The last of three episodes looking back at the controversial run-up to the 2002 Fifa World Cup

When Roy Keane took that long and lonely flight home from Saipan after being sent packing by Republic of Ireland manager Mick McCarthy, Irish people everywhere were on the very edge of their seats.

As much as people wanted to know what happened in that hotel ballroom on the island, they wanted to know what would happen next.

Specifically, they wanted to know was that it?

Was Roy Keane, Ireland’s best footballer in a generation – probably its best footballer in every generation, in fact – really going to miss the World Cup because of a spat on a training pitch and an absence of bibs and an interview in a newspaper?

This newspaper as it happens.

Days passed and the same questions were asked over and over again – is there any way back? Will he apologise? Does he have to apologise?

Then there was that interview. Tommie Gorman sitting down with Roy Keane, the pair of them shrouded in ominous black shadows. A million Irish people watched it. Millions of others heard all about it.

What did we learn? Keane was hurting. Keane wanted to play for his country. Keane cared. But was it enough? Was the Government jet really on stand-by?

And then it was over. A press conference in Japan with a still bristling Mick McCarthy and a statement from Roy Keane saying he was not going back and it was time to move on.

But we didn’t really move on.

The tournament took over briefly. Ireland did well, drawing with a fancied Cameroon side and an even more fancied German team before seeing off the Saudis to make it to the last 16 and the knock-out phase.

Sadly, the footballing gods were not done with Ireland's heartache just yet. The team went toe to toe with Spain and almost pulled off a result that would have rivalled anything any Irish team had ever done on the world stage.

But the team lost in a penalty shoot-out and football fans all over the country were left with nothing but what ifs and what might have beens.

And the rows continued and the questions about what it all meant and why we cared so much and what it said about Ireland and its sense of self belief or its fatalism simply lingered.

All credit to those questions, they’re lingering still.

Read the Irish Times series:

Saipan 20 years on: Parts I and II

Saipan 20 years on - Part III

Saipan 20 years on - Part IV

Saipan 20 years on - Parts V and VI

Conor Pope

Conor Pope

Conor Pope is Consumer Affairs Correspondent, Pricewatch Editor and cohost of the In the News podcast

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