Poll: Vote for Ireland's greatest sports star between 1995-2004
Published 30/04/2015 | 00:00
Seldom have Irish sport and Irish society been so closely intertwined as during the Saipan saga. The heat provoked by the affair both at the time and since would seem to indicate that for many people this was about a whole lot more than whether a footballer played for his team in a tournament or not.
Perhaps the Roy Keane affair exerted and continues to exert such fascination because it was a mirror in which Irish society saw itself. And that society was one which had changed dramatically since Ireland had reached the World Cup finals in 1994.
The year after those finals saw the beginning of the Celtic Tiger era, a period of sustained growth with no parallel in Irish history. Between 1995 and 2007 Gross Domestic Product grew every year until eventually Irish GDP per capita was the second highest in Europe. Unemployment, in double figures every year from 1980 to 1997, fell to four per cent by 2001. It is fair to say that no one back in the 1980s had seen this one coming.
The Tiger changed the lives of a whole generation of people for the better. But you know that - you're not going to forget those years in a hurry. Given such sweeping success, it's not surprising that national self-confidence was at a high.
One of the great commonplaces of the age was that the old 'Ah Sure It'll Do' Attitude had been consigned to the dustbin of history. The ASIDA, it appeared, was what had been holding us back all along. So when Keane threw the head at what he perceived as amateurish preparation for the World Cup finals, he had a more supportive audience than he would have had at any other time in Irish sporting history, especially as he was going up against the FAI, an organisation which had elevated the ASIDA to a governing principle.
There was even a large proportion of the new super-efficient Irish who were willing to go along with Keane's contention that the Republic of Ireland's other World Cup finals appearances, such a source of pride a few years previously, had in fact been pretty shameful ventures because the team had been happy to put up a good show when they should have been thinking about themselves as potential winners.
But if future historians really want to recapture the hubristic spirit of the Tiger, the suggestion, agreed with by many people, that Ireland could have won the 2002 World Cup had they adopted the right attitude, should be one of the prime exhibits. It can go in there with Seánie Fitzpatrick boasting about the size of his balls and Seán Dunne making a dick of himself over that site in Ballsbridge.
Keane didn't have anything to do with the Tiger per se but the qualities he used to bring himself to the top of the game: drive, ruthlessness, an appetite for hard work and a certain monomania were the same ones which created that famous furry beast. And that's why he seemed like the perfect sporting embodiment of the era, why even his unremarkable comment about being disappointed Ireland had conceded a last-second equaliser against Holland was hyped up as indicating the birth of an entirely new national sporting attitude.
Roy was a winner. We were all winners.
Of course even then there were Tiger sceptics who felt the national cheerleaders were laying it on a bit thick and wondered if a bit of restraint and modesty might be in order. But they were in a minority. When Brian Kerr, on succeeding Mick McCarthy, was asked if he'd be aiming to win the World Cup should we qualify for the finals, he got with the programme and said sure, why not? That was how it was then.
The problem with the Tiger was not, as some of its critics claimed, that it was spiritually empty, but that it turned out to be not so much a viable strategy for long-term prosperity as an economic version of the heyday of the UK rave scene. It was great fun while it lasted, but the comedown was fairly shocking.
And Keane too suffered in the long term, the affair giving him a taste for shouting the odds which would eventually see him exiled from Old Trafford to embark upon a peripatetic management career punctuated by silly little controversies which seem unworthy of the serious young man who'd done so much to get the Republic as far as Saipan in the first place.
You can't understand the fuss surrounding Saipan without remembering the cultural moment during which it took place. And perhaps no history of the Tiger is complete without the story of Saipan either. Even if at this distance it's sometimes hard to believe that either of them ever really happened.