Saturday 25 November 2017

Saipan May 2002

Nation divided as Keane sent home from World Cup

Perhaps the most compelling story in the history of Irish sport unspooled with, not just philosophical differences, but a gaping 6,000-mile gulf between the two chief protagonists.

By the time most Irish journalists touched down in the Japanese mainland for World Cup 2002, Roy Keane was already at home in Cheshire. And, contrary to incessant rumour, he would stay there too, a fact destined to programme his countrymen and women to a kind of Civil War psyche.

It says something for the scale of the fallout that, if you Google 'Saipan' today, you encounter far more information on the sundering of Keane's relationship with Mick McCarthy than on the World War II atomic bombing mission of the Enola Gay, which began from that tiny island in the western Pacific.

Ireland's formal preparation for the World Cup only began when the team touched down in Izumo, a nondescript Japanese town in which the squad would spend 10 days making use of state-of-the-art training facilities.

Keane never got to see those facilities, having decided that the initial "rest and recuperation" atmosphere encouraged in Saipan signified a group coming almost fecklessly towards the world's biggest tournament.

Ireland's time in Izumo was, thus, spent in a preoccupied state, the whole entourage (players, media, supporters) consumed with a debate on whether or not Keane might be reconciled with the group he was due to captain.

For the media, particularly, this became a fraught business. The time difference had us piling into tiny hotel rooms, little bigger than walk-in wardrobes, at 2am to harvest the detail of Keane's planned 'Six One' interview with RTE's Tommie Gorman on flickering laptop screens.

When the interview produced neither apology nor any clarity of intention, Ireland's World Cup degenerated briefly into the realm of pantomime, the players issuing a statement without McCarthy's knowledge. In the end, this absence of coherent communication made reconciliation all but impossible.

So Ireland flew to Niigata for their opening game against Cameroon, one player short of the permitted quota.

Having fallen behind to an early Samuel Eto'o goal, they rallied to draw the game 1-1 (Matt Holland scoring) and would, ultimately, come up short of a quarter-final place only by losing a penalty shootout to Spain.

Roy Keane watched it all from behind closed, electric gates in Cheshire.

See 'The Big Story', Pages 16-18

Irish Independent

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