“Arguably the most dramatic week in the history of Irish sport,” was how late television presenter Bill O’Herlihy described the Saipan saga that saw Roy Keane sent home and the Irish football team’s preparation for the 2002 World Cup in Japan and South Korea thrown into unimaginable and horrendous disarray.
The broadcaster – and the rock of sense Irish football coverage was built on for a generation – was speaking as the biggest football tournament in the world got underway in the summer of 2002.
Half the country was mourning the departure of the talismanic Keane and raging at the forces – mainly Mick McCarthy – that were behind that departure while the other half were raging at Keane for letting Ireland down and abandoning the country when it needed him most.
But O’Herlihy was, perhaps, downplaying the momentousness of the events on that tiny island thousands of kilometres away. Saipan was – if anything – one of the most dramatic weeks in the history of modern Ireland.
The sending home of Ireland’s best player and one of the best footballers in the world at the time sent the nation into paroxysms of angst and anger, it split families down the middle and sparked an almost infinite number of rows in pubs and in offices, taxies and street corners all over the country.
And the rows over who said what and who was right and who was wrong and what might have happened if only he had stayed and played continued for years after the dust had settled over Saipan.
Some of those rows are still happening today – exactly 20 years after a carpark disguised as a training pitch, an absence of balls, a row over goalkeepers and an interview in The Irish Times set off a chain of events that cast an enduringly black shadow on the first World Cup in the far east.
While the roots of Saipan run deep – stretching back the guts of a decade to a row on a bus in America – there was little sign that anything was amiss when the Republic of Ireland were drawn in the same group as Portugal and the Netherlands for the 2002 World Cup qualification campaign.
Few people gave the team much of a chance. But then something strange happened. In the very first game away to the Dutch, the Republic went two goals up.
A famous away victory against one of the giants of European football was on the cards thanks to goals from Jason McAteer and Robbie Keane.
But then disaster. The Dutch scored two goals and instead of celebrating a priceless win, we celebrated a creditable draw.
Well, most of us did. Roy Keane – the captain of the team and as fierce a winner as you could hope to have on your side was fuming. The match should never have been lost and celebrating a draw was not becoming of his team, he thought.
He played like a man possessed for that qualifying tournament. And he made all the difference. Ireland drew home and away with Portugal, beat the Dutch in Dublin and finished the group unbeaten and second in the group. They made it to the World Cup via a play-off against Iran.
Ahead of the tournament as they set off for Saipan no-one had a notion what was coming down the tracks.
Irish Times sports writers, Emmet Malone, Mary Hannigan and Ken Early as well as journalist and author Eamon Dunphy – who ghost wrote Roy Keane’s first auto-biography – tell the story of the build-up to the volcanic events on the island in the first part of a three-part In The News special to mark 20 years on from Saipan.