In the first of a new series that looks at the ‘what ifs’ of sporting history, Craig Farrell ponders just how far the Irish World Cup team of 2002 would have gone if Roy Keane had remained with the squad.
History as it stands
Ireland lost its most influential figure and captain when Roy Keane and, then Ireland manager, Mick McCarthy fell out about the quality of the facilities in Saipan prior to the beginning their 2002 World Cup. Keane attempted to reconcile, but Colin Healy had already been drafted as his replacement.
Ireland were knocked out by Spain, on penalties, in the Round of 16, after finishing second to Germany in Group E.
History as it could have been
There are no words to sum up the impact that Roy Keane’s omission had on the Irish squad. Keane was the central driving force of Ireland. His heart, desire and sheer determination to win uplifted everyone in the green jersey to play at a level that was above their natural state.
He was held in the highest regard among the younger generation of the squad. Keane was the only player in the Irish squad that could be considered an elite player, and arguably one of the best players in his position in world football.
Keane would have slotted into the middle of the park alongside Matt Holland. This would have given Ireland the perfect blend of tenacity and creativity. Keane’s presence in the middle of the park would have be instrumental, and he would be far greater at breaking up play than Mark Kinsella.
Although he is not credited for it, Keane had a powerful strike and a keen eye for ball distribution too. Ireland would have been uplifted knowing they were taking to the pitch alongside someone who had won at the highest level in European football – and for whom losing was not an option. Self-belief would have been rampant in the Irish camp.
Once Germany won their opening game against Saudi Arabia 8-0, Ireland would have to concede finishing top of the group. This would have been momentous for the Irish. A 1-1 draw against Cameroon could have easily become an Irish win. A draw against the Germans, and a final group game win over Saudi Arabia would have left Ireland on the same points as the Germans, second only on goal-difference. This would have been a major morale boost to ‘the boys in green’ heading into the knock-out stages.
In the Round of 16, Spain’s midfield duo of Ruben Baraja and Juan Carlos Valeron would have been hunted and bullied by Keane. The Corkman would have hounded the midfield pair into relinquishing possession – even more so than they did. Keane would have pushed his compatriots into performing beyond their norm and beating the Spanish – whom still suffered from a perennial complex of being underachievers.
Ireland would have advanced to the Quarter Finals to face one of the tournaments co-host; South Korea. A team with great heart and energy but who were still football novices at this stage, South Korea had little in attacking might, other than that of Park Ji Sung.
The Korean team struggled with players who drove at them – which would only encourage Keane to gather that ball and drive at them like a bull who had seen red. Niall Quinn’s strength and height would have been a major point of attack against stunted opposition.
Ireland would have walked away with a historical win that would have taken them to their first ever World Cup semi-finals; and within touching distance of the greatest stage in international football.
Ireland would face Germany again, except this time a place in the World Cup final would be at stake. Michael Ballack would offer Keane his sternest test in the tournament. The Cork native would rise to the challenge but Dietmar Hamann would outshine Matt Holland, while Miroslav Klose would terrorise Ireland’s centre pairing of Gary Breen and Steve Staunton. Ireland would fail to reach the summit of world football – but the flag would be perched extremely high.
A third-place playoff against Turkey would give the Irish a chance to cement themselves in football folklore, forever replacing that of Italia ’90 and USA ’94. Turkey would challenge Ireland in attack, with two great strikers in, Hakan Sukar and Ilhan Mansiz, however their midfield pairing of Yildiray Basturk and Tugay would be the Turk’s failure – along with an average back four and acentric No.1 in Rustu Recber.
Ireland’s supreme performance would breathe new life into football back home, which would ensure that a new crop of quality came through the ranks to replace the the Keane’s and Duff – as opposed to the stagnation that occurred in Irish football following the 2002 World Cup.
Craig Farrell, Pundit Arena.