Sunday 25 February 2018

EXCLUSIVE: 'Everyone feels Roy made his choice and we'll do it without him. We don't want him back'

In this extract from his new book, Jason McAteer describes the fallout from Roy Keane's pre-World Cup bust-up

Jason McAteer relaxes on the beach in Saipan prior to the 2002 World Cup in South Korea and Japan. Photos: David Maher
Jason McAteer relaxes on the beach in Saipan prior to the 2002 World Cup in South Korea and Japan. Photos: David Maher

Jason McAteer

There's no sign of our captain at breakfast early the next morning. We've a flight to catch to Izumo. He's a flight to catch to Manchester.

So it was all true, it did all happen. I didn't dream that Roy Keane decided to leave us on the eve of the World Cup finals.

Mick has twenty-two of us to look out for now, and that's his big concern as we get ready to leave Saipan and head for the media circus that is going to be Izumo airport's arrivals hall. Like all football squads, the lads are already getting back to normal and ready to carry on regardless. I realise as much when I get on the bus and Shay Given has stuck a 'Roy's seat' sign on the seat where Roy always sits. No one's allowed to sit there, a joke that we're going to carry with us through this World Cup. But it still seems wrong that we're leaving without Roy Keane.

I know this World Cup trip is never going to be the same again. That dream I had of another American adventure, of the Three Amigos, the sequel, has been blown out of the water. The next few days are going to be hell and we're going to have to get used to being the centre of attention. At the airport, one of the journos tells me that we've made the front page of the New Delhi Times. We're making headlines in India? Jesus.

Sure enough, the world and his mother are waiting for us after the two-hour flight from Saipan. And his mother has cameras, lots of them. This must be what England players go through all the time, all the attention and all the questions.

We nod politely when we get through immigration in Japan and get straight onto the bus. The hotel isn't far away and it's decent. It's also behind a bloody big gate and an armed guard, not a bad thing considering Mick has told us not to talk to anyone until everything dies down. He wants us to stay away from the press as much as we can. Any of us with columns for the newspapers will have to get them checked. The FAI and Mick, with Liam Gaskin now at his side to finally give him some help, want to control what's coming out of the camp, and that's fair enough. They're getting hammered back home from what we can hear.

After lunch on the first afternoon in Izumo we leave for the training ground and there are hundreds of local fans waiting for us outside the gates at the hotel. They all have their phones up in the air. It looks weird and I can't figure out what they are doing. Are they trying to call us? Are they trying to record what we're saying? Turns out they all have new camera phones and want to get photos of us. I've never seen a phone like it before, but where else are you going to see your first one if not Japan?

The training ground, the official training ground for our World Cup preparations, is about twenty minutes out of Izumo in the sticks and, I have to say, it is class. The local mayor is there to welcome us at an official function and he can't do enough for us. The pitch is perfect. The dressing rooms are perfect. The support facilities are perfect. If only Roy were here, even he'd be happy with everything on offer. It's as good as anything I've ever seen with either club or country, and that's saying something. Why didn't he wait until he got to Japan and had a look at all this before venting his anger? I can't get my head around it.

The camera phones are still flashing when we get back to the hotel and the TV cameras are outside as well. Roy is on his way back to England and Mick is the centre of attention. It's funny that we spent the 1994 World Cup watching the O.J. Simpson drama unfold on the TV and now we're watching the Roy Keane drama unfold at the 2002 World Cup. It's that big.

This is so different from the 1994 World Cup experience. Eight years ago we were getting videotapes from home of the whole country celebrating and partying and enjoying the World Cup. Now all we're seeing is the country at war over the row between the Ireland manager and his captain.

It's endless.

Tony O'Donoghue from RTÉ is being called Kate Adie by his colleagues and being asked where his flak jacket is as he broadcasts from the roof of the hotel. We can't really leave the hotel, and when we do, we have to have security with us and avoid the media. We're starting to feel the pressure and we're starting to doubt ourselves in this vacuum.

Should Roy come back? Should we ask him back? Was he wrong? Was Mick wrong? We're talking about professional footballers here. We're not a Sunday pub team. We know how to act and how to behave as professionals on and off the field, but nothing has ever prepared us for something like this. There are kids on this team, Duffer and Robbie for instance, and it must be putting them under huge strain.

Mick is ageing in front of our eyes. He's good on the training ground, and Taff is acting like nothing ever happened, but the press conferences are starting to take their toll. Mick's now spending hours in there telling the world why he did what he did and what he's going to do next. Roy is back in England and walking his dog. Triggs he's called, the poor Labrador who has to accompany him on these endless walks when he thought his master was going to be away from home for at least a month. The lads cop the dog's name and they give me a good ribbing about it. They reckon Roy's named the dog after me! And they don't let up on it. Every time the camera pans to Triggs on those walks, they start pointing at me.

At least we can laugh about that, but it is all getting out of hand so close to the start of the tournament - and Mick knows it. He calls a meeting at the end of the first week in Izumo and he puts his cards on the table. He's under real pressure to take Roy back. The whole world seems to want him to take Roy back. He doesn't know if Roy will come back, and he's heard nothing from Roy or Roy's camp to suggest he'd even consider it. But Mick has a squad to think about, not just himself, and he feels duty-bound to the country and to the fans, who will start arriving in Japan any day now after spending a lot of money on their journeys. He's on the spot and he has to make a decision.

The country is divided and Mick wants to know if the squad is divided as well. He tells us he can take Roy back, but the decision has to be made by the players. If we want him back, if we'll have him back, then Mick will bite the bullet and do what's best for the team, not what's best for him. It's typical Mick. The team is always bigger than the individual in Mick's eyes.

Mick and the staff leave, and Quinny takes the chair. He puts Mick's question to the floor. There are twenty-two players in that room and when Niall asks who wants to bring him back, there's a silence. You can see the strain on the lads' faces. They all have different relationships with Roy - some good and some bad. Just two hands go up. One goes back down pretty quickly. The lads are torn, and it's a difficult decision, but everyone feels that Roy made his choice and we'll do it without him. We don't want him back.

The vote is twenty-one to one - we don't want him back. Mick could have made that decision on his own, but he didn't, and I understand why. He wanted us - the players left behind, the ones who will play against Cameroon next week - to know exactly where we stand. He needs to know where we stand as well, after all the debate and all the pressure of the past week. If he doesn't bring Roy back, then all the blame will be on him. If the players vote against it, then it is a collective decision and we all carry the can. It's not Mick's decision. It's still his problem, but he hasn't had to make the call on it. He's given the responsibility to us and we've given him our answer.

News of the meeting gets out fairly quickly. The RTÉ cameras have been in Manchester and Tommie Gorman does his infamous 'think of the kids' interview with Roy. Bits of it are getting through to us, but nothing coming from Roy's mouth sounds like he wants to come back to us anyway. It's like he's made his bed and now he's going to lie in it, and sod the begrudgers, which is typical Roy, backed into a corner with no way out.

What would have happened if we had voted to take him back? What would have happened if he'd told Tommie Gorman that he was ready to apologise to Mick and ask to be brought back into the fold? We'll never know, but the night he finally announced he wasn't coming back, it was like a weight was lifted off all our shoulders.

The media all go out that night, and most of them get hammered in a karaoke bar, given that the speculation and the guessing are finally over. I wish I was with them.

Blood, Sweat & McAteer (copyright © Jason McAteer 2016), published by Hachette Books Ireland, is available in bookshops from Monday 26 September. Jason McAteer will be signing books at Eason, O'Connell Street, Dublin, on Saturday 1 October at noon.

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