With the tenth anniversary of Irish football’s civil war upon us, Póg Mo Goal brings you Part 3 of our extracts from John Kiberd’s astonishing body of work on the subject, focusing on the timeline of events in the build-up to the confrontation. This is the Saipan Incident, the Countdown to Meltdown.

With the tenth anniversary of Irish football’s civil war upon us, Póg Mo Goal brings you Part 3 of our extracts from John Kiberd’s astonishing body of work on the subject,  focusing on the timeline of events in the build-up to the confrontation. This is the Saipan Incident, the Countdown to Meltdown.

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…

For Roy Keane the season leading up to the 2002 World Cup was a troubling one even by his standards. His season had been blighted by Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson’s imminent retirement; a high profile red card incident after which he vowed to give up football; extended personal contract negotiations; persistent injuries; missing out on a cherished Champions League final on the away goals rule; and perhaps worst of all, no trophies won. It is certain that Roy Keane’s mood was very dark as the build-up and preparations for the 2002 World Cup finals got under way.

Tuesday 14 May 2002: Mick McCarthy had decided to integrate the Niall Quinn testimonial match with Sunderland into his Republic of Ireland’s World Cup preparations. The non-appearance by Roy Keane for the match became a bit of an issue in the media with some headlines suggesting that Roy Keane had snubbed sick children. It does not seem to have been an issue for either Mick McCarthy or Niall Quinn. Both knew in advance that Keane would not make the match as he was having treatment on an injury.

Friday 17 May 2002: The Republic of Ireland soccer squad assembled at Dublin airport for the trip to Saipan. Roy Keane used the word ‘shambles’ and McCarthy described the airport as bedlam. On any Friday in 2002 the departures lounge at Dublin airport was always a shambles and bedlam. On this Friday there was the added congestion caused by Irish soccer fans that had gathered to give their team a rousing send off to the World Cup. Keane was deeply unhappy with the entire airport experience referring to it in his autobiography and subsequent interviews. McCarthy’s was unapologetic about it, “We are Irish. We don’t do back doors. We don’t hide away from fans we are proud to call the best in the world.” [Mick McCarthy: Ireland’s World Cup 2002 – Page 147]. On the stop over in Amsterdam Keane confronted, “…a couple of journalists who wrote the ‘Keane Snubs Kids’ stuff. Words are exchanged.”[Keane: The Autobiography – Page 255].

Saturday 18 May 2002: After the squad arrived in Saipan Mick McCarthy called a squad meeting that evening (according to Roy Keane this meeting occurred on a Sunday) to announce that the training gear hadn’t arrived yet and that the training pitch was in a poor state. McCarthy said that he threw the debate open but there were no dissenting voices. A couple of hours later Roy Keane called to Mick McCarthy’s room to voice his complaints in private. According to McCarthy, Keane “…admits he should have spoken up at the meeting and then he lets fly…I have no argument with him. I tell him he is right to have a go.”[MMcC – Page 154].

Sunday 19 May 2002: Sunday was a very light training day. “Running and sprinting to get rid of the jet lag.” [MMcC – Page 155]. It was the first opportunity for the players to see the pitch. Roy Keane described it as, “…like concrete, pot-holed with loads of loose stones lying around…nightmare scenario.”[RK – Page 257].

Monday 20 May 2002: The missing training arrived in time for the first full training session on Monday morning. Keane described the training session as “The usual farce.”[RK – Page 257].

Tuesday 20 May 2002: Following that day’s training session Roy Keane became embroiled in a heated row with goalkeeping coach, Packie Bonner and goalkeeper, Alan Kelly. Keane wanted two keepers to play in a training game. Bonner did not allow the keepers to play as they had begun training a half an hour before the rest of the squad. Some journalists witnessed the exchange.

Back in the hotel McCarthy and Keane met in a hotel corridor. Keane announced that he was going home. McCarthy asked what was the problem. Was it the pitch, the training, the missing training gear, the row over the keepers? Did Keane have a problem with McCarthy? Keane replied, “No it’s just me. I’ve had enough.”[RK – Page 259]. Keane told McCarthy to tell the press that he was leaving for personal reasons.

6.30pm: McCarthy contacted Colin Healy in Cork to put him on standby to fly to Saipan as a replacement for Roy Keane.

Irish physio, Mick Byrne, visited Keane in his hotel room. Byrne listened to Keane’s complaints about the Irish set up – nothing about personal problems. Byrne persuaded Keane to change his mind.

Upon hearing of Keane’s change of heart McCarthy went back to Keane’s hotel room with Mick Byrne. According to Keane, “McCarthy walked in quite aggressively. What’s going on Roy?”[RK – Page 260] Keane said that he had changed his mind and that he wanted to stay. McCarthy asked Keane would he change his mind again. “Will we all have to walk on eggshells until the World Cup is over…”[MMcC – Page 166] Keane didn’t like the inference and he was also surprised to hear that McCarthy had already contacted Colin Healy. (The FIFA deadline for squad declarations was the next morning.) Keane changed his mind again and decided that he wanted to go home. McCarthy said that he tried to convince the Irish captain that he wanted him to stay and he would contact Colin Healy to tell him that he would not now be needed. McCarthy’s asked Keane to think about it and make a final decision, and then McCarthy returned to his own room.

A bit later Keane contacted Mick Byrne to say that he was definitely out of the World Cup.

According to Jason McAteer’s Saipan diary he called to Roy Keane’s room when Keane failed to show for a team barbecue that evening. Keane told McAteer “with a smirk” that he was leaving Saipan at 4 o’clock the next day.

Overnight Roy Keane spoke with his solicitor Michael Kennedy and the Manchester United manager, Alex Ferguson, amongst others, and according to Keane they prevailed upon him to stay with the Republic of Ireland and take part in the World Cup. Even though Keane said in his autobiography that he did change his mind again he did not make any attempt to contact McCarthy or Mick Byrne. This is curious because if he really was determined to play in the World Cup he should have contacted Mick McCarthy to confirm this as the FIFA deadline was fast approaching.

8:00 am approx. Wednesday 21 May 2002: The FAI president, Milo Corcoran, called to McCarthy’s room to tell him the Keane wanted to stay. Apparently overnight there had been a number of phone calls involving FAI officials, John Delaney, Brendon Menton and Keane’s solicitor Michael Kennedy. McCarthy dispatched Mick Byrne to Keane’s room to get confirmation that the Irish captain did indeed want to stay. According to Keane, “Just before eight o’clock, there was a knock at the door. It was Mick Byrne. ‘Roy, you’ve got three minutes to make up your mind, we’ve got to fax the squad to FIFA. I said, ‘I’ll stay.'”[RK – Page 262]. McCarthy said that a fax with Colin Healy’s name had already been sent by the time Mick Byrne returned. “Panic stations.” Soon after McCarthy discovered that that a fax with Roy Keane’s name in the squad had been sent a half hour earlier, “…before I even knew he was staying. I am livid when I hear this news.”[MMcC – Page 169].

Prior to training that morning Keane went to see McCarthy. McCarthy said that Keane offered no explanations and, “…he is more interested in the practicalities now that he’s staying.”. Keane did not have any interest in dealing with the press who were now aware that there had been rumours of Roy Keane’s exit from the World Cup squad. “We agreed that I will say that he wanted to go home for personal reasons and also because his old knee injury was acting up.”[MMcC – Page 170].

Later that day after training Roy Keane gave two interviews to newspaper journalists Tom Humphries and Paul Kimmage. In his autobiography Keane said that, “They broached the preparations in a general sort of way. I responded in kind.” [RK – Page 263]. Keane described the interviews as ‘innocuous’. McCarthy noticed Keane doing the interviews and remarked in his book that it struck him, “…as strange that he is talking to two individual journalists so soon after telling me he had no desire to talk to anyone…”[MMcC – 171].

Thursday 22 May 2002: The interview with Tom Humphries appeared in the Irish Times that day. It had been scheduled for Saturday but the Irish Times recognised the incendiary nature of the interview and decided to bring forward the publication date. That afternoon Mick McCarthy got a copy of the interview from Philip Quinn of the Irish Independent. He decided to call a squad meeting for 7:30pm in the team’s private dining room. The scene for the Roy Keane – Mick McCarthy meltdown in Saipan was now set.

Part 4 coming soon


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