is totally committed, as he always has been. "I have an awful lot to offer." And he is smelling the roses.

"Whatever happened to me in my life is my fault. The fact that I was drinking too much is my fault. Now I like to think that I'm in control in my life and that there is nobody better at doing what I do than me because of all I've been through. I've worn the t-shirt. I've fulfilled a need for the FAI and I've definitely fulfilled a need for myself."

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