With the tenth anniversary of Irish football's civil war upon us, Póg Mo Goal brings you Part 1 of our extracts from John Kiberd's astonishing body of work on the subject. This is 'The Saipan Incident'.

A decade has passed and the scars are almost healed. Yet, when Roy Keane revisited Saipan in the press last week, he opened up some old wounds. With the tenth anniversary of Irish football’s civil war upon us, Póg Mo Goal brings you Part 1 of our extracts from John Kiberd’s astonishing body of work on the subject. This is ‘The Saipan Incident’.

John Kiberd runs Soccer-Ireland.com, Ireland’s fastest growing soccer directory. A self-confessed right-footed footballer with two left feet, he’s spent thousands of hours watching soccer. An avid fan of the Irish national team he watched in horror as the Saipan incident unfolded. Seven years later he committed himself to establishing the true facts of those traumatic events in the Pacific in May 2002…

When the Saipan incident unfolded a wondrous dichotomy was born that has cleaved the Irish psyche. Perhaps only the passage of time will bring relief. When I first heard the news that the Irish manager Mick McCarthy had sent the Irish captain, and our best player, Roy Keane home I was truly shocked. As the shock subsided and the different versions of events emerged I had no doubt as to whose side I was on. And like almost everyone else in Ireland I have stood steadfastly by my choice ever since. I never seriously questioned my decision – if it was actually a decision. To me it was the obvious conclusion and those on the other side, my polar opposites, were blinded by unthinking loyalty to their man.

In civil wars families can be divided and brother may be pitted against brother. In the period immediately after the news broke that Roy Keane had been sent home from Saipan I recall having many very heated debates with my brother. He is one of the most mild mannered and thinking individuals that one could meet. How was it that he was so blind? How could he be so irritating by holding on to a position that was so patently wrong? His man was clearly offside in the Saipan affair that even a SpecSavers ref could see it. Funny enough his views of me were probably just the same as mine of him.

It’s had been seven years since Ireland’s JFK moment. This was a seven year itch I couldn’t resist scratching at. However to bring real relief it had to be a serious scratch. I had to scratch deep beneath the surface to find out the real truth behind the eruption that occurred on that volcanic island in the Far East. To do this I had to try to be as dispassionate as possible and leave my deeply held views, nay prejudices, in the dressing room before I crossed the white line. It was difficult but I tried. Only others can determine if I succeeded but no-one should pass judgement on that unless they have read everything that I’ve written and understands the methodology that I used in arriving at my Saipan conclusions.

Roy Keane’s relationship with Mick McCarthy

“Footballers are pragmatists. You play for the manager you have.”

This is a quote from Roy Keane’s autobiography [Page 76]. He was referring specifically to the Irish soccer players when Jack Charlton was the Republic of Ireland team manager, and to footballers in general. It would appear however that Keane had limits to his own pragmatism when it came to playing for Mick McCarthy as Irish manager.

The dynamics of the relationship between Roy Keane and Mick McCarthy are central to the whole Saipan incident. Clearly the two did not get on with each other. The question is – why? Keane and McCarthy are the only ones who can give a definitive answer to this but based upon the available evidence it appears to be primarily due to an intense dislike of McCarthy by Keane.

Roy Keane and Mick McCarthy Have a Row in Boston in 1992

Roy Keane and Mick McCarthy only played together for Ireland on two occasions, in September 1991 and May 1992. There are no generally known reports of any issues arising between the two men as players on the football pitch. However it was while Mick McCarthy was the Republic of Ireland team captain that the first instance of some discord between the two has been documented. During the fateful squad meeting, that led to the expulsion of Keane from the Irish World Cup squad, the Irish captain brought up an incident that had occurred a full ten years earlier. The now infamous Boston 1992 row.

It now seems that this otherwise innocuous event appears to have coloured the Keane and McCarthy relationship from that time onward. A drunken 20-year-old Keane had turned up late for the team bus at the end of a soccer tournament in the US. When the team captain Mick McCarthy challenged Keane about being late a heated row ensued. Roy Keane seems to have taken extreme exception to this. It is difficult to believe that such an event would even register the next day with Keane who seems to have spent his entire life going from one scrape to another. Keane admits in his autobiography that he has had hundreds or thousands of rows throughout his soccer career. Why should this one have been so significant to him?

Keane’s autobiography is littered with stories about him getting into angry and violent situations when he was drunk. By his own admission there were many situations when he knew he should have walked away but his own sense of offence prevented him doing just that. These events seem to have made an indelible mark on his brain as they are recounted with real clarity in his book. It seems that a run of the mill, for footballers, exchange between McCarthy and Keane in 1992, magnified in intensity by his drunken state, soured Keane’s view of McCarthy from that point on.

Part 2 coming soon

Click here to visit soccer-ireland.com and read the full Saipan Incident