Review: Mick McCarthy took over at Ipswich Town last week and confirmed he would have said yes to a return to the Ireland job. His arrival at Portman Road drew the inevitable links to Roy Keane’s time in charge of the Tractor Boys. For Irish people, one name usually follows the other and the word Saipan is never far from the lips. Diarmuid O hAinle’s stunning new book It Started With a Handshake takes us back to 2002 but asks what if it had all turned out differently?
Prior to the European Championships, the tenth anniversary of Saipan had sports readers largely rolling their eyes. In 2002, the Irish public were split down the middle in favour or either Roy Keane or Mick McCarthy. A decade later McCarthy was the overwhelming choice of fans to return to the Irish hot-seat in the aftermath of a disastrous European Championship while Roy Keane’s comments during the tournament had sullied his reputation among many of those who previously sang his praises.
Euro 2012 was a blip in the years of heartache for Irish football fans. Giovanni Trapattoni led us back to the world stage but we were humiliated. There will be no Reeling in the Years highlights of last summer.
Diarmuid O hAinle transports us back to the last time we graced a finals when we came out with far more plaudits despite the crisis that enveloped Irish football. It Started With a Handshake is not a retelling of Saipan though of course it features prominently. The book also details the build-up to the 2002 World Cup including the pre-tournament warm-up games, recalling sometimes forgotten moments that fed into the overall tale, such as Niall Quinn’s Sunderland testimonial. The Prologue sets the tone for the book:
“The Ireland team which competed in the 2002 World Cup was a contender. Few may have truly believed it to be the case but I count myself amongst them”
The handshake of the title, of course refers to that between the manager of Ireland, Mick McCarthy, and his captain, Roy Keane, immediately after the 2001 victory over Holland which put the Republic well on the way to qualifying for the following summer’s World Cup. It is the starting point from which O hAinle describes the months leading up to the finals, including the crucial last qualifying games, and covers every day the squad spent together once they were convened. The author called it a labour of love and the descriptive style of the mood among the squad reveals O hAinle’s confidence with the subject matter and skill in painting a picture with words. The reader is placed into the inner sanctum of the Irish camp and can feel the temperature reach boiling point in the stifling heat of Saipan. When the tenth anniversary came round ahead of this summer’s Euros, it was met with indifference from Irish football followers. Partly, they were fatigued with the subject, but also the mood in advance of the trip to Poland was one of jubilation. No one wanted to revisit Irish football’s Civil War on the eve of our return to the party. And yet, the trauma of Saipan is dealt with in such detail in O hAinle’s book, that the drama sucks you in. There was so much more to the fall-out than simply coming down in favour of the manager or the player. And it wasn’t about one explosive team meeting either. The days in the Pacific Island are relived moment to moment by O’hAinle. And when it’s been and gone and Keane is a footnote, the novel returns to the action on the pitch.
The games against Cameroon, Germany and Saudi Arabia are retold in compelling fashion. It’s clear that McCarthy and Keane are just two in a cast of characters, the Irish football squad. In fact the theatre that was Saipan does not even mark the half-way point of the book.
The action moves quickly and the narrative conveys the writer’s passion for the subject. Where gaps need to be filled O hAinle does so by, as he puts it himself, attempting “to ensure the actions of those concerned are in keeping with their character and contemporary conduct as I have found it.”
The World Cup does not just deal with the games but the time between matches, the atmosphere amongst the players. The games transport the reader back to a tournament when an Irish team performed above themselves, winning the admiration of the watching global audience. What a contrast to the summer of 2012.
Where O hAinle really comes into his own is when the reader is faced with an explosive turn of events. “A few minutes later McCarthy returned, sombre-faced. The dressing room was shushed and the players looked quizzically at their manager, fearing he had received some terrible news from family or friends back home or from those that had followed him over. McCarthy looked up at his squad and asked them openly. “Now he wants to play. Do you want him back?”
There are passages of intrigue, nostalgia, humour and genuine goosebump moments in what is a gripping read. This is the newest must-have item for Irish sports fans. What if the tale of Mick McCarthy, Roy Keane, Saipan and all that followed had turned out very differently?
It all started with a handshake.