It was the moment that defined a sporting generation. Seventeen years on from Saipan, we ask the burning question on every Irish footballing mind in the summer of 2002; what if Roy Keane played?
A key reason behind Keane’s departure from the Irish squad in Saipan was the substandard conditions in which the Irish team were subjected to at their training facility.
“There’s things you can’t accept. That kind of pitch. No training kit. No balls. A 20-hour flight and there’s no skips containing the team’s training gear.”
Roy grins and bears it. The pitch, the training kit, even the balls.
He never gives the Irish Times that interview and subsequently Mick McCarthy never questions Keane about it in the team meeting, thus meaning he never leaves. Tensions remain high between the pair, but Keane agrees to put personal differences aside, as does McCarthy.
For the greater good of the country, they will be on the same page. The papers forget about the rumblings of tensions.
Journalists forget the spelling of ‘Saipan’. It’s okay, no one will remember the place in a month or so anyway.
They focus on the team and their opening game, against an unpredictable Cameroon side.
The Cameroon Game
Keane starts in the centre of the park against Cameroon. Mark Kinsella drops to the bench.
Ireland go one nil down. Keane thinks about which hand he’s going to punch McCarthy with at full-time.
The Boys in Green push on but can’t grab an equaliser against a tough Cameroon side. The game ends one nil, as the optimism slowly starts to seep from Saipan. It doesn’t get any easier. Germany up next.
The German Game
Needing a win, Keane again captains his country against a decent German side. McCarthy tells Roy to stay with their dangerman Michael Ballack throughout the game.
Ballack gets on the ball and looks to pick out an on-running Miroslav Klose with 18 minutes gone. No panic, Roy has him.
Keane picks up a booking. The free kick is cleared. Half-time.
The Germans offer nothing in the second period. Ballack is nullified. Niall Quinn wins a flick on to Robbie Keane in the 90th minute. The crowd goes ballistic.
One nil. A huge result.
Michael Ballack goes to bed that night. He turns around. Roy Keane is still on him.
Next up for Ireland is Saudi Arabia.
The Saudi Arabia Game
Keane and McCarthy’s brave soldiers go into the final group game on three points but with a great chance of qualification. McCarthy rests Keane.
The papers have a field day as the rumblings of another fallout begin. Journalists dust off their witty Saipan related headlines from the week previous. Kinsella replaces Keane and Ireland win 3-0 anyway. Keane? Who needs him?
Ireland finish 2nd to Germany on goal difference and just ahead of Cameroon who only beat Saudi Arabia by a goal to nil and Spain await in the second round.
The Spain Game – Last Sixteen
Ireland fancy their chances against a decidedly poor Spanish side. Roy is back in, refreshed by his rest against Saudi Arabia. McCarthy spends the week assuring the media it was just that; a rest.
Spain offer nothing as Ireland press for a goal. Duff is taken down by Juanfran in the box. Penalty, 64 minutes gone.
Ian Harte steps up to take the ball, but just as he does Roy pulls him to the side. He recalls Scholes’ penalty against Casillas in Manchester United’s defeat to Real Madrid two years previous. Keane whispers,
“Put it to his left.”
Harte steps up. One-nil.
The game ends, McCarthy overcome by emotion, embraces Roy as if he were his own son. The quarter-finals await the Boys In Green, as memories of Italia ’90 start flooding back.
The South Korea Game – Quarter-Final
Just one win away from the last four, the country of Ireland shuts down for the challenge of the hosts.
South Korea, although not the strongest, had benefitted from a few questionable refereeing decisions against the Italians and fancy their chances against the Irish.
Again Keane starts as captain.
Ireland take an early lead. Twelve minutes gone and Robbie Keane gets on the end of Damien Duff’s cross. One nil.
The game drags until the 81st minute, a flashpoint occurs.
Keane goes in strongly on South Korea’s Ahn Jung-Hwan. He gets the ball. The referee approaches. It’s red.
In tears, Roy leaves the pitch, shades of Gascoigne at Euro ’96. But Ireland hold on and make it to the last four, where they’ll be without their star man.
The German Game – Semi-Final
Devoid of their talismanic Keane through suspension, but with a country behind them, Ireland enter their World Cup semi-final with optimism rather than expectation.
Before the game, McCarthy plays down Keane’s importance.
“Mark Kinsella is ready to step up.”
The Germans are a different outfit this time. Kinsella is put on Ballack but the Charlton man is out of his depth. Ballack picks the ball up 25 yards from goal. Beats one, beats two. Goal.
Germany go into the break a goal to the good.
In the second half, it gets worse. Kinsella and Holland get overrun in the midfield. Klose grabs a second. Keane is pictured on the bench. He looks over to McCarthy and shakes his head.
Ireland lose two-nil and fall at the semi-final stage.
The dream is over.
Ireland return home as heroes following their historic run to the last four of the World Cup. Keane’s red card in the quarter-final remains a talking point, but pride soon overshadows it.
McCarthy and Keane still don’t quite see eye-to-eye but they put their differences aside once again for Euro 2004 qualification.
Ireland struggle and fail to qualify for the tournament.
McCarthy is dismissed and Keane retires as a result, bringing to an end to a glittering career in green which saw him lead his country to a World Cup semi-final.
Meanwhile, everyone forgets how to spell Saipan.