Friday 20 July 2018

Hand making most of his second chance

Time and silence the great healers for former Ireland manager who is just happy to be able to tell the tale

Former Republic of Ireland manager Eoin Hand. Photo: Ray McManus / Sportsfile
Former Republic of Ireland manager Eoin Hand. Photo: Ray McManus / Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

"Look at us Eoin, two dead men walking!". It is the year 2000 but these two middle-aged men are not ascending a stairway to heaven.

Instead, this is the rickety, mud-splattered ladder poised uncertainly on the grass beneath the TV gantry in UCD's Belfield Park and, for Eoin Hand and Jimmy Magee, it is their first day back at work.

Their first day back to life after near death. "Says Jimmy," says Hand. "We're supposed to be dead and here we are doing a live match!"

Magee, rarely wrong, was right again.

He had had a triple bypass after a heart attack in 1999; it was only then that, after secreting the broken heart within him for so many years, he could finally release the oceanic emotion that had been suppressed for his departed wife.

The strength of mind that had sustained him had been undone by the weakness of the body. He would hungrily seize his second chance to live with renewed zest, regrettably with more revisitation of grief, for another 17 years.

"You'd miss him now," muses Hand, now 71, sitting in his North Kerry home as the tree branches beyond his window swing lazily as if they were the embodiment of a thousand conductors' batons.

Such is the symphony of his life now. Slow and calm. A friend once told him that one day it would be worth it and time and silence would be his. He has found it now.

Existence

Like his dear friend Jimmy, he too got another spin at existence. Only there was once a time when he didn't want a second life. When he didn't want to live any life. Especially a life as Eoin Hand.

When he was at his darkest in the bright summer of 1997, his days were still full even though he was, apart from perhaps anything between a dozen and 18 pints of Arthur, utterly empty.

He had returned from South Africa a couple of years earlier but had become estranged from his young daughter and feared he may never see her again. There was no work.

And so every day, as dutifully as a barrister collecting briefs to put in a day's work in the Four Courts or a Corpo man gathering his gardening tools, Eoin said goodbye to his mother Monica every morning and went about his day's business. Drinking for Ireland.

He'd gather the newspapers and over his first pint consider the only puzzle he could attempt to tackle. The crossword. And even though he might finish the day with enough porter to fill the bellies of a five-a-side team, that would be the only cross word had all day.

In the company of strangers, the man who didn't know how many friends he had slowly detached himself from real life.

"I was in a very low place and it was my way of dealing with things, head in the sand and forget what was going on.

"Everywhere I went there was trouble. So the easiest thing was go to the pub, start a chat. I was drinking just to forget.

"You'd wake up the next morning feeling more depressed so you'd go to the boozer again. It wasn't the drink I was craving. Just the distraction. Total distraction.

"That was the point. I wanted to talk to people whether it would be strangers or whatever.

"Some lads would be finishing work and then a new tea-time crowd would come in and then the evening match. Different shifts.

"I can remember every minute of it, I was never getting drunk or anything like that. I wanted to meet people.

"I looked forward to getting out and there was the testimonial being arranged in September. That was giving me a focus. Some days I knew I couldn't be going into the pub at lunchtime. I couldn't have enough meetings. It would have been great if I had meetings every day.

"I was never so p**sed I'd be incoherent or falling around. People who met me wouldn't have known I'd already ten pints on me. I never vomited or anything like that."

He was far from a happy drunk though. The more he tried to sink away his depression, the louder the voices in his head screamed. He was not an alcoholic. He was a depressive who drank.

One night, as he walked home by the Royal Canal, he suddenly remembered everything that he had been trying to forget.

"I was so low, I knew I could finish it all here now. There was no light at the end of the tunnel."

As the moonlit canal waters stared silently back, he finally saw his own reflection. And it scared him. Not to death. But to life.

"I remember saying, 'What the hell are you thinking? You're finishing your own problems but causing more for others. You're not thinking illogically if you're thinking like that, you can't put sound reasoning behind it.' I frightened myself, it was like having a chat with my inner soul."

Except Hand's problem was not simply a mental one. While in South Africa, he had unwittingly contracted pancreatitis. Another way to ease the searing pain in his body was to anaesthetise it with alcohol. Also, unwisely, he ate little.

Eased

The more he eased the pain, though, the closer he was edging towards death of a different kind. Until one morning, he collapsed in his mother's house and was rushed to the Mater.

The life he had once refused to take was now being frittered away by other means beyond his control. A weird serenity seized him as his organs slowly failed.

"I started planning my funeral. Nothing sanctimonious. Nothing morbid. A few ballad songs. The acceptance I had was amazing. Nothing religious.

"I was here and I knew there was only one person who had put me here. You start getting depressed again if you start thinking about all the things that didn't go wrong. It wasn't religion at all, quite the opposite in fact. Realism."

He received the Last Rites. "The priest frightened the s**t out of me. He'd black robes on. I told him f**k off you b****x ya'. It was like something out of Dracula. I'm sure he'd be used to stuff like that..."

All the while, the testimonial he had hoped could distract him took place on a miserable, rain-soaked night in Tolka Park with barely enough of a crowd to cover the expenses. A decade earlier, he had managed his country. He was a forgotten man. Or so he thought.

It was when he settled into the Caritas recuperation centre on the Merrion Road that he saw all the messages that had been sent during his days in death's waiting room. Hundreds of them.

"I read every single one. It gave me a huge lift. I thought nobody would care if I killed myself. But it wasn't true.

"Because the place I had been in before was where I thought to myself, 'Well, you're on your own and nobody gives a f**k.' But then all these messages made me realise it wasn't true.

"Then the whole scene changed for me. I got off the smokes and booze, a total change of lifestyle. Pauline (his now wife) came on the scene and she was so strong, such a sounding board, a rock."

He walked into town as he did months earlier, but now with unkempt hair and shy fully six stone, barely recognisable to anyone. Except Eoin Hand now knew himself.

"I was upbeat about the future now. That part of my life was over and I'd survived. I knew there were reasons for it but only one person had caused it. And that was me."

How did he get here? You could talk about the Ireland days, the refereeing decisions that denied great football sides their passage to major championships in the early 1980s.

Chalked

Brussels, where Frank Stapleton's goal is chalked off for reasons which make sense only to the Portuguese referee Nazare who did the chalking. Steve Heighway's phantom foul on Eric Gerets, from which Jan Ceulemans scores.

Stapleton, Brady, Lawrenson and so many more denied glory in green by dubious decisions. And, as is the beautiful game's ugly wont, the manager took the brunt.

Living in Dublin, he was spat at, his son's bicycle tyres were slashed, passing folk would shout abuse through his mother's window as they walked to Croker.

A stranger in his homeland, so he left it. Management in Huddersfield, losing his job, then losing his marriage.

To Saudi Arabia, where he coached a team where some developed more of an intimate relationship off the field than on it and he left the country - and a Mercedes that was rightfully his.

Then South Africa, when he was in charge of Amazulu in Durban and the locals threatened to kill him, accompanying him in a lift with a cocked pistol as if to emphasise that the message was more than merely a lack of confidence in his coaching ability.

"It was apartheid in reverse. And I was the guinea pig."

On to Johannesburg, when he co-owned an Irish bar until the day a Chinese lady walked in and asked to use the toilet only for a man to follow and claim that Hand had been offering more than polite directions.

After emerging from hospital where his head had been stitched back together, he returned to the bar and discovered that the books had been stitched up too.

"I loved South Africa. But South Africa didn't love me."

And so he returned home. Still a stranger living a life he didn't recognise until he nearly suffered a death. He had chased his obsession so furiously, and for so little tangible success, it was little wonder he would burn out.

So when he got his second chance, he slowed down. He stopped chasing life and started living it. He worked for the FAI as a career guidance counsellor, earning Irish football some €2.5m in compensation fees from British clubs, not to mention the priceless value of saving so many kids from a life of desperation and disappointment after failing to make it in England.

Sadly, he was relieved of this post but still, informally, is at the end of a phone to minister those kids and parents who find themselves lost and abandoned in the often ruthless trade in underage footballers who are promised the world but then see it crumble before them.

He will not be at next Tuesday's play-off against Denmark; he is a persona non grata with the FAI. In a previous guise, they treated him shoddily as a manager so nothing surprises him any more.

Though many under-appreciated his Irish reign, the FAI's ignorance - he had to badger rival managers for accreditation, accommodation and even trousers - perennially undermined him.

Once, during the FAI's penchant for friendlies in Poland, one of his 20 caps as a tigerish midfielder saw him travel in the baggage carriage of a train from Berlin.

When he went to Moscow as a manager, the FAI wouldn't see it that a chef was provided so Hand's then wife suggested she might fit the bill.

Hand delivered the economy of scale to the Merrion Square nabobs but was left alone in a darkened rooms while outside officials bickered about who should get tickets for the junket.

When they got there, one of them demanded that Hand's wife cook him a fine breakfast; Hand ensured he would suffer the local culinary fare instead.

He lived the bad times and then watched as the good times transformed every Irish person, it seemed, except him.

The Charlton era anonymised him but, as he has since discovered, most Irish people appreciated him even if some did not.

"A friend once told me not to hear the loud minority but listen to the silent majority."

And certainly nothing depresses him. "I may have challenges but I don't have problems."

The challenges are mercifully few. He still likes a pint, on doctor's orders, with ballad singers and storytellers in the local pub.

After all, he was born in one, Dublin's Brazen Head, where mother Monica McHugh was bean an tí. He hardly knew his father, Bernard, who left to find work when he was a child and never came home, dying a lonely death, buried in a London pauper's grave.

He has no regrets.

"I came from a huge high, achieving beyond your expectations but then you're back in real life. Where do you get money to make a living? So then you might make a decision, it's a bad one. Then you make another bad one. On to a crushing low. A lot of people haven't survived."

But he has. Surrounded by good people, an adoring wife and his twin allies. Time and silence.

A great football man. A great man.

'First Hand, my life in Irish football', by Eoin Hand and Jared Browne, is published by the Collins Press, RRP €19.99

Irish Independent

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