One of Ireland’s most intriguing sportspeople, Roy Keane’s influence at Man United is well known but in the green of Ireland – despite the explosive scandal which cost him appearances at the finals – his impact on the road to World Cup 2002 was immense.
Thirty-three seconds is all it took. In today’s game he might not have gotten away with it but 20 years ago Ireland’s captain came through the back of Marc Overmars to raise the roof in the old Lansdowne Road. The Irish faithful had just witnessed their leader, quite literally, laying a marker for the next 90 minutes of football. Roy Keane, the most prominent and controversial figure in Irish sport for a generation, was setting the tone in what was a do-or-die World Cup qualifier.
Rewinding 12 months earlier and the Republic of Ireland began the road to World Cup 2002 with an away trip in the Amsterdam Arena. The Boys in Green had been drawn in a group alongside the Netherlands, Portugal, Cyprus, Estonia and Andorra – a daunting task for the Republic given that the Dutch and Portuguese reached the semi-finals of Euro 2000 two months earlier. The ‘Oranje’ had succumbed to a penalty shoot-out defeat at the hands of Italy while Figo et al. were beaten by a golden goal in extra time by eventual winners France.
What Ireland had, however, was a captain at the peak of his powers, fresh off the back of another title winning season with Manchester United and having been crowned the Premier League PFA Player of the Year. That’s not to say the rest of the Irish squad were any mugs, far from it. This was a solid Ireland outfit, maybe not the powerful individuals of Euro 88 and Italia 90 but with Keane leading the likes of Robbie Keane and Damien Duff, similar ambitions were possible. The game at the home of Ajax ended 2-2, a result most Irish supporters would have taken before kick-off, but considering a 2-0 lead was allowed to slip, there was a tinge of disappointment. Keane himself was flawless in a terrific Irish display, playing a quality Dutch side off the park for the opening 70 minutes.
Next up was Portugal at the Estádio da Luz. Stars such as Figo, Rui Costa, Pauleta, Nuno Gomes, and Joao Pinto formed an acclaimed ‘golden generation’ for the hosts. In contrast to the Holland game, for long spells Mick McCarthy’s Ireland were feeling the Lisbon heat and fell behind to a Sérgio Conceição goal just before the hour mark. Digging deep, a resolute display from the visitors was rewarded 15 minutes later with a long-range effort from substitute Matt Holland (we would see something similar 18 months later in Niigata).
Following what was supposed to be a difficult start for Ireland came the expectation. In games they were predicted to win, against Estonia, Cyprus and Andorra the performances were sometimes laboured but the influential Keane led by example pushing his teammates, especially in the Cypriot away game where the combative midfielder bagged a brace. While his frustration at the lack of perfection may have been apparent, 12 points from four games told their own story.
In June 2001, Portugal came to Dublin for the reverse fixture and on a balmy afternoon on the city’s southside, Keane sparkled, providing perhaps his greatest display in green. His crisp passing, timed tackles, and contained aggression gave the watching support a performance for the history books. The Irish No. 6 put the Republic into a 1-0 lead but ten minutes later Portuguese captain Figo levelled things up. Another 1-1 result and once more Keane trudged off the field reflecting on a lost lead.
A professional 2-0 win in Tallinn against Estonia followed and then it was the turn of Louis Van Gaal’s Netherlands to arrive in the Irish capital. The wealth of talent at the visitor’s disposal was quite staggering but in a massive qualifier, the Boys in Green produced a shock result to come out on top. Jason McAteer produced an iconic winner in a game where the misfiring Dutch finished with a forward line of Van Nistelrooy, Kluivert, Hasselbaink and Van Hooijdonk.
The fighting Irish display had been forecast with Keane’s thunderous tackle on Overmars within moments of the kick-off, met with roars of approval from the frenzied home support. The final whistle provided scenes of both pandemonium and joy. However, the Man United skipper was not hanging around. As the Corkman left the Lansdowne turf, television footage showed Mick McCarthy run to shake the hand of his captain. An opportunistic pitchside photographer captured a shot that has since gone down in infamy. In contrast to the moving images, the snapshot showed the moment a shirtless Keane, looking more like a middleweight boxer than a footballer, had taken his gaze away from his manager – a picture that would come to symbolise the imminent explosive rift between the two men.
Keane scored the final goal in the group stage in a comfortable 4-0 home win against Cyprus, and though he didn’t feature in the second leg – a fact that would come to the fore in Ireland’s pre-World Cup implosion which would see him spectacularly leave the camp – a 2-1 aggregate play-off victory over Iran was enough to secure a place in the Far East the following year.
The 2002 qualification campaign highlighted how impressive an individual Keane was. His ambition to consistently better himself and the players around him drove the Republic to their first World Cup since the Jack Charlton era. In him, Ireland boasted a genuine world-class footballer at a time when club midfields consisted of the likes of Figo, Zidane, and Vieira.
In the end, his pursuit of perfection put him careening into a full-force tackle with his country’s FA, leaving Ireland without their talismanic leader at a major tournament and creating one of Irish and world football’s great ‘what if?’ sagas.