The 20th anniversary of Saipan is approaching. For seven days in May 2002, the country was captivated by an extraordinary row between Ireland manager Mick McCarthy and Ireland captain Roy Keane on a small island in the Pacific Ocean, on the eve of the World Cup.
The fall-out of that controversy still reverberates to this day. But before Saipan, there was a qualifying campaign which pitted Ireland in a group with Portugal and Netherlands.
In October and November of 2001, the Sunday Independent ran a series by Paul Kimmage called ‘The Team That Mick Built’, which tells the story of how Mick McCarthy’s side famously beat a star-studded Holland team managed by Louis van Gaal to all but secure a place in the World Cup play-offs.
Over the coming days, as we build up to the Saipan anniversary, Independent.ie will re-run The Team That Mick Built in three parts. It is one of the greatest works in Irish sportswriting history. Enjoy.
- John Greene, Sunday Independent Sports Editor
I've built walls
A fortress deep and mighty
That none may penetrate
I have no need of friendship
Friendship causes pain
It's laughter and it's loving I disdain
I am a rock
I am an island
(I Am A Rock, Simon and Garfunkel)
Johnny Fallon left home on Wednesday morning and jumped into his car. Fallon is the team's facilitator. Need a lift? Ask Johnny. Need those tickets picked up from Merrion Square? Ask Johnny. Need a perfect-fitting Ireland kit for your 19-month-old son? Ask Johnny. Everybody loves Johnny. He's the Jason McAteer of the backroom team.
His mission, this morning, took him across the M50 and down the M1 to the airport roundabout. At 9:45 he approached the security checkpoint and was ushered onto the arrivals road where he parked, opposite the taxi rank to the right of the main exit. He was pleased about that. Thought it would cost him at least a ticket. Flight EI203 wasn't due for another 3O minutes. He turned on the radio and started watching the exit. At 10:25 his mobile went off. He knew the accent immediately. Cork. Irritated. "Johnny! Where are you?"
"I'm here!" he replied. "I'm parked just outside the exit on the other side of the road."
Before he had even hung up, Roy Keane was bounding towards him dressed in jeans and a casual top. The drive to the team hotel at CityWest took 45 minutes. Keane checked into his room, changed into a tracksuit and was taken to the training ground in Baldonnell where the team were playing the U21s. Ian Harte was due in later that evening. Gary Kelly was playing at left back. Keane watched the game from a seat on the perimeter wall. His groin strain had eased. He was ready for combat.
The team returned to the hotel and adjourned for lunch. At the table, nobody chastised Roy for arriving without his Wingman. Roy doesn't have a Wingman: not on this team; not at United. Follow the team upstairs to their rooms after lunch and you'll find 21 players with their door almost permanently open and one with his door almost permanently closed.
The boys often smile that the most they see of Roy during international week is the 90 minutes of the game. But no one ever complains. And no one ever questions his commitment. He turns up for every training session. He respects all of the rules. He gives 110 per cent in every game and plays like a colossus. But everything else is on his terms. And for the manager, and the team, that's absolutely fine.
And yet, although not a sentiment ever expressed, there is no escaping the sense that they wish it could be different. Think about it. You share a dressing room with one of the best players in the world. Every time you follow him onto the field it's playing on your mind. Every time you pass him the ball you want to win his praise. Every time the media questions, you express your admiration.
"Roy is a great player."
"Roy is an inspiration."
"Roy is a giant."
When what you'd really love to say is, "Roy is a friend."
Jason McAteer: "I always find you get two Roy Keanes when you come away. There is Roy Keane the person and Roy Keane the footballer. I like Roy. I admire him immensely. I think he's a great professional, a great footballer, but he is such a complex person."
Niall Quinn: "If Roy is buttering jam on toast it has to be perfect: woe betide the person who's not pulling his weight and giving him margarine instead of butter. As cross as you see him on the football pitch, if Mick Byrne says he'll call to his room at 10 to give him a strapping and he's not there at two minutes past, you'll hear this roar in a Cork accent: 'MICK.' And we all scramble out of the way and make sure we're not in the firing line."
Jason McAteer: "We didn't see eye to eye (in 1994) when I first came into the squad. There was me, there was Phil (Babb), there was Gary and there was Roy and we didn't see eye to eye. Roy hated the Three Amigo's thing, hated it with a passion. I think we were just completely different. Roy wasn't cheeky. But he hated us for it, hated the three of us. Now there is no Three Amigos. He has become the player he is and I have become the person I am. We've grown up a lot since."
Niall Quinn: "Roy is a deep character. Success means so much to him. It's the whole engine room for him. He doesn't suffer fools. He is single-minded. And when you are as gifted as him and have achieved what he has achieved I suppose it has to be like that. It's too much to ask for Roy to be the joker of the pack and be the player he is. He's not somebody I feel awkward with. I think he's fascinating to be with.”
Mick McCarthy: "I think you'll find in every walk of life – musicians, artists, singers, song-writers, dancers — that the great performers are different. They're all—I'm not sure
eccentric is the word — but they've all got their own characters, all got their own little things they do. The problem they have, because they are great performers, is that everybody wants to have a look."
Jason McAteer: "I remember one time, I couldn't tell you where it was, but I got into trouble on the pitch and he was there, fighting my cause. And I remember when he was sent off at Lansdowne Road and I was there, fighting his cause. That's what happens when this team comes together: sometimes I think we're a right bunch of weirdos but we all look after each other."
Thursday is cinema night: A long tradition with the team. The visit used to be compulsory under Jack but with Mick you can stay or go as you please. Tonight the venue was Blanchardstown and it was chocca, an absolute nightmare. The choice was Rush Hour 2, a Jackie Chan film that I'd already seen or Blow, the story of a bloke who established the American cocaine market in the 1970s - at least I think that's what it was about. Got there late as usual: queued for popcorn and missed the first 25 minutes. And of course, you know what happens, don't you? As soon as I sit down, nine hands ransack the bucket and I'm left with nothing at all! Waste of bloody time. I'm useless.
Apart from the film review, there's not a lot else to report. Hartey came in last night and his foot looks very nasty. Don't think he's going to make it. Definitely think I'm going to play. You can always tell when he hands out the bibs on Thursday and I think I've got a great chance. But I'll still get butterflies tomorrow morning at Lansdowne when he calls out the team.
My new laptop is giving me problems. Did I not mention that? I'm a gadget man. I bought this new digital camera before I came away and took some photos of Harry, my son, but I'm not sure the two are compatible. I can't load him onto the screen. Spoke to Johnny about it. Tomorrow, when we come back from the ground, he's taking me to PC World.
By Friday evening the stage was set. Ian Harte had passed a fitness test. Mick McCarthy had informed the players of the team. Roy Keane had made a surprise, but welcome, appearance at the press conference. And Jason McAteer, his laptop sorted, had been reunited with his son.
Tension was starting to build as the team came together for dinner; Mick McCarthy brought two videos into the dining room: Holland's 2-0 defeat of England two weeks earlier and the 2-2 draw with Ireland at the start of the campaign.
Ian Harte: "Normally, when we're eating our food Mick would stick the video on. You can either watch it or don't watch it."
Robbie Keane: "You tend to watch it because it's on, it's there isn't it?"
Niall Quinn: "The lads hate watching videos. Anyone who asks a question gets ticked off by the rest for not Ietting Mick get on with it so we can all get out of there as quickly as possible. And any team I've known has been the same: Woe betide the person who asks a question — he gets battered."
Damien Duff: "I didn't need to watch it. I knew everything about their players — they're world famous. I was more worried about my own performance. I was looking at their defenders and wondering whether I'd do the business the next day. Everyone knows what Stam's about: I was thinking 'F***ing hell, how am I going to cope against him?'"
Steve Staunton: "I hadn't seen the game. Everyone was on about how good the Dutch were but the one thing that stood out when you watched it — not one tackle was made."
Mick McCarthy. "I wanted to make the point that I could have played for Holland in that game! There wasn't a tackle made! They were just passing it and strolling around. It was a nothing game. Holland looked great but wouldn't we all look great if the other team just sat back and said 'Come and attack us.'"
Shay Given: "They won 2-0 but they could have won by a lot more. So maybe they were coming to Dublin thinking it was going to be easy. Mick just said 'we've got to get close to them, don't give them time to play.'"
Kevin Kilbane: "We watched the first half of the Holland/England game and then Mick just left our game against Holland run while we were having dinner. I think the point he was trying to make was. 'look how well you've played against this team. Look how comfortable you played in Amsterdam.' And I think that made some of the lads sit up and take notice."
Robbie Keane: "The gaffer said, ‘If you can play this well away from home, how well can you play at Lansdowne Road?' It was good watching the tapes because it gave us two different views of them. We set our stall out and we knew what to do."
Jason McAteer: "It was good management. He made us watch it to give us a boost, to prove to ourselves we could do it again. We played well that night. We footballed them off the park, not that I needed to see it again. I've watched that game about 300 times, could tell you every pass. I was sitting right by the telly and I remember turning around at one point and most of the lads had gone. I think we'd all seen enough at that stage. I think we were all mentally prepared."
We all have our own special memories of the day. For the former captain, Andy Townsend, who watched from the lower West Stand, it was a moment during the first half when the ball cannoned into the crowd and he jumped from his seat and headed it back to a cheer and a round of applause. What he is reluctant to reveal is that he couldn't see a thing for the next 20 minutes. "The ball was like a brick."
For the Middlesbrough defender, Curtis Fleming, who refused to bother anyone for a ticket and watched the game from a Dublin pub, Bruxelles, it was the scoring of the winning goal. "I was with Keith O'Neill, Johnny McDonnell and Graham Kavanagh. We all jumped up when Jason scored and I looked out the window to McDaids across the road and you could see all of these people with their arms in the air. And in every pub and house in the country it was probably the same."
For the ballboys from Broadford Rovers who officiated at the game, it was every time the ball went into touch. For Noel O'Reilly, the Ireland Under-18 coach, it was the moment of the final whistle and "the feeling of sheer joy." And for certain sports writers (who must remain nameless), it was the editor's voice screaming down the telephone for copy as they struggled to find words for what they'd seen.
But what was it like beneath the West Stand? What was it like on the journey to the ground? What was it like Inside The Team That Mick Built? Was it truly, as it seemed . . . the stuff of dreams?
Dreams? No, not on Friday. It's never the stuff of dreams on the eve of the game, because in order to dream, you have to sleep. And in order to sleep, it helps to have a full day's labour weighing on your bones. Or a few pints of lager washing into your blood. Or a short dose of amnesia tickling your brain. Yeah, a short dose of amnesia would be fine.
It would be nice to be able to forget, at least for a couple of hours, that my name was Jason McAteer. That I was formerly of Liverpool. That I've hardly started a game for Blackburn this season and hardly scored a goal in almost a year. That World Cup '94 was seven years ago! Oh yeah, and that I was marching out at Lansdowne Road to face Holland in 12 hours' time. But I don't. So I'm tossing and turning.
Carso's in the other bed sleeping. And not only is he sleeping but he's dreaming. And not only is he dreaming but he is enjoying his dreams. And not only is he enjoying his dreams but he is enhancing his chances of playing well tomorrow should Roy or Mattie get kicked or pull a hamstring and he is suddenly sprung from the bench. But that’s Carso for you. Carso always sleeps positive and does what's best. If he was playing tomorrow, you'd still find him lying here enjoying his ZZZs. But he's not. And l am. Wishing I could forget.
Forget all that counting sheep, it's the butterflies you've got to watch for, the butterflies that do you down. You tell yourself to relax. You put yourself in situations. The FA Cup final at Wembley. The World Cup in New York. You try to remember how it was before. You tell yourself: 'I can do this. I have been here before.' And suddenly you start to feel less anxious. And suddenly you start to believe. 'Yes, I CAN do this. Yes I HAVE been here before.' And what happens? The butterflies kick-in and you're ready to play. And you want to play now. You want to start the game now!
But it's three o'clock in the morning, so there's nothing you can do but turn over one more time. Trying to remember. Trying to forget. The game. The butterflies. The sound of Carso breathing.
Joe Walsh kicked his legs out of bed at 06:30. It was his fifth early wake-up call since the team had come together on Monday but the kit man wasn't complaining. How could he? Millionaires would pay to swap places. He was about to spend another day with them. He was about to journey with them from the hotel room to the dressing room. He was about to live this day of days as a member of the inner sanctum. But first there was work to be done.
He washed and shaved and made his way to the kit room, to check the skips he had packed the night before. At seven he boiled a kettle and was joined in the room by Ian Evans, the assistant manager, Ciaran Murray, the physiotherapist, and Derek Carroll, the driver, for a cup of tea. It took 45 minutes to tiptoe past the players' rooms, with the five skips, eight bags, two beds, 50 towels, ice buckets, Gatorade and crates of water. They loaded the equipment onto the bus and hit the road.
Traffic was light on the journey into the city. By 8:20 they had arrived at Lansdowne Road. The skips were unloaded and taken to the dressing room. Murray set up the therapy beds and medical supplies in a corner. Walsh and Evans began unloading and arranging the kit. Each player receives a slip (underpants), socks, shorts, a light top, a heavy top, a rain jacket, a tracksuit bottom and a long and short-sleeve jersey.
The jersey of preference (Roy Keane never wears long-sleeve, Damien Duff rarely wears short) is hung on a peg. The replacement is folded neatly on top of the other garments below. The numbers are laid out in order. Because the goalkeepers always sit together, 1 and 16 are pegged side-by-side, and then it's 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, etc, across the wall.
Most players will sit where their shirt is pegged. Niall Quinn, however, always walks to the furthermost corner where Mick McCarthy and Packie Bonner sit. Quinn says it stems from an old habit that goes back to his debut when he was "shy and just wanted to get out of the way." McCarthy says the striker has been around so long "he considers himself a member of the coaching staff."
The last of the garments arranged, Walsh opened the skip with the studs, pliers and shin pads and pulled it into the middle of the floor. It was 9:30, and there was just one final detail to be sorted before the door was locked and they returned to CityWest for breakfast. He reached into a bag for the pennant and the armband and hung them over the number six peg.
Shay Given decided to skip breakfast. So did Mattie Holland. The first compulsory duty, the traditional pre-match walk, wasn't scheduled to begin until 11:30 and they decided to take advantage and lie in. The walk has changed since the team shifted its base to CityWwest. Once a 30-minute stroll on Malahide beach, they now stretch their legs on the hotel golf course.
The pressure was starting to build with every minute. When it was time for the walk, players chatted in twos and threes but the mood was a lot more sombre than usual until they happened upon a two-ball playing the ninth: one a seasoned practitioner, the other, obviously struggling: with his game. At first, the seasoned practitioner was spared as his friend's wayward drive was greeted with howls of derision on the tee. But by the time they had reached the green the support had shifted. There was, they collectively decided, something a bit "flash" about the seasoned practitioner. It was easier to identify with the guy who was struggling. And when he took the hole with a putt from 20 feet, he was cheered as if he had just won the Open.
"Never met the bloke before," says Niall Quinn "and probably never will again. But it was great, a bit of a laugh, and it just got us away from the match for a second." The team returned to the hotel for the pre-match meal. There was three hours to kick-off.
They all sat on separate seats on the journey to the ground. And they all locked themselves away in private places. Steve Staunton is in a TV studio being grilled under lights. To his left, Ruud van Nistelrooy has answered every question. So has Patrick Kluivert, standing to his right. Eamon Dunphy is about to throw his pencil. "Goodbye Mister Staunton, you are the weakest link."
Mick McCarthy is sitting in an empty dressing room. Thirty minutes to kick-off. The players are warming up. He pours himself a cup of tea but doesn't feel like drinking. He picks up a match programme but can't focus on the words. Outside he can hear the roar of the crowd. He feels lonely. Helpless. It's the one moment of the day he dreads.
Alan Kelly is standing outside The Beggars Bush with a pint in his hand. A fan is beating a bodhran. Another starts a chorus of ‘The Fields of Athenry’. A police siren announces the team's arrival. Kelly raises his pint as the coach whizzes by: "Yeessss! Come on you Boys in Green!” Always wanted to be here. Always wondered what it was like.
Niall Quinn is sitting on the substitutes' bench at Highbury. The manager has left him out again. Niall has the hump, has spent 24 hours cursing George Graham. Burning nervous energy. Didn't sleep a wink. Never even considered that he might get a game. "What's that Boss? Perry Groves is injured. He can't be injured! We've only pIayed four minutes!!" Learnt
a valuable lesson that afternoon. Played absolutely shite. The Substitutes’ Code: Rule number 1, "Always prepare to play."
Robbie Keane is in Tallaght. His parents are out. His brother is baby-sitting. It's the summer of 1994 and Ireland are playing Italy in the World Cup. For 11 minutes they watch transfixed until, incredibly, Ray Houghton scores. Big brother jumps out of his chair. The hall door is flung open. The next five minutes are spent jumping up and down with the neighbours on the road.
Gary Kelly is in Lansdowne Road. He has been there most of the week. There's this guy in an orange 11 shirt who keeps asking him questions. ''How's the foot blisters Gary?" "Still on the subs' bench at Leeds?" “Remember the last time we met at the Nou Camp?" "Was it four or five that night?" “And weren't you playing regularly then?"
Go on Gary, tell the people what it’s like to be one-on-one with Marc Overmars.
The walk is when it starts for me. The walk is when Jason McAteer-Nice Guy becomes a nasty bit of work who can't be arsed. I can't be arsed to get match tickets. I can't be arsed to sign autographs. I can't be arsed to pose for photographs. Sorry family, friends and fans, no disrespect intended, I just can't be arsed. Want to get out of there and get to the ground. Want to switch that mobile off and pull those shin pads on. Want to play. Now!
There was a huge crowd in the lobby as we made our way to the coach. Picked a seat at the back. Went looking for myself. Curious what l found. Couldn't remember anything in a Liverpool shirt. Thought about a game I played once as a kid: the final of a five-a-side tournament. Scoring the winning goal: everyone mobbing me. Floating home on that massive high.
Thought about the coach ride to Giants Stadium. Gazing out the window. Listening to the songs. Looking for myself on the way to the game. Not the Italy game that everyone remembers but the 0-0 draw with Norway. Norway meant more to me. Norway was huge. Norway was the official seal of approval, a starting place on the team.
Twenty minutes to get to the ground! That has to be some sort of record. Follow Stan into the dressing-room. Take my seat beneath the number 7 peg next to Roy. Listen to Mick's speech. "Passionate hearts are great," he says, "but calm heads will win the day.” Struggling with his advice. Take a leak. Take another leak. Take another f*****g leak. Can't stop going to the toilet. Can't stop fidgeting and jumping up and down. And Roy, sitting there, cool as a breeze. Seen that Kit Kat ad? That's exactly what he's like.
Almost time now. Mick Byrne tours the dressing room with final hugs. Alan Kelly wishes me luck. "Just watch me Kells, I'm going to run and run and run."
Follow Robbie Keane into the tunnel. Find myself in line with their subs: Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, Pierre van Hooijdonk, Giovanni van Bronckhorst. My opposite number, Zenden, is staring at me. Arrogant bastard. Know exactly what he's thinking. ‘Who the f**k is this?’
TOMORROW: “Roy is sitting there like he is before it — doesn't say a thing. He shook my hand but would never give you a hug. I looked at him and thought, 'I'm happy I scored. I'm happy we're in this together. I'm happy I've done my bit for you.”