Thursday 25 April 2019

Hand of fortune not on Eoin's side

Ex-boss still annoyed by Belgian loss in '81 and 'airbrushing' of his role in success of Charlton era

Eoin Hand’s new book First Hand - My Life And Irish Football is out now
Eoin Hand’s new book First Hand - My Life And Irish Football is out now
Ireland manager Eoin Hand, right, remonstrates with Portuguese referee Raul Nazare after the 1-0 defeat to Belgium back in March 1981. Nazare’s disallowing of an Irish goal in the game contributed to Ireland’s failure to make the 1982 World Cup in Spain
Eoin Hand’s new book First Hand - My Life And Irish Football is out now

If Martin O'Neill is a lucky manager then surely Eoin Hand ranks as Ireland's unluckiest head coach.

Eoin's professional misfortunes started early.

In his entertaining autobiography, First Hand, he recalls how, when he was 12, he made his stage debut in the Ozanam Hall in O'Connell Street only to discover, as he began to play in front of an expectant audience, that someone had deliberately detuned the strings on his banjo.

"It was humiliating," he says. "I said to my mother, "I'm never going to play the thing again."

But he did. And, although he describes himself as "a frustrated banjo player", he has recorded a couple of CDs since moving to live in Kerry.

It was his talent for football, not music, that provided Eoin with the career opportunities that saw him offered the job of Ireland manager in the summer of 1980.


At that stage, Eoin had just steered Limerick United to a League of Ireland title. He'd had a brief spell as assistant to Ireland head coach Alan Kelly, who had replaced John Giles.

With Liam Brady as his captain, Hand prepared for the 1982 World Cup qualifiers. Two teams would qualify from a group that included France, Belgium, Holland and Cyprus.

Under Giles, Ireland had already defeated Cyprus 3-2 away. Holland in Lansdowne Road were the opposition in Hand's first match.

The new Ireland manager's career started with a 2-1 win. The campaign ended with a 3-2 home win against France in October '81.

Having won four and drawn two of their eight games, Ireland finished joint second with France on ten points. The French went through on goal difference.

Belgium topped the group. And therein lies the rub.

Having drawn 1-1 with Belgium in Dublin, Hand's team were subjected to an even more blatant heist in Heysel Stadium than Thierry Henry's more recent bit of hand-ball cheating in Paris in 2009.

Just before half-time, Portuguese referee Raul Nazare disallowed a Frank Stapleton goal from a Brady free and waved off protests.

With minutes to go, Belgium scored from close range to give them a 1-0 win.

A treacherous defining moment, both for Ireland's aspirations and Hand's professional reputation, still rankle.

"There was a huge suggestion that there could be problems with that whole situation and it was proven," declares Hand, obliquely acknowledging the allegations of official corruption that circulated at the time.

"You can't go to a referee after a match and call him a blatant thief and say 'You're corrupt. You've taken money,' which I did, without some repercussions," he adds. "There were none."

In one of the more curious twists in Ireland's bizarrely tangled web of fate, Hand reveals an unlikely presence as the Republic's hopes were hijacked.

"The irony was that Jack Charlton was there as an official observer," reveals Eoin. "He came into our dressing-room after the game."

The scene that greeted the former Leeds and England star was one of total dismay and disgust.

"We were absolutely devastated because we knew that was a vital point taken away," says Eoin. "All the lads had their heads down. Jack came in and says, 'I've never seen anything so bad in my life in terms of a refereeing decision'."


While the last match of Hand's time in charge of Ireland ended in a 4-1 home defeat to Denmark in November 1985, it seems largely forgotten that, despite the Belgium debacle, he took Ireland so close to a World Cup.

"It's being totally airbrushed by a lot of reporters," says Hand. "Some guys haven't a clue. They don't want to take time to look back. I was very upset about a report, when Jack was 80, that said Jack had taken over a crowd of ex-pats, a motley crew, and turned them into a team. I find that disgusting.

"It's insulting everybody who'd been involved in Irish football before that.

"It's insulting John Giles before me. It's insulting to Liam Tuohy before him. Mick Meagan before him. It was evolution the whole way through.

"I'd been analytical and pro-active in trying to improve all the off there field stuff, like accommodation and travel and the tours we went on.

"I told Jack all the pitfalls, all the problems that he could address as the man coming in with a higher profile, a man who'd won the World Cup with England and so on. I didn't talk to him about players because he'd know all that. He subsequently said I was 100pc right about everything."

"Jack was fortunate enough that General Motors and Arnold O'Byrne came in then. Before that there was no sponsorship."

Sadly, Charlton didn't reciprocate years later, when Hand, who was seriously ill, requested support for a testimonial.

"Jack pooh-poohed the idea," reveals Hand. "He said, 'I have so many others that I need to do'. I was disappointed with him. I thought, 'You've a short memory.'

"In the league, luck evens itself out," says Eoin. "If you put my era and Jack's era together, in terms of games played, it evens itself out."

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