How war in the Pacific brought madness to these shores

SAIPAN - TEN YEARS ON Roy and Mick had an argument and the entire country lost the run of itself – 10 years on, the only thing…

SAIPAN - TEN YEARS ONRoy and Mick had an argument and the entire country lost the run of itself – 10 years on, the only thing to do is look back and give a wry, mortified laugh

BRIGIE DE Courcy was never overly keen on letting her writers tempt fate. As the script editor on Fair City she had to wet-nurse storylines a full 12 weeks ahead of their broadcast date and had come to regard life as not so much a series of random events but rather a concerted attempt by the improbability gods to mess with her day. Sometimes she had to just throw her hands in the air, like in 2001 when a passing reference to the St Patrick’s Day parade was gazumped by the Foot And Mouth crisis. If the script editor of a Dublin soap can’t trust that Paddy’s Day will happen, then what the hell can she trust?

So when her writers came to her at the end of February 2002 and said they wanted to get something on screen about the upcoming World Cup, she was leery from the start. The episode would be going out on Friday, May 31st – the night before Ireland’s opening game against Cameroon in Niigata. With kick-off at 7.30 the next morning Irish time and the whole country likely to be full of chat about it, she accepted that they couldn’t ignore it altogether. But she wasn’t going to let them go crazy either.

“Of course the writers wanted to talk about it,” she says, “because they’re writers and it affords them the opportunity to show they know about things other than writing. But since we’re filming five weeks ahead, there’s very little we can say that will definitely hold. We have to restrict ourselves because you never know what might happen. You can’t show matches in the pub or anything like that, you can’t do any of those sort of things. So I eventually allowed just one line between Paul and Leo.”

In the decade since, de Courcy has been and gone and been again. She flew the Fair City coop to work on both EastEnders and Emmerdale before eventually returning to RTÉ’s flagship soap as the executive producer. And everywhere she’s pitched up, she’s carried a cautionary tale in her knapsack, cast-iron proof that whatever can go wrong will go wrong and must go wrong.

The line she let the scriptwriters have Paul Brennan say to Leo Dowling? “We’ll be alright as long as Roy Keane doesn’t lose the head.”

So. Saipan. This day 10 years ago, chances are you’d never heard of the place. If you were neither a World War II geek nor an inveterate globetrotter, there would have been no good reason for you to know about it. A quick scan of the archives shows that in the first 143 years of this newspaper up to the beginning of May 2002, the word itself had appeared in a grand total of 61 articles. In the decade since, it has appeared in 557 more. It’s a byword, a catchphrase, easy shorthand for any and all contretemps that arise.

But as the years have passed and the temples have greyed, it’s come to mean something else as well. Saipan equates to chaos, to a short-sleeved summer spent in high dudgeon, to a time in our lives when the country careened off its axis in a million mini-earthquakes of righteousness. Not part of the country, not just soccer-obsessed pockets of the populace. Everyone.

The whole heaving lot of us gathered around one enormous bonfire and each of us got licked by the flames. Con Houlihan’s perfect line about missing Italia ’90 because he was away at the World Cup captures it to a tee. The row between Keane and McCarthy might have taken place in a hotel restaurant on a pin-prick island somewhere in the western Pacific, but Saipan happened here.

It very quickly became commonplace back then to refer to Saipan as a civil war for our times. John Delaney remembers sitting down at the breakfast table at home in Tipperary one Saturday in the middle of it all and taking flak from his Manchester United-supporting brother over it. Most people have a yarn or two like that, a story of a split between families, between friends, between work colleagues. They were the oil in the engine, those rows.

Still, the civil war thing has never really felt right as a description. Even allowing for irony and hyperbole, to call it a civil war lends it far too much grandiosity. Saipan was big but none of us would claim it was clever.

We can try to swaddle it in as many clothes as we like, paint it as a clash of old Ireland and new, of ah-sure-it’ll-be-grand versus fail-to-prepare-prepare-to-fail. And it was all those things and more at the time.

But life has caught up with us in the past decade and we’re all a little wiser now. That new Ireland with all its envelope-pushing and go-getting going forward, it wasn’t all it was cracked up to be in the end. It’s not much of a civil war if it’s fought on oily principles that amount to nothing but hot air in the long run.

No, Saipan was more like a late-night scrap outside a disco or behind a chip van. It was ugly and inelegant and it solved not very much of anything. It went on for ages and neither side won and we all eventually got bored and walked away. And the one good thing about it is that we can sit here 10 years later and look back at it all with a kind of wry, mortified laugh.

ON A building site in Clifden, the foreman told his men to down tools. They were going on strike, all 30 of them. This was Thursday, May 23rd and they wouldn’t be back until Monday. Why? Because if Roy Keane was after being sent home from the World Cup, then it was one out, all out. “We want to stand up and be counted,” said Gerard McGettigan. “In 10 years’ time, people will say it was an absolute disgrace he didn’t play in the World Cup.” They drew a public rebuke from Construction Federation of Ireland but they didn’t care.

Another group of workers was considering a strike but it had nothing to do with Saipan. Some 3,000 bar staff in the Mandate union were at loggerheads with the Licensed Vintners Association at the time over a collective pay deal. Nine days out from Ireland’s first game, there was complete deadlock and a real threat that up to 600 pubs would stay shut for the tournament.

What’s interesting about it is that in any other World Cup year, this would have been newspaper catnip, classic front-page fodder. In the Evening Herald of that Thursday, it garnered two paragraphs at the bottom of page nine.

In conditions of extreme cold, the human body does an extraordinary thing. It sends all the blood it can rushing towards the vital organs so as to protect them. It’s why your extremities are the parts that begin to hurt the most, why fingers and toes are most susceptible to frostbite. This is pretty much what happened with the media here that week.

If it wasn’t Keane and it wasn’t McCarthy, it got frostbitten. Bertie Ahern had just been re-elected Taoiseach and was in the midst of putting together a cabinet but he could have made Pee Flynn Minister for Housing that week and barely a line would have appeared on it. Newspapers outdid each other day after day with 10-page specials and 16-page specials and even a 28-page special on the crisis one of the days. On TV, even Questions Answers was given over to it. On radio, the fledgling Off The Ball sports show on Newstalk was making its bones on all Saipan, all the time.

You want a flavour of how nuts it got? In Dundalk, a couple of lads painted an old hearse in green, white and gold and called it the Bring Roy Back Limo. They started gathering names on a petition, the idea being that they’d drive it to Dublin and hand the petition in to the FAI. Local radio picked up the story and checked in with them as they headed for the city, chatting back and forth with the guy in the passenger seat, a chap called Keith Duffy.

In keeping with the theme of the week, a line or two got crossed somewhere along the way and all of a sudden, word got around that Keith Duffy – he of Boyzone, he of Coronation Street at the time – was in a Limo, headed for Dublin, collecting signatures for a petition along the way. He wasn’t, of course – the lad in the car was as Dundalk as they come – but the story grew legs anyway. By the time the Limo reached Merrion Square, there was a press gaggle waiting on them. They got a half-page in The Star the next day.

The Keith Duffy tale featured in Conor O’Callaghan’s book on the madness of the time, Red Mist. The extent to which truth and half-truth was interwoven that week is laid bare when he points out that although the papers said that, “FAI bosses were yesterday handed a petition by a group of die-hard supporters”, he knew this to be false. A Dundalk man himself, he spoke to one of the boys’ mothers afterwards and she said that while they rang the bell of FAI headquarters all night, they got no answer.

This was mania, plain and simple. It was the spillover of a million rows that started with that one row between Keane and McCarthy. It was the only reaction available to people who were being affected in a very real way by something they were completely powerless to change. Roy Keane wasn’t going to be playing in the World Cup and there was very little anybody in Ireland could do about it. So we rowed and argued and fought amongst ourselves from dusk till dawn and back again.

“I live in Manchester now,” says O’Callaghan, “and every now and then I go back to Dundalk and there’s one particular guy who I got into a series of rows with. And when we see each other, we don’t really say hello any more. We kind of look at each other and blush. And I know that he’s mortified and I’m definitely mortified and I really want to go up to him and say, ‘Jesus, do you remember that? Wasn’t that mad?’ Because I just know damn well that he’ll go, ‘Yeah, it was crazy.’ But I just haven’t mustered the courage to do it yet.”

Few people got in more arguments than Eamon Dunphy. At the time, he was on the RTÉ panel, he was presenting The Last Word on Today FM, he had a newspaper column and was ghosting Keane’s book. He harangued John Bowman on the aforementioned Questions Answers and held forth on Newsnight on the BBC.

He reckons there was more to it all than just Roy Good-Mick Bad or vice-versa. There has to have been.

“Football has a hold over people,” says Eamon Dunphy, “because it’s so accessible and therefore it becomes a kind of prism through which you see your fellow countrymen. The guy in the office you always hated – or the girl in the office you always hated – they only confirm this by the stance they take. ‘I always knew you were a bollocks and now you’ve just proved it’ – that kind of thing. That’s what Saipan became for so many people, it widened cracks that were already there between people who ordinarily wouldn’t have an argument with each other, just out of sheer politeness. It gave them something to fight about.”

Yet what were we fighting over, really? Mixed messages and crossed purposes mostly. The time difference between here and Saipan made getting a straightforward narrative almost impossible. In Ireland, Dunphy and Delaney were closest to the situation but the former only cared about one side of the story and the latter was actually involved quite by accident.

“I was in Dublin on the day it all broke,” says Delaney. “I was treasurer at the time and I was there to get the accounts of the FAI approved. It was a formality, nothing more. Milo Corcoran and Brendan Menton were over there. When the whole thing broke, the board asked me to represent the association publicly. If there hadn’t been a board meeting that day, if we hadn’t needed the accounts approved, I wouldn’t have been thrown into the middle of it.”

It was through Dunphy that the Tommie Gorman interview came about once Keane was back in Manchester and the team had moved to Japan. Or at least it was Dunphy who assured Keane that he should get his side of the story out in Ireland having already done so in England through a piece in the Daily Mail. Gorman had interviewed Keane a number of times post-match at Champions League games when he was RTÉ’s Europe correspondent.

Pubs went quiet across the country when it came on. The ESB reported a four per cent surge in electricity countrywide when it was over. The nine o’clock news on RTÉ was delayed by four minutes because it ran over time and they didn’t want to cut any of it. Somehow, it had been framed as Keane’s opportunity to apologise. Gorman knew that wasn’t what he was there for but still thought he saw Keane soften as the interview went on.

“I’m certain that Keane left that place open to the idea that he had done enough,” Gorman says. “I’m crystal clear about that. But if you go back over how quickly people were saying that he hadn’t done enough – even before the programme went out, fellas were saying that he hadn’t done enough which was outrageously unfair and stupid.

“I know Keane changed his mind over the course of the interview. You could feel it coming from him that he was looking into himself. There were moments of self-realisation as we went on. He went home afterwards and stayed up watching the Sky News coverage through the night. There was a very real part of him that was willing to come back.”

In the end, it was that Sky News coverage that finished everything off. The comically inept bungling of the players’ statement being released while efforts were still ongoing to get Keane back meant that he was sitting in his armchair in Hale when he heard that the players didn’t want him back. To look back on it now is to realise that it surely wouldn’t happen these days. The players and McCarthy were working off a hastily-written transcript, the press in Japan were listening on speakerphone as a reporter’s mother held a phone up to her TV back in Dublin. This was pre-RTÉ Player, pre-iPad, pre-any amount of gizmos that could have brought a little more clarity and a little less confusion.

Maybe it wouldn’t have mattered anyway. The coming, the going, the gritty ins and outs of it all have never really mattered. Keane and McCarthy were two men who had a row at the worst possible time and 10 years later nobody but the two of them can say with any certainty what drove them to it. Even if you strapped both of them to a polygraph, they would tell you two entirely different truths and the needle wouldn’t flinch.

Funny thing. When Keane came to Dublin 10 days ago for his Guide Dogs For The Blind gig, he was in terrifically jovial form when talking to the press. Even when we collared him afterwards and brought up Saipan, he cracked a couple of gags about how we should organise a dinner in honour of it and even talked about how he better understood McCarthy’s situation now since he’d been a manager himself.

Yet when one of the reporters prefaced a question by asking about Mick sending him home, his demeanour changed entirely. He got spiky for the first time all day.

“Mick sent me nowhere. I told him where to go. Did he say he sent me home? It’s not true.”

Ten years on and we can’t even get a consensus on whether he walked out or was kicked out. When you think about it, that goes a long way to explaining how we went quite so doolally over it all at the time. People were adopting positions without ever knowing the truth, basing whole arguments on approximations of reality. When the plates are shifting beneath you at such a rate, what possible hope have you of keeping your balance?

True story. One Tuesday night in the middle of it all, a distressed father rang The Irish Times at two o’clock in the morning looking for news on Roy Keane because his nine-year-old wouldn’t settle and go to sleep.

The ISPCC put out a statement one of the days saying the situation offered up a great opportunity to talk to children about the nature of conflict and disappointment.

The Personal Counselling Institute worried that Leaving Cert students were going to suffer because of the crisis.

“The hearts and minds of young people are distracted by this sad event and, for many, the precious time needed for study and revision is impinged upon by the unfolding drama in the Far East,” said founder Liam McCarthy. This was who we were for that week.

As it turned out, the class of 2002 posted the best Leaving Cert results in years. Grades were up almost across the board, with more than 75 per cent of higher level English and maths students getting honours. Given that those were the exams that came earliest and thus closest to the whole brouhaha, the distraction obviously wasn’t too crippling. Maybe they were the first to realise that there were more important things to be worrying about.

It took the rest of us a little while longer. Dunphy knocked a good few weeks’ enjoyment out of it all, taking the issue very seriously one day and messing about with it the next.

The night before the Cameroon game, he rummaged in his wardrobe and found a green shirt and a red tie to wear on screen the next morning, just to get away from the po-faced seriousness of the week. By the following week, he was being sent home for turning up “tired and emotional”.

“Was I drunk? Of course I was drunk! Wouldn’t you get drunk if you were on with Gerry Armstrong and Peter Collins at eight o’clock in the morning watching Russia and Japan? I thought it was pretty good grounds for having a few jars. Ray Houghton got me into that, kept me in Lillies until four o’clock in the morning. Ray wasn’t working until the evening game. Ah, that was a dereliction of duty. I felt bad about that. But they didn’t suspend me, they just sent me home for a few days.”

Delaney says he must have had 100 phone calls with Michael Kennedy over the course of the week. Yet the FAI had no real effect on the situation. In the years that followed, he used the shambles of that week to both rise in the association and to change it as well. If there’s a lasting legacy from Saipan that exists away from the barstool and the broken dreams, it’s that the FAI is inarguably a more serious outfit now than it was then.

“I looked upon it as a watershed moment for us. We looked for change on the back of it and we got it. Nobody can say that the association in 2012 is the same as it was in 2002. It was a difficult time after it for a number of years but changes came. They had to come. Sometimes you’ve got to hit the bottom of the barrel.”

And the rest of us? We got up and got on. We bought the books and went to the plays and watched the documentaries and listened to Mario in the mornings. We laughed out loud when Richard Keys smiled a you’re-not-going-to-believe-this smile into the camera at half-time in a United v Charlton game in August 2006 and announced that Keane would be joining Niall Quinn at Sunderland as their new manager. We tuned in on tenterhooks when they met Wolves to see would he and McCarthy really shake hands. We grew up and grew out, maybe changed our minds a little, maybe came around to McCarthy’s side in time. And in plenty of cases, maybe not.

As for Brigie De Courcy and Fair City, they managed to slice a minute out of the May 31st episode in the end and remove the Keane line. They actually considered leaving it in and if anybody asked, they were just going to say it was Robbie Keane they were talking about. But they figured nobody would buy it. So the line came out and the writers never got to show off that they knew about more than just writing.

De Courcy’s worst fears had been realised – Roy Keane did indeed lose the head.

But if we can agree on one thing about Saipan, it’s that he was far from the only one.