Tuesday 20 March 2018

Vincent Hogan: Saipan, 10 years on, impossible to forget

Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

In the history of sports journalism, it was one of the more epic journeys taken to miss a story. May of 2002 and we touched down -- radiant with ignorance -- in Izumo, a nondescript little Japanese town, trembling under the weight of an event beyond its vision or understanding. You see, we were 6,000 miles east of Roy and Triggs and those private planes on the tarmac in Manchester, their engines ticking over.

So the locals smiled unfailingly while we obsessed with telephones, faxes and an internet feed that was slower than a receding hairline. It felt as if the World Cup was happening at home. Which, essentially, it was.

Saipan blew up the morning most of the Irish media corps were slipping through departures at Dublin Airport, bound for the Far East. We had a perplexed stopover in Schiphol then, hands cupped over mobile phones, loved ones feeding us muffled broadcasts of the 'News at One'. Then six hours spent in Tokyo's Haneda Airport, everyone now asleep at home, before the final leg to Izumo.

The town comes back as a busy, friendly place, veined with narrow streets of 'tea houses' fronted by bamboo blinds and lanterns. In recognition of the Irish team's presence there, great emerald banners of welcome dressed gable walls and there were Guinness-tasting sessions in a store beside Kawato Station.

When the team trained on perfect green baize beside the Izumo Dome, a blur of local children in white smocks would stand on the bank, waving tricolours and chattering like sparrows. They were beautiful, courteous people, but we had eyes only for a big house, somewhere back in Cheshire.

Maybe you had to be there to understand the sense of helplessness and separation that defined the first formal week of Ireland's World Cup in '02. The advance party of, maybe, 20 journalists that had gone to Saipan were seen, initially, as lottery winners.

A week of five-star opulence in what their early missives universally reported to be "idyllic surrounds"? Hateful. That Tuesday, the Irish Independent carried a picture of a barefooted Shay Given on the beach and Mick McCarthy's only difficulty was documented as experiencing a niggling bout of sciatica.


The team and their media courtiers were, it seemed, in Paradise, McCarthy even name-dropping his looming nemesis as one of those for whom Saipan had been Heaven-sent.

"I watch Roy Keane walking around and he is not signing autographs every 10 seconds like he is at home and everywhere else we go," said Mick, unaware that the apparently tranquil Roy was, actually, beginning to emit a hissing sound.

The detail of what followed scarcely needs recycling, but a lot of sleep was lost in the tiny hotel rooms of Izumo as the story of our missing captain lurched from recrimination to farce. It turned out that Saipan became a kind of warzone for our Aloha-shirted soccer correspondents, the rest of us going straight to the mainland, hoping Roy might follow.

And it was a boom-time for every two-bit psychologist armed with sufficient gall to tell readers (a) what was apparently happening in the "complex mind" of the Corkman and (b) what impact his departure might have on the team. So everything being published was based only on empty hypotheses. It had to be until the central character cleared his throat to speak.

The Tommie Gorman interview promised a breakthrough. Through the wonders of cyberspace and a computer literate band of photographers, we connected to the RTE News from a hotel bedroom no bigger than a large fridge. It was 2am in Izumo, maybe 20 of us pressed tighter than a rugby scrum, just waiting to go to work.

Roy's words would dictate the stories sent back to Dublin. We held our breaths to listen.

And? The lead story was about preliminary meetings being held for the formation of a new Government. Then an item on internet child pornography. Third up, came news of another suicide bomber in Israel. With every passing minute, the threat of the laptop feed expiring grew in palpable menace. Someone was having fun at our expense.

Then, finally, Tommie's "what about the children" moment arrived and, well, Roy didn't exactly dissolve in a puddle of tears, did he? The interview proved anything but an act of contrition. It was Edith Piaf with studs.

And, in that tiny Japanese box-room in the oddly named Green Hotel Morris, we found ourselves looking at one another like fishermen watching the sky darken. We now needed to follow the story to McCarthy's door. Anyone fancy waking him? No.

So we dispersed until 7am, then headed to the Izumo Royal, assembling in morose vigil by the hotel entrance. Irish physio Mick Byrne spotted us from his third-floor window and began waving a white towel in mock surrender. We laughed with exaggerated gusto, hoping Mick might hear. Eventually he appeared and said, well, nothing. At home, our evening deadlines had been missed.

So, trust us, this story lurched into satire long before the 'I Keano' posters started going up on Dame Street. We discovered subsequently that McCarthy took a transcript of Keane's interview in to a morning meeting with his players and, effectively, invited them to back him or sack him. They chose the former.

Then, on their way to training that morning, Niall Quinn and a few other senior players sat at the back of the bus, scripting a players' statement they intended reading out after McCarthy's daily press conference. Just one problem. Nobody quite explained the preferred choreography to the press officer.

Brendan McKenna was a much-loved former soccer correspondent of the Evening Press, a gentle man then deep into his 60s and left in virtual isolation by the FAI to handle a ticking time bomb. The English FA brought five full-time media operatives to the Far East. The FAI made do with one.

McKenna was given access neither to the players' briefing nor, subsequently, to their exact intentions. He simply was given a statement to type up, then handed it to members of the media. Unaware of this, McCarthy cancelled his press conference. The players' statement thus flew solo, all the way to Manchester.

Quinn was contributing an extensive column to the Irish Independent at the time and, as his ghostwriter, I became privy to some of the extraordinary tensions building around the team hotel. He was billeted in room 204 of the Izumo Royal and never got more than three consecutive hours of sleep during his stay there. He had a picture of his wife and children by the phone and found himself, quite literally, aching to be away from this and home.

The night of Tommie Gorman's interview, he'd sat up with Steve Staunton, waiting for news of some kind of breakthrough from home. When his wife, Gillian, came across equivocally on the phone on whether Roy had "done enough", he found himself snapping at her in frustration.

Endlessly, he seemed to be ringing Michael Kennedy (a trusted confidant to himself, Keane and many other Irish professionals back in England), having "head-to-heads" with the other senior players or trooping down the corridor to McCarthy's room.

For a virtual week, negotiations swung over and back without anyone really knowing if Roy was truly interested or simply playing with words. All he had to do was pick up the phone. He didn't.

"Every player had agreed, not just to accept Roy back, but to embrace him," said a visibly shattered Quinn, when Keane's final, sundering statement arrived.

The other players, those on the periphery of the argument, seemed relieved. Matt Holland said that Keane in Saipan had "moaned about, well, everything really. You felt he wanted to go home all the time."

And Dean Kiely, tiring of the Keane distraction so close to the biggest tournament of their lives, reminded a media gathering "We didn't book this trip through Thomas Cook, you know. There's something going on here!"

And so we flew to Niigata, to the most beautiful stadium just about any of us had seen. The 'Big Swan' shimmered in a sweltering heat haze that Saturday afternoon, convincing us that our African opponents, Cameroon, had the deities in their corner.

Of course, they hadn't. Holland's goal would prove a critical point of intersection in the story. It was the moment we finally remembered we were at a World Cup, not a wake. The moment we stopped remonstrating with thin air about Roy Keane. When the time had finally come to leave Izumo, the local mayor waved us away, brandishing a prayer book, as if willing us some kind of peace or sense of closure.

Ten years on, it's clear the man above had his phone off the hook.

Irish Independent

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