With the tenth anniversary of Irish football’s civil war upon us, Póg Mo Goal brings you Part 2 of our extracts from John Kiberd’s astonishing body of work on the subject, focusing on the history of communication issues between Roy Keane and Mick McCarthy. This is ‘The Saipan Incident’.

With the tenth anniversary of Irish football’s civil war upon us, Póg Mo Goal brings you Part 2 of our extracts from John Kiberd’s astonishing body of work on the subject,  focusing on the history of communication issues between Roy Keane and Mick McCarthy. 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…

“Let Bygones be Bygones” – Roy Keane

There do not appear to have been any further meaningful interactions between the two until McCarthy was appointed as manager of the Republic of Ireland football team in 1996. In his autobiography [Page 246] Keane reveals an antipathy towards McCarthy that seems, to some extent, to be born out of Roy Keane’s relationship with Jack Charlton. In his book Keane makes it clear that he had no time for Charlton “…I found it impossible to relate to him as a man or as a coach.” [Page 54]. When commenting on McCarthy’s appointment as Irish manager he said “McCarthy was part of the Charlton legend. Captain Fantastic…he didn’t convince me. Still, when he got the job, I thought: let bygones be bygones.” What bygones? Presumably the exchange between the pair in Boston six years earlier?

In his World Cup Diary McCarthy makes a case that he had gone to some lengths as manager of Ireland to accommodate Keane and his sensitivities. He had made Keane the captain of Ireland at the first opportunity. He allowed Keane to turn up later than the other players for international matches. Keane was the only player in the Irish squad that roomed alone. He also says that he put up “…with the odd tantrum from Keane here and there…”. McCarthy contends that if he was holding a grudge towards Keane from 1992 he would not have gone to these lengths.

Roy Keane’s first match for Ireland with Mick McCarthy as manager was an inauspicious occasion for the Manchester United player. Earning his 30th cap and wearing the captain’s armband in place of the substituted Andy Townsend, Keane was sent off late in the match for kicking a Russian player.

Lack of Direct Communication Between Roy Keane & Mick McCarthy

The next notable point of conflict between Keane and McCarthy was on the occasion of a Republic of Ireland trip to the USA for an end of season international tournament in 1996. Keane decided that he didn’t want to go as he was too tired after the season just ended. [Page 246]. Rather than contact McCarthy or anyone else in the Irish set up, Keane left it to someone at Old Trafford to inform the FAI. “As a result I got off to a bad start with McCarthy. He felt I should have spoken to him personally. He expressed this opinion, casting me in a bad light. What he didn’t tell the media that if we had that sort of conversation on this occasion, it would have been our first.” [Page 247]. This begs the question, why couldn’t Keane contact McCarthy directly? Why would this have been the first such discussion between the two men as manager and team captain? It certainly doesn’t suggest that Keane had, in reality, let bygones be bygones.

In his World Cup Diary McCarthy refers to the the 1996 USA trip. “I was never that bothered if he (Keane) went to America or not…it became a big media story…We have had a few chats to sort things out but it has all dragged on since then in the press.” [Page 33].

In his autobiography Keane complains bitterly about the poor Republic of Ireland set-up especially when compared to that of Manchester United. After the draw for the 2002 World Cup qualifiers was made Keane says that he met with McCarthy”…to level with him, to make the case for a reformed approach…We discussed the problems. He agreed with me…It was not an easy conversation – we’re not not buddy-buddy…I thought we had a deal.”[Page 250]. Interestingly this meeting took place at Keane’s house in Manchester.

What is clear is that there was an unusual relationship between the Irish manager and his captain. Direct communication between McCarthy and Keane was kept to an absolute minimum. All of the available evidence is that was the way Keane wanted it. Keane admitted this in his interview with Tom Humphries in Saipan “I spoke to Mick Byrne, who’s the middle man for me, really.” For a man who has very admirable communication skills this is somewhat strange. Why would he need a middle man? The only possible explanation is that Roy Keane did not like Mick McCarthy and couldn’t bear to be anywhere near him or have anything to do with him. During McCarthy’s tenure as Irish manager Roy Keane took every opportunity to minimise his time with the Irish squad. “I dreaded the prospect of international weeks.”[Page 250].


With the benefit of hindsight and with the insights afforded by Keane’s autobiography it is clear that there was no way possible that Roy Keane could maintain an even keel while being away with Ireland for the duration of the World Cup campaign. All of his complaints about the crowded airport, the missing training gear, the poor training facilities, the goalkeeper row, were just symptoms. Clearly McCarthy and the FAI could have done better but the inescapable conclusion to be drawn is that even if conditions and facilities had been perfect Keane simply could not endure being in such close proximity to Mick McCarthy for such a protracted period of time. A Saipan incident was inevitable even before Roy Keane set foot on the plane to that Pacific island.

Part 3 next week


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