The Saipan Incident – Part 4

With the tenth anniversary of Irish football’s civil war upon us, Póg Mo Goal brings you Part 4, the penultimate extract from John Kiberd’s astonishing body of work on the subject,  focusing on the fall-out and player’s reaction from Keane’s infamous tirade. 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 Irish captain Roy Keane finished his ten minute verbal demolition of the Irish soccer manager, Mick McCarthy, Keane stormed out of the meeting room in the Saipan Hyatt Regency hotel. According to Niall Quinn after “Roy Keane has just signed himself out.”[Page 103] he left “The rest of us pretty much in shock”[Page104]. In an impressive attempt at levity in such circumstances reserve goalkeeper Dean Kiely offered to do a job for McCarthy in midfield. His joke drew some nervous laughter however Quinn made it clear that the ferocity and intensity of Keane’s tirade had rocked the entire Republic of Ireland squad to it’s foundations.

In his his book Mick McCarthy : Ireland’s World Cup 2002 said that soon after Keane stormed out one of the players (he couldn’t remember as he was still in shock after the attack by Keane) led a round of applause in support of McCarthy. Quinn confirmed this in his autobiography, “Gary Kelly stands up … ‘Are we behind this man [McCarthy] or not?’ … Everyone claps.”[Page 104].

Apparently two players did not join in this applause. In his book [Pages 269-270] Keane said that Gary Breen and David Connolly visited him in hotel room 758 after the meeting and said that they agreed with what Keane had said. The also said that “We didn’t clap” when Gary Kelly led the applause.

There seems to be little doubt however that there was broad and genuine support for the beleaguered Mick McCarthy. The commentaries by the other players present make it clear that the Ireland and Manchester United captain’s outburst at the Irish manager was completely out of order and over the top. There has never been any sense of mutiny and any support by the players for Roy Keane does not seem to have been in evidence. To the contrary, both McCarthy and Quinn outlined that the players rallied around their manager. Those closest to the events in Saipan very quickly decided to support Mick McCarthy and not Roy Keane. “We can’t come up with an argument for Defending Roy Keane.”[Quinn – Page 105] “There was no justification for the way he reacted tonight…he was way offside” [Jason McAteer]”…the manager [had] absolutely no option but to send him [Keane] home.” [Matt Holland].

The First Press Conference

In a demonstration of support the senior players in the Republic of Ireland football squad, Niall Quinn, Stephen Staunton and Alan Kelly, decided to flank Mick McCarthy at the ensuing press conference. McCarthy called the press conference almost immediately after the meeting broke up. Held in a small Chinese restaurant in the hotel lobby, Mick McCarthy announced to a stunned media corp that he had sent Roy Keane home from the World Cup squad. Quinn, Staunton and Kelly waded in with their support stating that Keane had overstepped the mark and that he had left McCarthy with no choice but to send the Irish captain home.

The Campaign to Get Roy Back

There followed a frenzied period during which a number of people were working behind the scenes to find a way to get Manchester United’s captain Roy Keane back into the Irish World Cup set up. The FAI, the then Taoiseach – Bertie Ahern, Keane’s agent – Michael Kennedy, and others attempted to bring about a situation whereby the Irish soccer captain could rejoin the Irish squad in Japan. Following prompting from David Connolly Niall Quinn contacted Michael Kennedy, who was also agent to both Connolly and Quinn. “Michael thinks it can be done … I wander around the hotel, canvassing the team. It’s fair to say that their is no Roy bandwagon … [Mick McCarthy] tells me straight that he’ll have nothing to do with this.”[Page 131] Despite this Quinn continued to work on the players while Michael Kennedy continued talking to Keane. “I have the easy task and Michael has the hard task…I just have to persuade twenty-two hurt footballers and their manager. Michael has to get Roy into the starting gate.”[Page 134] Following much persuasion Quinn said that he had managed to turn the entire squad around “…even the diehards…” The main stumbling block was now McCarthy and he was determined that he couldn’t work with Keane again. Back in the UK Keane had given newspaper interviews including one to the Mail on Sunday in which he was highly critical of Quinn, Staunton and Kelly thus making a reconciliation more difficult despite Niall Quinn’s ongoing efforts in the Royal Hotel in Izumo. Quinn maintained regular contact with Michael Kennedy and he retained some optimism that a way could be found to get Roy Keane back into the Irish World Cup squad.

Mick McCarthy Changes his Mind Again

Following his conversation with Michael Kennedy, Niall Quinn visited Mick McCarthy’s room. Packie Bonner was there already. During the course of a 45 minute heated discussion Quinn tried to reassure McCarthy that he had the full support of the players but that because of the depth of public feeling it could be very damaging for the Irish manager if he was perceived to have slammed the door shut on any possible return of Roy Keane. Packie, who had initially been against any Keane return, was won over by Quinn’s argument. McCarthy also relented but still insisted that Keane must call to apologise. Quinn said “We are tired, overwrought. Mick cries. I cry. It’s not easy. It is not f**king easy. Finally, Mick says he will do his press conference, then he will come back and wait for the call.”[Page 173]

Roy Keane’s Statement

In the interests of all genuine supporters of Irish football I believe that the time has arrived when I should bring to a conclusion the continuing speculation with regard to my participation in the World Cup and for the players to concentrate fully on their preparations for the competition free from all further distraction

Whilst I appreciate all the support which I have received and all the efforts which have been made by a number of people on behalf of all parties involved in this unfortunate matter, I do not consider that the best interests of Irish football will be served by my returning to the World Cup.

The damage has been done. I wish the team and management all the best and they will have my full support throughout the competition. I urge all the people of Ireland to give their entire support to the team. I do not feel that any useful purpose will be served by my making any further comment.

And with that statement so ended the great efforts of many people to get Roy Keane back into the Republic of Ireland 2002 World Cup squad in Japan.

Conclusion

The Irish players in the 2002 World Cup squad rode a giant roller coaster that began on Friday, 17 May 2002 with Roy Keane complaining bitterly about about conditions at Dublin Airport, and ended with Keane’s statement above on Wednesday 29 May 2002. As some of the players have commented, it appears that Keane just didn’t want to be in the Far East at all. Matt Holland said, he pretty much complained about everything from the off and most of it was petty stuff. None of the other players appear to have joined in with his complaints. In his interviews with Tom Humphries and Paul Kimmage he questioned the commitment and desire of his international colleagues, accusing them of settling for second best. This seems to have genuinely angered a number of the other players.

The players were left speechless and stunned after Keane’s tirade directed at his Irish team manager. Those players that have commented on the events of that night in the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Saipan are unanimous that the Irish soccer captain was completely in the wrong. No players have ever criticised Mick McCarthy for his words or actions during that fateful team meeting. In the immediate aftermath of the meeting the players unanimously agreed to fully support their manager, although Roy Keane has stated that David Connolly and Gary Breen were less than fulsome in this support.

Inspired by Connolly, Niall Quinn began a well-intentioned, but misguided, campaign to find a way to get Keane back into the Irish World Cup soccer squad. The players supported this campaign in recognition of Keane’s footballing prowess and due to the public clamour back in Ireland. It was not an attempt to undermine Irish manager Mick McCarthy. Equally the premature release of the above players statement was not attempt to force their will upon McCarthy. Regardless of the intentions of the players their actions and statements did ultimately undermine their manager’s authority.

Despite an appallingly distressing build up to their participation in the World Cup the players performed above all expectations on the soccer pitches in the Far East. Even in the absence of the World class Roy Keane the Republic of Ireland just missed out on a quarter-final place when the team lost to Spain in a penalty shoot-out. Keane’s absence from the team was certainly not due to a lack of effort or conciliation by the players in Japan. Niall Quinn acknowledged that everyone involved in the Saipan affair made mistakes, ” … but only the smallest movement [by Roy Keane] was necessary to put them right – one hard swallow, one short call. We all talk about how we’d do anything to play for our country, for the honour, the privilege and the glory, how we’d die for the green jersey. Well we wouldn’t, not all of us. We know that now.”[Page 175]

 

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