The Saipan Incident – Conclusions

With the tenth anniversary of Irish football’s civil war upon us, Póg Mo Goal brings you the final extract from John Kiberd’s astonishing body of work on the subject,  detailing his conclusions of the sorry saga. This is the Saipan Incident.

John Kiberd runs, 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…

All of the available evidence on the Saipan incident points to one very clear conclusion:

There is only one reason that Roy Keane did not play for the Republic of Ireland in the 2002 World Cup Finals in Japan and Korea. That reason is Roy Keane. Not Mick McCarthy, not the FAI, not the poor training pitch in Saipan, not the missing soccer gear, not the lack of goalkeepers in the training match, and not injury. It was simply down to Keane’s personality. When Keane first decided to quit Saipan he told McCarthy to tell the press that the reason he was quitting was because of ‘personal reasons’. This is as close to the truth as it gets.

McCarthy’s Lack of Awareness

In his World Cup diary McCarthy said that he was not aware that there were any problems between them before the eruption in Saipan. This astonishing lack of awareness by McCarthy certainly contributed to events in the Northern Mariana Islands, but it was not pivotal. Surely McCarthy must have recognised that Keane did not want any direct contact between the two of them. Keane used the Irish physio Mick Byrne as a go-between to relay messages to McCarthy. An unorthodox situation between the manager and his captain and a sure sign that all was not right between them. McCarthy should have recognised this situation as a problem and taken steps to address it at an early stage in his time as Irish manager.

Keane’s Deception

“A lot’s been said over the last few days but I’m not here to get anybody on my side. I think it’s important that people know the truth. The final straw was when I was accused of being disloyal, faking injury and going against my team-mates, in front of everybody, and I wouldn’t accept it.”

These were Roy Keane’s first public TV utterances about the infamous Saipan incident. After checking out RTE’s Tommie Gorman’s suitability with Eamon Dunphy, Keane agreed to give an interview to the Irish broadcaster. Like a seasoned politician Keane ignored the opening question posed by Gorman as he, Keane, set the agenda for the interview. In much the same as he began most of his football matches, Keane got his retaliation in early. In fact the only reason that Keane gave the interview was to appeal to the Irish public for support and, like a good magician, to misdirect the attention of his audience. Keane has constantly repeated this sleight of hand ever since. Some people choose to overlook the fact that two days before that squad meeting and the supposed ‘faking injury’ accusation Roy Keane had already decided to go home. He clearly outlined the reasons why he wanted to go in his autobiography.

Keane Carried Many Frustrations with Him to Saipan

Just before the departure for Saipan Roy Keane had been angered by the press coverage surrounding his non-appearance at Niall Quinn’s testimonial match, the proceeds of which were to go to charity. The suggestions that Keane had snubbed sick children had really irked him. It is clear from his autobiography that he was upset at such suggestions and he carried this with him on the journey to Saipan. The chaos in Dublin airport as the Irish squad began the trip to Saipan, the missing training gear, the poor state of the soccer pitch in Saipan, and finally, the lack of goalkeepers for a training match were all cited. Were things really so bad that Keane would give up his last opportunity to play in the finals of the World Cup?

None of the other players, including other very experienced professionals, were so upset by the Irish preparations. Matt Holland described Keane’s complaints as “petty” and that he had been moaning right from the start of the trip. The Genesis report subsequently confirmed that the training facilities and conditions in Saipan did not have an adverse impact on the team’s performances. Nevertheless Keane wanted out.

Keane’s Flip-Flopping in Saipan

On the evening that Keane had first decided to leave Saipan he met with McCarthy on three separate occasions and despite queries and urgings by the Irish soccer manager Keane declined to take the opportunity to tell McCarthy the ‘real’ reasons for his unhappiness. He repeatedly insisted that it was “personal problems” and it had nothing to do with the state of the pitch, with the training, or indeed with McCarthy. In fact when he cited ‘personal reasons’ he was telling the truth.

When Keane changed his mind at literally the last minute and decided to stay with Irish World Cup squad, McCarthy asked him did he want to talk to the press. When Keane declined McCarthy asked him what should he tell the press, who by now knew something was amiss with Keane. Roy told McCarthy to say it had been, “personal problems”. Yet later that day he gave two interviews to newspaper journalists in which he catalogued all of his grievances with the Irish World Cup set up including stating that he didn’t believe that his Irish soccer team mates had the same ambition as he had and that they settled for second best.

Keane’s Undermining of Mick McCarthy

Any manager in similar circumstances would have been justifiably angry at this turn of events. Keane had been given every opportunity to vent his frustrations privately yet chose to use the national media to do so. Keane is an intelligent man. He had to know that his team manager and his team mates would by deeply upset and angry at this turn of events. He had seriously undermined McCarthy’s authority be telling his manager to tell the press that his problems were “personal” yet a short while later he was telling journalists that all his problems were football-related. Keane was acting as a law unto himself with scant regard for his manager, his team mates, or the Irish soccer fans. It defies belief that Keane was not aware of the likely consequences of giving those interviews. Despite the apparent change of heart about leaving Saipan Keane still needed to get away from the Republic of Ireland set up. Ireland’s soccer samurai knew he was committing hara-kiri on his international career when he gave those interviews to Tom Humphries and Paul Kimmage in Saipan. That was his exit mechanism.

Following his last minute decision to stay, Keane made no effort to contact the Irish manager to explain or apologise for his I’m going-I’m staying routine the previous evening. Keane’s decision to stay came about following a night of phone calls back west to, amongst others, his club manager Alex Ferguson, his solicitor Michael Kennedy, and his autobiography ghost-writer Eamon Dunphy. It would have been a PR disaster for Keane to follow his instincts and to leave the Irish 2002 World Cup football squad for personal reasons. Far better to leave the squad by making a ‘principled’ stand about the lack of professionalism in the Irish set up. It is conjecture of course, but this might have been impressed upon Keane during one or more of his calls back to the UK and Ireland. Keane has always insisted that the fateful team meeting in the Hyatt Regency was set up to bait him into an outburst. It seems far more plausible that Keane’s interviews with Tom Humphries and Paul Kimmage were intended to create a bear trap for McCarthy. By publicly undermining his Irish manager and by questioning the ambitions of his team mates he may have been attempting to force McCarthy in to a confrontation.

McCarthy was Totally Justified in Calling a Team Meeting

The manager was perfectly within his rights to call a private squad meeting to thrash out the issues that arose from the interviews that Keane gave. Having opened up the can of worms in the most public of ways, and in a way that pejoratively implicated everyone connected with the Republic of Ireland World Cup camp, Keane said that he wanted to deal with the issue of the newspaper interviews one-on-one with McCarthy. The most benign interpretation of this is that it was naive – but Roy Keane doesn’t do naive. As his autobiography clearly demonstrates Roy Keane is very cold and calculated in almost everything he does.

McCarthy Did Not Accuse Keane of Faking Injury

Getting back to the RTE interview, Tommie Gorman had started off by asking Roy Keane to give to some context to the row between Keane and McCarthy but the former Irish soccer captain answered by outlining his outrage at being accused of faking injury. A similar accusation in the past had led to an appalling assault on Alf-Inge Haaland by Keane so we were all aware that accusing Keane of faking injury was the ultimate insult to this warrior footballer. By raising this, Keane was throwing up a smoke screen to deflect attention away from the real reasons that he wanted out of the Irish World Cup squad. Despite the fact that no one else present at the squad meeting appears to have heard the accusation Keane wanted to move the focus to an area where he could engender some public sympathy for himself. He succeeded in his objective and to this day the pro-Keane lobby constantly cling to the fanciful notion that if McCarthy hadn’t accused Keane of faking injury and had dealt with the Humphries and Kimmage interview issue in private, Roy Keane would have played in the World Cup. This is simply not the case.

Keane’s Lack of Commitment to the Republic of Ireland

Keane is a deeply proud Corkman. For him being Irish is a poor second in terms of importance to his sense of Corkness. This is why he was not unduly upset by walking away from the Irish team in Saipan. It is why he was prepared to walk away from his Irish international career even before it began to play for Nottingham Forest in a relatively meaningless Zenith Data Systems Cup tie. It is also why he was able to state boldly, on the occasion of his 50th Irish cap, that it meant absolutely nothing to him to win that many international caps. Keane was never comfortable with the Republic of Ireland soccer set up.

Roy Keane is a born winner. He wants to win, not because winning is fantastic but, because by winning it validates him as a sporting warrior. The parting of the ways with his beloved Manchester United in 2005 came about because of a combination of his diminishing powers on the soccer pitch and his perception of diminished ambition within the club. He simply could not be a part of something that he believed was not 100% focused on, and dedicated to, victory.

From a young age Keane recognised that the Republic of Ireland would never win any major soccer competitions and this was reflected in his commitment to the Irish cause. Of course no-one could ever question his commitment when he was on the pitch. His performances during the 2002 World Cup qualifying campaign were sometimes breathtaking, and always outstanding. His performance against the Dutch inLansdowne Road (now renamed the Aviva Stadium) in September 2001 was truly magnificent. As he admits in his autobiography he loved playing in the matches but hated almost everything else to do with the Irish soccer set up. Roy Keane’s relationship with Mick McCarthy was a major obstacle also. Keane appears to have never liked his Irish soccer manager. This antipathy stretched back to the row between the two in Boston in 1992 and Keane carried this grudge with him to Saipan.


Keane likes to promote that idea that he is a proud Irishman but unfortunately for him reality tends to get in the way of how he would like the rest of us to see him. The reality is that Keane’s sense of being Irish is not as strong as he would have us believe. All the years of perceived slights perpetrated on him by the FAI, Jack Charlton, and Mick McCarthy could not be masked long enough let him endure being away from his home and family, and with the Republic of Ireland set up, for a month.

Roy Keane’s actions during the entire Saipan affair are indicative of a man that answers only to his own capriciousness and humours. He is a man that, within the confines of his own head, can see an honesty and righteousness where most of the rest of us can only see shocking impulsiveness and ruthless self-obsession. No-one could have persuaded Roy Keane to play for Ireland in the 2002 World Cup. The only question that remains unanswered is; what on earth made Roy Keane believe that he could stay with the Republic of Ireland World Cup squad in the Far East for a month?


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