It was three o’clock in the morning in a noodle bar by the train station in Daejeon when I ran into an English reporter I’d shared a hotel with at the European Championships two years previously.
The Ireland team and press pack had landed in Seoul for the start of the World Cup's knockout phase a few hours earlier and three of us had made a mad dash from the airport to see the game between South Africa and Spain because the winners would be playing Mick McCarthy's side in a few days. Now, we were all waiting to make the 170 kilometre journey back to the South Korean capital.
Reunions with reporters you only ever see at major championships are one of the pleasures involved and it helps if you have a yarn to tell. He was struggling to get a receipt for the meal he’d just eaten so while he continued to try, I started into mine.
The whole story had started poorly enough for me from a professional point of view. Like a good few others I initially failed to grasp the impact Roy Keane's dark mood might have as the trip started. I'd seen the evidence of it, alright. On the flight from Amsterdam to Tokyo, the middle and longest section of what had been a 22 hour journey, I'd had a ringside seat for him coming back from business class to abuse a couple of colleagues from other papers for their coverage of his non-appearance at Niall Quinn's testimonial.
Then I’d been at the training session where he lost his temper over the poor state of the pitch and the goalkeepers skipping the seven-a-side at the end.
Conditioned by years of being told that training ground spats are an everyday part of the professional game and wary of seeming sensationalist about this one just because it involved Keane, I devoted the first 13 paragraphs of my news piece for the next day's paper to the question of whether Kenny Cunningham would be fit for Ireland's first game of the tournament or whether Gary Breen might get to start.
In paragraph 14, I recorded Keane's "considerable irritation" and recounted the row he had with Packie Bonner and Alan Kelly. When it emerged the following morning that the incident had nearly ended with the Irish captain going home, I realised I had dodged a very big bullet. In the days that followed, pretty much any other member of the squad might have been run over by an actual bus and it would have got a "meanwhile," somewhere down towards the end of that day's copy.
Aside from the facilities and missing gear, which really didn't seem to be too much of an issue for anyone else in the official party at that stage, there were plenty of rumours doing the rounds about what might be eating at the Manchester United midfielder. Tom Humphries, though, had got Keane to agree to an interview the following day and so the paper was likely to get the inside track on the story, which was great from my perspective.
After it, when I spoke to Tom, he quietly listed the areas covered and mentioned a few before explaining Keane said he would retire after the World Cup. Because, essentially, standards around the Irish camp, under McCarthy, were so low. Tom seemed to be deliberately playing the whole thing down; wary perhaps of the fallout he knew would follow.
It was obvious, however, that the implied criticism would be a big story. The piece was supposed to run three days later on the Saturday but Paul Kimmage had also interviewed Keane for the Sunday Independent and I certainly thought that if the quotes he had were as strong then the Indo would want him to deliver early to get in first.
Malachy Logan, the sports editor back in Dublin, clearly shared the same concerns when I mentioned it. He said he'd talk to Tom. The decision was taken to run it the next day and my only role at that point really was to put the contents to McCarthy at his midday press conference in the hope of getting a reaction. The fear was that there would be no other opportunity that day.
Incredibly, I managed to be late for it. In the company of two reporters I was friendly with, Neil O'Riordan from the Sun and Mick Scully from The Mirror, I spent the morning seeing the island and doing some laundry. Somehow, the schedule slipped and I arrived into a press conference that had already started, apologised, allowed what I thought was a decent interval then asked the manager what he thought of the fact that the team's standout star would be packing international football in in a few weeks because the set up was a shambles.
I may have sugar coated it.
Unsurprisingly, McCarthy declined to comment or to have specific quotes put to him in front of everyone and, clearly shocked, left as quickly as he could. Philip Quinn, then of the Irish Independent, tracked him down at the team hotel not long after, though, and filled him in on the relevant bits.
We would hear about the team meeting where McCarthy subsequently sought to confront Keane, prompting a tirade that everyone who was there described as shocking in its ruthlessness, later that evening.
News of the press conference that evening came via a bang on the door. There was a fair bit of competition within the core group of Irish soccer reporters but it was polite enough. Back then, some of the English media could famously fall out over almost anything and stories did the rounds of punch ups over predicting team lines for games or where Bryan Robson ranked among the team’s all-time midfielders.
On a trip like this a key element was travelling with the pack. But Fraser Robertson of Sky, who seemed like the luckiest man alive when we first heard of his plans, had skipped the Ray Treacy package and booked into the team hotel instead. Over the course of that week, there had been a couple of impromptu round ups required but nobody would think of Fraser because he wasn't in our hotel. And now he was gone, having already flown ahead to Izumo because you had to be on the package to be on our flight the next day.
His employers had booked all of this but that didn't seem to stop them taking it badly when it didn't work out well. Now, he was in the air, unaware of the scale of what was unfolding back at the Hyatt. When he switched his phone back on in Japan, he later told us, there were around 30 messages from the office, starting with a casual, "Fraser, give us a ring," and finishing with a "WHERE THE F*CK ARE YOU?"
Niall Quinn has described the press conference Fraser missed as feeling like "the twilight zone," and the reporters were similarly struggling to take in the enormity of what was happening.
Some of the questions McCarthy was asked were quite something. Could he recite for us all the abuse Roy had heaped on him? Will he be contacting his lawyers about the incident? Will he be filing a report to the FAI? Did he think Roy was okay “mentally”? But we were struggling and the fallback position in that situation tends to be to try to keep people talking and then figure out what you’ve got later.
Even with the nine hour time difference it didn’t seem enough to get entirely to grips with things but it did mean that we had until about 8am to file for the first edition and another few hours or so to come back in for the “city”.
Before the trip, we were all delighted at the prospect of how relaxed our deadlines would be, but they were about to start tormenting us. Filing was a huge issue too. I was sending my stuff out from the back of an internet cafe across the road from the hotel.
This was a recurring issue. The internet existed, for sure, but access was limited in various ways and there were endless issues. Later, in Seoul, our much swankier hotel had free wired access, a real rarity then in the sort of places we tended to stay. I spotted it and told Scully but somehow neither of us mentioned it to O’Riordan who got a €800 phone bill when he checked out. Because of the way The Sun did their expenses, that was his money.
In Izumo, where the Irish had landed from Saipan, I remember phoning in a story (reading it down the line) to a “copy taker” from the hotel lobby in the middle of the night. I was wary of what her reaction might be as I approached the suggestion that Keane had used McCarthy’s place of birth as a weapon against him. “You’re nothing but an English c*n*”. To my surprise, and relief, she burst out laughing. To my subsequent horror, I discovered later that the story was wrong.
Izumo was madness. The different editions meant the day was effectively divided into two parts, one 20 hours long, the other roughly four. The time difference meant that while we tried to advance things any way we could and attended all of the scheduled events, many key elements of an ongoing story that centred on whether Keane could be coaxed back into the squad and Mick persuaded to have him back, were happening at home in the middle of our night.
For the Tommie Gorman interview with Keane, in which it was expected that some magic formula of words would be uttered by the player, O'Riordan rang his mother who held her phone to the television so a room full of reporters could record at our end and then write. We finished and filed then headed to the team hotel at something like 6.30am to get McCarthy in order to rewrite. Then we went to training.
That was the incredible day of the Brendan McKenna press conference (10am), the player statement (10.30am) the Niall Quinn explanation of the player statement (5pm), the Mick McCarthy and Brendan Mention press conference (8pm). Doors were being closed, it seemed, then reopened and we made what sense of it we could after getting back to the hotel that evening and happily heading to bed in the early hours.
Not too long after, the phone rang in my room. It was Declan Murray back in the office.
“Sorry, Emmet, but there’s been a development. Roy has issued a statement. He’s not coming back.”
“What time is it?” I asked, completely disoriented.
“Morning or afternoon?”
“Here or there?”
“Fuck . . . okay.”
It took half an hour to wake Tom. I knew he was in there, in the room next door, I could hear him snoring but no amount of telephoning or banging on the door could raise him it seemed.
In the first edition of that Wednesday's paper you can read a long and detailed account of what went down at the Izumo Dome. There is a line, inserted by one of the subs, into one of the various stories, that goes something like: "he said, several hours before Keane would announce he would not be returning". That was all there was time for.
Then, in the second, there is the story of the press release, the fact that the whole sorry saga is over, that Keane was definitely not coming back and that both he and McCarthy would have to live with the consequences.
I had, at a time when there were simply no neutrals, been broadly in the Mick camp. Believing that Keane had put the manager in an impossible position but by this stage I was certainly hoping that the accommodation required could be reached and that he would return. I had some idea, of course, but it wasn’t until I got home a month later that I came to appreciate the full scale of the madness back in Ireland.
I remember being shocked a couple of years later when someone I was chatting with in Dublin airport was thanked by a guy I had never met for the use of two season tickets at Old Trafford.
“How,” I asked my friend, “did he have access to the tickets?” It turned out that he had a friend who didn’t want to give them up for fear they would be hard to get again but wouldn’t set foot in the place as long as Keane played for the club.
That was still to come, though. Here, in Daejeon, I was about to get going on the actual football when my English reporter friend’s receipt finally arrived. “How much is that for?” he asked, showing it to me and suddenly sounding downcast.
“About £1.60, I think.”
“Urgh,” he groaned. “I wish I hadn’t waited now.”
Twelve days in paradise - how the saga unfolded
Friday, 17th: Squad and media leave Dublin for Saipan, stopping off along the way in Amsterdam
Saturday, 18th: After 22 hours and another stopover, in Tokyo, squad and media arrive in Saipan.
Sunday, 19th: The FAI hosts a barbecue for players and press. Roy Keane attends but leaves early. Half the squad and many of the press head to the Beefeater pub where they drink together until 5am.
Monday 20th: The players train. A light run out, without balls . . . as there are none yet, it turns out. A fair bit of the gear and the energy drinks have not arrived yet either.
Tuesday 21st: There are balls. But only one set of goalposts, limiting the ability of the goalkeepers to be involved in training. They skip the end of session game and Keane is livid. Later, he tells Mick McCarthy he has had enough and is going home. Colin Healy is called up. Keane is persuaded to stay, mainly by Alex Ferguson, and Colin Healy is stood down again.
Wednesday 22nd: Roy Keane sits down for a couple of interviews; first with Paul Kimmage then Tom Humphries.
Thursday 23rd: The Irish Times interview appears. A copy, printed off from what was then Ireland.com (now irishtimes.com) is shown to the manager. He calls a team meeting. He invites players to voice any criticisms they might have. Keane voices quite a few in a manner many in the room describe as "shocking". Keane walks out and is subsequently "sent home". A McCarthy press conference is called and he is joined at the top table by Alan Kelly, Steve Staunton and Niall Quinn who express support. They look stunned by events, however.
Friday 24th: Squad and media head to new training base at Japanese city of Izumo. Roy Keane heads for home later in the day.
Saturday 25th: Ireland narrowly defeat Hiroshima Sanfrecce in a friendly. Third party efforts continue to try to get Keane back into the squad (with Taoiseach Bertie Ahern having offered his help and Manchester United rumoured to have made a jet available) but McCarthy refuses to discuss the matter publicly.
Sunday 26th: McCarthy goes to Kobe to see Ireland's first World Cup opponents, Cameroon, play England. Keane critically suggests that both the manager and other players have lower standards than him in a Mail on Sunday interview he is said to have received £140,000 for giving.
Monday 27th: McCarthy launches a counterattack in the Daily Mail. A vague deal is struck by some of the parties which involves Keane using an agreed formula of words in an interview with RTÉ's Tommie Gorman. He is emotional during the interview but doesn't say what is required.
Tuesday 28th: McCarthy says Keane needs to call him. Again, an agreed formula, intended to spare both men's pride is said to have been reached but Keane ultimately decides that he is not prepared to make the call. Late in the afternoon, Irish time, his lawyer, Michael Kennedy issues a statement in which Keane says he will not be returning to the squad.