World Cup countdown: Two men, one island, no surrender . . . Saipan remembered
In the first of a new series counting down to the World Cup in Brazil, we look back at an incident that divided the nation
Republic of Ireland manager Mick McCarthy and Roy Keane at training in Saipan. Photograph: Andrew Paton/Inpho
Mick McCarthy at the press conference to announce that Roy Keane would be leaving theb World Cup panel. Also pictured (from left) are Alan Kelly Niall Quinn, FAI president Milo Corcoran and Steve Staunton. Photograph: Andrew Paton/Inpho
Roy Keane stands at the check-in desk at Saipan international airport on his way home from the World Cup finals on May 24th, 2002. Photograph: Kieran Doherty/Reuters
Roy Keane supporters call for the player’s reinstatement as captain of the team during a protest outside the FAI head in Merrion Square on May 28th, 2002. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh
Builders in Dublin city centre peer through the hole where Roy Keane’s face had been cut out of a giant advertising hoarding after it was announced that the player would be returning from the World Cup. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien
“He came. He saw. He went home.” So ran the tag-line of the box office smash hit comedy I, Keano, an epic musical melodrama about a Roman legion preparing for war. It was inspired by a real-life melodrama of even more epic proportions: arguably the most fractious falling-out in the history of Irish sport, a gripping and often amusing controversy prompted by Roy Keane’s contentious departure from the Republic of Ireland World Cup squad in 2002.
The captain’s headline-grabbing exit from the squad briefly transformed the tiny western Pacific island of Saipan into the most famous places on Earth.
It made a cute and goofy Labrador puppy named Triggs into a household name. It was the source of more pompous pontification in the bars of Ireland than any number of budgets, general elections and scandals.
It practically sundered a nation, driving it to the brink of something approaching civil war and prompted the taoiseach Bertie Ahern to offer his services as a mediator. It became the subject of more hand-wringing sanctimony and general tomfoolery than almost any incident before or since in modern Irish life. It was all about standards. Roy’s standards.
Depending on your point of view they were either too high or not high enough. Was Roy the perfectionist who wanted the best for his country or the traitor who abandoned it? Twelve years on, the jury remains out.
Everybody and nobody seems to know exactly what happened. The definitive version remains unconfirmed and even now, those who were privy to events as they unravelled remain understandably reluctant to talk about them in too much depth. Keane’s detractors claim he walked. His supporters insist he was sent home. The truth seems to lie somewhere in between: he made his position untenable and forced his manager’s hand.
This much we know: Ireland’s captain, then a 30-year-old volatile driving force who had almost single-handedly dragged his country through qualification for Japan and South Korea 2002 out of a group containing Portugal and the Netherlands decided to leave the camp out of frustration at poor preparation but then changed his mind.
However, an interview he’d given to The Irish Times rolled off the presses like a grenade and exploded, prompting the famous showdown at which Keane embarked on a character assassination of his manager, Mick McCarthy, that was so brutal, the object of his scorn felt compelled to say he could no longer work with his captain.
In a chat with me for Hot Press a few months after the event, the former Republic of Ireland international Niall Quinn insisted that “Roy walked out”. Later in the same interview he stressed that Keane had walked out “twice in three days”.
He could not have been more clear: “You must remember that,” he said. “We’re not talking about a happy bunny here, who suddenly said the wrong things for a few seconds. I think it built up and up in him. While the rest of us were prepared to get on with things, knowing how ramshackle things are, he allowed it to get in the way of his World Cup.”
Keane tells it differently, stating in his autobiography that having originally become so exasperated by a rock-hard training pitch, the FAI’s failure to get their squad’s training kit to Saipan and a row about five-a-side goalkeeping arrangements, he decided to throw his hat at the whole jamboree and go home. A short time later, having been given time to cool down and review his position, he subsequently changed his mind only to be, in his opinion, ambushed at a team meeting called by McCarthy, who accused him of having faked an injury to avoid having to play the second leg of Ireland’s successful qualifying play-off against Iran.
That, according to Keane, was the straw that broke the camel’s back and the cue for his outburst, which Quinn described as “the most surgical slaughtering anyone has ever got”.
“You’re a fucking wanker. I didn’t rate you as a player, I don’t rate you as a manager and I don’t rate you as a person. You’re a fucking wanker and you can stick your World Cup up your arse. I’ve got no respect for you. The only reason I have any dealings with you is that somehow you are the manager of my country! You can stick it up your bollocks.”
“Humiliation in front of the whole party was the result he was seeking,” wrote Keane of McCarthy in his autobiography, stating that the meeting had been a set-up. Not too long after that, Keane received a phone call from his representative, solicitor Michael Kennedy. “You’ve been kicked out,” he was told. At 6pm the next day, with the rest of the Republic of Ireland squad en route to Japan, Keane was on the next plane home. How had it come to this?
Since his days as a youth footballer making a name for himself in Cork, Keane had never had much time for the FAI. Upon becoming a senior international, he was increasingly perplexed by its amateurish approach to match preparation and was not alone, as a cursory flick through the autobiographies of any Republic of Ireland international who played through the Jack Charlton and Mick McCarthy eras will prove.