Before May 2002, Saipan was a small island in the Western Pacific Ocean that many Irish people likely had never heard of. By the end of that month, however, the very name became synonymous with one of the most fractious events in the nation’s sporting history.
Relations between then-Ireland manager Mick McCarthy and Roy Keane reached the point of no return, less than two weeks before the opening 2002 World Cup match against Cameroon in Niigata. The suffocating humidity combined with Keane’s own sense of dissatisfaction with the conditions that the team was training in (he had previously told Alex Ferguson that his sole objective in Japan & Korea to bring the World Cup home), caused the tension in the camp to reach an explosive crescendo.
Keane had given an interview that appeared in the Irish Times, one that was highly critical of the conditions laid out by the FAI. McCarthy held up a copy of said article when admonishing the Man United midfielder in front to the entire squad, culminating in the manager accusing Keane of feigning injury to avoid playing for his country. If there’s one thing likely to set Keane off, it’s questioning his sense of professionalism.
Hence the Corkman’s now-famous tirade:
“Mick, you’re a liar … you’re a f***ing wanker. I didn’t rate you as a player, I don’t rate you as a manager, and I don’t rate you as a person. You’re a f***ing wanker and you can stick your World Cup up your arse. The only reason I have any dealings with you is that somehow you are the manager of my country! You can stick it up your bollocks.”
Given the relatively secluded nature of Saipan, the accounts of events for those back home were muddled and confusing. Keane had left the training base, then he hadn’t, then he and McCarthy had made up. Finally, and there was to be no confusion this time aroumd, the manager had banished his captain from the squad.
Back in Ireland, it wasn’t so much a case of “Where were you when Saipan happened?” as much as “Whose side are you on?” Friends and families went to war over which party had the moral high ground, the nation’s footballing public turned on each other.
Was Keane justified in speaking out over what he felt were substandard conditions, the warrior putting his country above all else and demanding what he felt the players deserved (and being slapped down for it), or was he simply a troublemaking prima donna who deserved everything he got for getting ideas above his station in a fit of insubordination? One side or the other, no playing devil’s advocate.
An interview with RTE’s Tommie Gorman followed soon after, but that really only served to further entrench both sides into the state of dogma that they have already begun to dig for themselves. “The truth”, as Keane called it, was open to subjective interpretation.
In some quarters, the effects are still being felt. When Keane was being linked with the Ireland job (before it eventually went to Martin O’Neill), the very idea of a “deserter” managing the nation he turned his back on had some in knots. His position as O’Neill number two has likely softened that since, but the fact that it was still an issue more than a decade later showed that some are still quite unwilling to forgive and forget.
It was a black and white argument to a very grey problem, and one that caused anger and resentment towards more than just the two protagonists. Niall Quinn (whom Eamon Dunphy referred to as a “creep” and “Mother Teresa”) and Steve Staunton’s public defence of their manager was met with open hostility by those that felt that the manager was the problem, while even newly re-elected Taoiseach Bertie Ahern was attempting to get involved and mediate a possible return for Keane, as if to fully convey how much of a ludicrous spectacle the whole thing had become.
Tensions were put to one side once the actual tournament began, however, and the nation celebrated as one when Matt Holland steered one home against Cameroon, and Robbie Keane’s last-minute equaliser against Germany, right up to the heartbreak of going out on penalties to Spain.
It was then that the “what ifs?” really began. Ireland had proven to be a match for their more illustrious opponents – how much better could it have been with Keane pulling the strings in the middle of the park? Could we have gone through? We’ll never know, but it’s almost certainly something that both Keane and McCarthy will have thought about on a regular basis in the fifteen years since.
As if to add insult to injury, the Genesis report, the FAI report commissioned into the whole fiasco, broadly agreed with Keane’s Saipan complaints and concurred that the standards were not up to scratch.
McCarthy never really recovered from the incident. Granted, the Irish World Cup campaign was a relative success (even in Keane’s absence) but the country was now divided on him, and after defeats in Ireland’s opening Euro 2004 qualifiers, the general frustration was palpable and after six years in the job, he fell on his sword.
Keane himself ended up returning to the international fold, though this was certainly a case of the sequel failing to live up to expectations. His return to the Irish setup, under the management of Brian Kerr now, was controversial, as it was always likely to be, but instead of a man determined to put things right and win back the trust of those who felt betrayed by his departure in 2002, this was a Keane frustrated at his own decline.
Fifteen years on, and the ramifications of one of the darkest days in Irish football history are still being felt.