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Friday 15 December 2017

First hand recall of the dark days for Irish football

Book review - Alan Aherne

First Hand - My Life and Irish Football
First Hand - My Life and Irish Football

There has been no shortage of theories put forward for the demoralising defeat endured by the Republic of Ireland soccer team in Tuesday's all-or-nothing play-off against Denmark in the Aviva Stadium.

Amid all of the after-match soothsaying, though, I didn't see the blame for the heavy defeat attributed to sloppy pre-match preparations or poor organisation off the field.

We should we thankful for small mercies, then, because the current situation is in sharp contrast to the Keystone Cops approach to the international scene that was the norm in the days before we were in the mix to qualify for the major tournaments.

It seems hard to credit now, but it wasn't until the early seventies that Ireland's home games were moved from Sundays to midweek.

It was a regular occurrence for the English-based players to line out with their clubs on a Saturday, and then make a mad dash home to don the green jersey 24 hours later. Is it any wonder that the team was at such a low ebb?

One of the regulars during those dark days was Eoin Hand whose insights into the shambolic organisation from the FAI make for a very interesting read in 'First Hand - My Life and Irish Football'.

After first making his name in the League of Ireland with the now defunct Drumcondra, the Dubliner made the move cross-channel to Swindon Town but spent the majority of his career in England with Portsmouth.

And he recalls one weekend when he represented Pompey in an away game against Hull on a Saturday before embarking on a countrywide train journey to catch the overnight ferry to Dublin before playing an international with Ireland the next day. Madness, pure and simple.

Hand won 20 caps in all, a midfield enforcer who was happy to let the more skilful players like Johnny Giles loose on the opposition while he spent his time protecting the defence.

He enjoyed instant success on the League of Ireland scene when he took over as player-manager of Limerick United for the 1979-'80 season, guiding them to the league title at the first attempt and a subsequent narrow 2-1 loss to the mighty Real Madrid in a European Cup first leg tie in Lansdowne Road.

He was only 34 when a vacancy arose in the biggest position in Irish football, and he went on to manage the national team from 1980 to 1985.

It was left to his successor, Jack Charlton, to eventually guide the country to a major tournament for the first time, but a lot of the groundwork was laid by Hand and he was dogged by misfortune.

More than 35 years later, he still bristles while recollecting the World Cup qualifying campaign of 1982 and the barefaced refereeing robbery in an away game against Belgium that ultimately led to the team missing out on goal difference to France, having beaten Les Bleus 3-2 in a home game, Hand's finest achievement in the role.

His life in football has taken him to Saudi Arabia and South Africa, but personal issues took a heavy toll and he almost died in 1997 as a result of his heavy drinking.

Thankfully, he made a full recovery and is now retired and living contentedly in the north Kerry countryside, about as far removed from the hustle and bustle of the football world as possible.

This book was ghost-written by Jared Browne, and it's well worth reading, full of revealing anecdotes and amusing tales.

Visit The Book Centre on Wexford's Main Street for the very best selection of sports books.

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