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20 years of drama in Irish football, Chapter 2: Saipan - Paradise Lost

If everything had gone to plan, the 2002 World Cup would have been the crowning moment of Roy Keane’s career. Instead he came home before the tournament began and the inquest lasted for months.

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For over 20 years, Garry Doyle has covered the Irish football team across the world, interviewing key figures in the two most dramatic decades of the FAI’s history. Each day this week, The42 will take you inside the dressing room as we retrace the controversies and the sagas. Today’s chapter, Saipan, was the biggest of all. 

mick-mccarthy-and-roy-keane-digital Keane and McCarthy go their separate ways. Source: INPHO

A BUTTERFLY FLAPS its wings in the Amazon and a storm ravages half of Europe. A kit arrives a few hours late in Saipan and a Labrador called Triggs becomes the most famous dog on the planet. It was the summer that changed everything and not just in terms of Roy Keane’s dog transitioning from household pet to canine celebrity.

If it wasn’t for Saipan, there wouldn’t have been a Genesis report. Reform measures may not have been proposed and John Delaney may have remained the FAI’s honorary treasurer instead of rising through its ranks to become chief executive.

Only for Saipan, Keane would have shone in that 2002 World Cup; Ireland could conceivably have reached the semi-finals; Mick McCarthy may even have stayed in the job for another four years.

 

The Steve Staunton era mightn’t have happened. Certainly after the furore surrounding Staunton’s time in charge, we wouldn’t have found ourselves with Giovanni Trapattoni. Then when Trapattoni and his ideas got old and Martin O’Neill became available, Ireland had another managerial change and Roy Keane was back, this time as an assistant manager, the return of one Saipan protagonist making it perfectly reasonable for a McCarthy sequel to be screened five years later.

So no matter what way you look at it, Irish football has been caught in a trap for nearly two decades, stepping out of Saipan’s cold and dark shadow before somehow getting drawn back towards it.

**

There are rows and there are rows.

For years, rumours of a Keane/McCarthy split had worked its way through the press box and finally, in May 2002, onto the front page as idle gossip became an unmistakable fact. This was a year after Keane had produced two of the greatest individual performances an Irish football audience had seen, three years on from his heroics in a Manchester United shirt against Juventus in Turin.

It wasn’t just that he was Manchester United’s captain, a serial Premier League winner, Europe’s best midfielder. He’d also been named Football Writers Player of the Year in 2000, just the second Irishman to collect this 72-year-old prize. No Premier League player was considered as influential on the park, no one as controversial or as opinionated off it. Football was changing, flirting with the corporate world but Keane barked at ‘the prawn sandwich’ brigade before challenging the Manchester United board to match his £50,000-a-week wage demands. They listened.

Now it was McCarthy who was hearing his voice. He came up with the idea of Saipan because he was fearful of how Ireland’s players would struggle with Japan’s heat and humidity. So the more time the players had to adjust their body-clocks to a new time zone, the better. Yet, other issues bothered him. The last thing the players needed, after a long domestic season, was to become stir crazy in either a Dublin or Japanese hotel, where privacy would be an issue. Saipan, with its beaches and easy living, ticked almost every box – except one. The pitch there was, by common consent, the worst anyone had ever seen.  

roy-keane-digital Keane at training in Saipan. Source: INPHO

Certainly Keane was unimpressed. “There’s things you can’t accept,” he said in his by-now infamous interview with The Irish Times, the one that led to the chaotic team meeting that ended his World Cup. “That kind of pitch. No training kit. No balls. A 20-hour flight and there’s no skips (containing the team’s training gear).”

Eighteen years on, the man responsible for running the FAI back then, Brendan Menton, listens to the evidence and pauses momentarily. Like McCarthy and Keane, that summer of Saipan is a painful subject.

The situation was extremely emotive at the time; it probably still is to this day,” Menton told The42 last week. “Logic never came into it and possibly still hasn’t. It was seen as Mick versus Roy and everyone versus the FAI.”

Having subsequently worked for the Asian football federation, Menton wonders in hindsight why Singapore or Malaysia, where the facilities are better and the time zone similar, wasn’t selected as the squad’s base-camp. “I don’t think Saipan was that good a decision given the additional four hours travel from Tokyo, but you respect the team management and their requests. They thought this was the right place to spend a week – right climate, laidback, a good place to wind down.”

Keane didn’t agree. One day he was ready to go home, rowing with Packie Bonner and Alan Kelly at training. The next he was staying. “He was in good form,” Clinton Morrison, one of the youngest players in that Ireland squad said to The42 this week. “We always had the craic together and the day (before the infamous bust-up between Keane and McCarthy) we went for a walk on the beach and he was full of advice, telling me to make sure I trained as hard as possible, to not go through the motions and be happy making up the numbers. ‘Be more ambitious,’ he said, ‘work your socks off to get minutes on the pitch’. I’ve so much time for Mick McCarthy as a manager but Roy is also someone I really like.”

clinton-morrison-digital Keane acted as Morrison's mentor in Saipan. Source: INPHO

Other members of the squad thought differently, many considering Keane distant and exacting. After Denis Irwin, his former room-mate and Manchester United colleague, retired from international football, Mick Byrne, the physio, became Keane’s closest friend in the set-up.

Stephen Carr was another Keane had a deep respect and fondness for, Carr’s excellence across the previous two years winning the admiration of a man who isn’t easily impressed. Plus Carr had a wit Keane could relate to. Tragically, he also had an injury which kept him out of that World Cup.

So, for large periods of that week, Keane was on his own, seen going for solitary runs. Yet it’s a myth to think McCarthy left him alone to brood. An eyewitness has said the Ireland manager was in regular contact with Keane, trying everything he could to persuade him to stay after the initial walk-out threat, retelling him that the facilities in Izumo, their Japanese base, were world class. One day coming out of a lift, the same eyewitness heard McCarthy joke with Keane that if he ever became a manager he hoped he’d never experience cost-cutting measures. The immediate problem of getting his captain to the finals seemed under control.

**

Wednesday, four days into the trip, was when it boiled over. One thing that’s often forgotten about that week in Saipan is that Keane gave interviews to four different journalists, not just the infamous one to the Irish Times. But back in 2002, the logistical difficulty of getting video recordings back from a Pacific island to Ireland left Tony O’Donoghue in reporting purgatory.

The RTE soccer correspondent had been surprised at how easy it was to get his one-on-one with Keane, and as soon as the tape started rolling, O’Donoghue knew he had TV gold. Yet he also knew what was involved in getting this footage back to Dublin. Late that afternoon he stuck the video into an envelope and made sure it was on the only flight off the island. Guam was where the video went to next, then Tokyo, where a TV technician uploaded the file and forwarded it to RTE. The audio was played on Morning Ireland 10 hours before the Six One TV audience saw pictures of Keane swatting away flies as he complained about Saipan’s facilities.

By now, however, The Irish Times’ interview had already been published. 

At the time it was considered explosive. Now, from a distance of 18 years, you have to wonder what the fuss was about. At one stage in the piece Keane even describes his Irish team-mates as ‘good, decent lads’ although in a different section of the article, he leaves the studs up: “Some people accept it (the bad training set-up) easier,” Keane said. “Maybe that’s why some of our players are playing where they are.”

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Later, his praise of Alex Ferguson – ‘he’s the only person (in football) I would listen to’ – is an implicit dig at McCarthy.

The manager’s response, to call a team meeting, is the pivotal moment. If Keane was wrong to consider sacrificing his World Cup dream over a pitch, an energy drink, a few footballs and a skip, then his manager’s strategy of group therapy was woefully misguided.

A person who was in the room takes up the story: “The meeting lasted 10 minutes and about eight minutes of it was Roy. Mick asked if anyone was unhappy with Saipan. That was when Roy started. He called him all sorts – ‘a w**ker who could stick the World Cup in a place where the sun don’t shine’. But Roy never abused Mick for ‘being English’. That bit was never said.”

Keane’s version of events is recorded in his book. 

He feared entering that World Cup with a squad ‘in happy camper mode with no real ambition’. He was uninspired by the quality of Ian Evans’ training sessions, by the absence of goalkeepers from a training game, by historic matters – ‘Ireland’s Third World approach to the game throughout my international career’.

If McCarthy’s decision to address Keane in front of his team-mates made him angry; his interpretation of Keane’s absence from the play-off game in Iran made him angrier. “I didn’t rate you as a player, as a manager, as a person,” Keane admits saying in his autobiography. “I’ve got no respect for you.”

With that, he walked out of the room.

“Mick then spoke,” our eyewitness said, “apologising to the lads for what had happened. Next to speak up was Gary Kelly, asking the lads to ‘give three cheers to the gaffer’. After they did, there was silence again until (substitute goalkeeper) Dean Kiely broke the ice, joking ‘if you’re short of a midfielder gaffer, I can do a job in there’.”  

“The row, it was a bit wild,” Morrison adds. “I didn’t expect it to happen, and when it did, I thought, ‘what have I just witnessed?’ To this day I still think it’s crazy. The whole situation could have been handled better by both Mick and Roy but as I said, I like and respect them both hugely.”

Eighteen years on, our source sounds almost depressed when the subject is brought up, angry with himself for not doing something to stop it, annoyed too that one of the senior players in the room didn’t intervene. Menton, too, wishes in hindsight he had travelled to Saipan. “Given all that happened, of course I’d have preferred to have been there,” he said, “but I don’t think I would have made a difference to the bust-up between Mick and Roy.”

brendan-menton-digital Brendan Menton at the 2002 World Cup. Source: INPHO

Even so, there was still time for the whole dispute to be sorted – a point Kilbane made when asked about the issue 10 years later. “To the day I die, I will never understand how it came about and never understand why it wasn’t resolved,” Kilbane told me in 2012. “Rows happen all the time in football. We should have got it fixed. Once Roy got on a plane, that was the end of it and I never expected him back for that tournament.”

Back home battle lines were drawn, half the country siding with McCarthy, the remainder with Keane. No one could doubt which camp the normally reticent Paul McGrath was pitching his tent in, though. “I’m absolutely devastated for Roy, disgusted actually,” McGrath said on the day after the row. “I think it was something he was backed into. I know Roy is a volatile character but I honestly feel if a manager doesn’t get on with a player, he should not wait until the World Cup finals before sending someone home. I have to ask: Is Roy too big a player for Mick?”

Irwin, another man who had an allergy to controversy, was also critical of McCarthy. “I cannot understand for the life of me why Mick didn’t handle the situation in a different way,” Irwin said that week. “Why the hell did he not just get Roy on a one-to-one basis and talk to him man-to-man in one of the hotel rooms? Why did he have to blow the lid and call a team meeting? This whole affair was badly handled from the start and has descended into complete farce. This episode has stunned me to the core.”

The former Manchester United player also turned his attention to the FAI. “They couldn’t organise a drink in a brewery,” he said. Harsh words and Menton would hear and read even harsher ones over the following weeks. Quickly he realised “a blame game” was going on.

Seventeen years on since he last spoke about the issue, he is measured in his thoughts. “In retrospect, thinking about Saipan, I believe that there were two issues that should be analysed separately,” Menton told The42.  “The first was the training equipment availability and the second was the bust-up between Mick and Roy. The connection between the two was at best tenuous.”

Keane, however, painted a different version in his book. “The trip is a shambles from the beginning,” he wrote. “No training gear, no footballs. No medical equipment. The special drink we need to help us acclimatize is missing as well.”

This is Menton’s view of events: “The idea there were no kits there, that’s incorrect. Four skips containing kits accompanied the squad on their scheduled flight to Saipan. The players also had the training gear they had used in Dublin the previous week. There was  an unscheduled training session put on and for that session, the squad played with Umbro footballs rather than the Adidas ones that were to be used at the World Cup. The players also used a different isotonic drink instead of Gatorade (their regular drink). Everything arrived in line with the planned schedule that was presented to us. We would have preferred if the skips had arrived one or two days earlier when the FAI advance party got to Saipan, but as (the) Genesis (report) stated, the logistics were difficult.” 

Things would get even more difficult for the FAI back home. The General Election was over but the public were casting unofficial votes on this McCarthy/Keane issue, protesting outside the FAI’s headquarters, shouting on radio phone-ins. Meanwhile photographers camped outside Keane’s home in Cheshire, triggering Triggs’ 15-minutes of fame. This was the summer of Tommy Gorman’s infamous TV interview – ‘what about the children, Roy?’ Bertie Ahern, the Taoiseach, was asked to intervene. Talk of Keane coming back dominated the tournament build-up.

roy-keane-home Triggs became the most famous dog on the planet in 2002. Source: Martin Rickett

A senior player said to me, if Keane comes back, ‘I’ll clock him’,” Menton told The42. “There was a level of animosity among towards Keane by some senior players which, I believe, stemmed from the interviews Keane gave where he disparaged the players and management team.”

Eventually, after a week of intense speculation, it all came to a head. “I felt the issue of a blame game was going on. If Mick was the one who finally shut the door, then he’d get hammered,” Menton said. “I didn’t believe there was much chance of Roy coming back, but we wanted to leave the door open. In the end, Roy shut it. An ultimatum was put to him; here’s the number, here’s the time, ring Mick.”

They’re still waiting for that phone call.

**

You may have forgotten this. You may not have even noticed it at the time. But a football tournament also took place that summer.

“There was a general sense of relief among some of the players when it was finally over,” Menton said, “because the longer the issue dragged on, the more annoying it became for many, especially Mick. Once Keane made his decision, it was a case of ‘right, let’s get on with this’.

Yet for the first half of their opening fixture against Cameroon, they were going nowhere. This was when things changed, Matt Holland delivering the kind of half-time speech our eyewitness hadn’t heard before or since from the midfielder. “I’ll never forget it,” the source said. “He spoke about proving they weren’t a one-man team. ‘Did we travel half-way round the world for nothing?’ Holland shouted.”

He had a willing audience.

“Mattie’s a leader,” Morrison adds. “But the thing was, so many in that dressing room were.”

It’s easy to forget that. Five of that squad – Staunton, Kilbane, Robbie Keane, Damien Duff and Shay Given – became international centurions while another seven, Holland, Mark Kinsella, Gary Breen, Kenny Cunningham, Richard Dunne, Lee Carsley and briefly, Andy O’Brien, captained Premier League teams at different stages of their careers. Of the 22 Irish players who remained in Japan and South Korea after Roy Keane’s departure, 19 would go on to play 100 games or more in the Premier League. Duff won two Premier League titles, Steve Finnan lifted the Champions League, Ian Harte and Gary Kelly made the semi-finals of that same tournament.

Holland’s words that afternoon in Niigata were followed by his second-half equaliser. Draw secured, Ireland were in Ibaraki next, trailing again at half-time. This time Gary Kelly issued the half-time rallying cry. “No regrets,” Kelly shouted at them. “Give it everything.”

matt-holland-celebrates-162002-digital Holland walked the walk after talking the talk at half-time against Cameroon. Source: INPHO

They did, Robbie Keane supplying the equaliser this time, Quinn justifying his place in the squad with an assist. “We wanted to do it for the fans,” Morrison said. Like the rest of the squad, he walked through a human corridor of Irish supporters ‘going mental’ as he made his way onto the team bus before every game, inspired by the warmth of those cheers, chants and claps.

In team meetings McCarthy put up this video of fans from back home. “Come on you boys in green,” they sang. Everyone from U2 to the President wished the team well. When the video stopped, the room was silent. They all allowed the message sink in. “Togetherness was a big thing – and do you know, credit Mick for that. He is a good manager,” says Morrison. “I didn’t get a minute of that tournament but I still felt part of it because, to be fair, the rest of the lads and the manager made me feel part of it.”

And yet, there was – and always will be – an asterisk. What if Keane had have been there? “Could his presence have made a five per cent or ten per cent difference against Spain? Yeah, he’d have driven us on,” Morrison said. “South Korea were next, we’d have beaten them in the quarters. We had a good manager and a good captain. Mick knew how to get the best out of me; Roy set unbelievably high standards.”

Menton’s assessment is also fair. “Roy was one of the best midfielders of his generation. To end up ranked 13th in the world after that World Cup was no mean feat especially as we haven’t been near that level since. I’ll always say Mick had a real passion for playing and managing Ireland and for getting the most out of the squads he worked with.”

But did he get the most out of that squad? You can never take away the fact Ireland knocked out the Netherlands, made it out of their World Cup pool, took Spain to penalties, launching comebacks in three of their four games which disproves Keane’s theory that an easy-going week in Saipan was a bad idea. “The FIFA technical report said we were one of the fittest teams in that tournament,” Menton says. “Ask any player and they will tell you that the week of acclimatization (in Saipan) worked for them. Genesis backs that theory up.”

Still, let’s not go overboard with the praise. A manager’s job is to get his best players on the pitch. Keane wasn’t far off the peak of his career then and when Spain were reduced to 10 men for the second-half of extra-time, Ireland’s best player was walking his dog in a Cheshire forest. Their best left-back was also in Manchester that summer ahead of a breakthrough season when he’d make 52 appearances for United and win the Premier League.

Ferguson knew John O’Shea was ready in August 2002. A few months earlier, McCarthy looked at O’Shea’s stats from the 2001/02 season – 13 appearances – and opted for the safe rather than visionary choice. Meanwhile, back in Japan and Korea, Ian Harte had a shocker. So too did so many of the big hitters, France, Argentina, Portugal, Russia, Croatia going out in the group stages; Italy in the last 16. Germany reached the final beating Paraguay, the US and South Korea in the knock-out stages. That path was available to Ireland too. Imagine if Keane had have made it to Japan or if O’Shea had been selected. It isn’t just the Irish manager and captain who harbour regrets from 2002.

Even so, the two men paid a monstrous price for that embittered summer, Keane missing out on captaining his country at a World Cup, McCarthy missing out on the kind of affection and respect his predecessor, Jack Charlton, received. “The 2002 World Cup never gets as much credit as ’90 or ’88 or ’94 and sometimes hardly gets a mention,” McCarthy said in a 2017 interview with the Sunday Independent’s Paul Kimmage.

It should be different. Then again so many things from that summer should have been. McCarthy should have set up camp somewhere else, Keane should have put up with the temporary hardship, McCarthy shouldn’t have confronted Keane in front of the entire squad; Keane shouldn’t have lost the rag. In their own way, they’re both to blame.

Their penance? Only a lifetime of wonder and regret.

* Tomorrow at 8am on The42: Chapter 3: Brian Kerr tells the inside story on how he got Roy Keane back playing for Ireland again.

About the author:

Garry Doyle

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