Alan Kelly’s laptop may one day deliver the definitive account but those who committed their versions to print certainly had different versions of events
Dean Kiely’s quip to Mick McCarthy, right after Roy Keane had left the room following one of the most controversial and influential team meetings in Irish sport, is one of the most famous jokes in Irish football history.
But, to underline the difficulty in making sense of Saipan and knowing who said what to who, even now after two decades, there is no definitive version of what Kiely said.
“I just want you to know, Mick, if you need someone in central midfield I can do a job for you, I can fill that position,” is Jason McAteer’s verbatim version, in his autobiography, of what Kiely supposedly said.
“Mick, can I offer my services to fill that midfield dynamo role,” is how Niall Quinn’s memoir recalls Kiely addressing his manager.
“If you’re looking for a midfielder I can do a job,” is how Kevin Kilbane’s book remembers Kiely’s words.
“Boss, if you need a midfielder I can play there, I’ll do you a job,” Shay Given writes.
One joke, four versions, and they are just the ones that made it to print.
Of those who were in the FAI party in Saipan, the manager (McCarthy), five players (Keane, McAteer, Kilbane, Quinn, Given) and one official (Brendan Menton) have published books. Alex Ferguson also included details in the second volume of his autobiography though he, or more likely his ghost writer, located the drama in “Korea”, not Saipan.
Others from the crop of 2002 gave their versions in newspaper and podcast interviews. Some are media-shy and have barely said a word on Saipan, but the main seven published titles, with control of the content owned by the authors, can be seen as definitive.
Emphasis varies: in Killa, published by Kilbane in 2013, just 3pc (nine pages) of the book focuses on Saipan. Menton’s chapter in Behind The Green Door (2003) takes up 12pc of the book. Saipan, its genesis and aftermath is a constant thread in Niall Quinn: The Autobiography (2002).
Other members of the FAI group in Saipan groan whenever the topic is raised. “I look back on it and the lads coming out with their books. Sometimes I read the stories and wonder if I was actually there in terms of the versions,” Gary Breen said in 2016.
The battle of the books even made it on to the field of play. By the time Manchester United faced Sunderland in the Premier League in August 2002, Keane: The Autobiography has been published.
“Sure enough he has slaughtered Mick, Quinny, me and anyone else who had the cheek to stay on for the World Cup. We’re all muppets and Quinny is Mother Teresa,” McAteer says in his own autobiography. Asked by local media in advance of the game if he will read Keane’s book, McAteer comes back with the prepared line of: “I’d rather read Bob the Builder.”
When McAteer and Keane clash on the pitch, McAteer – in full view of the live TV audience – makes a writing gesture with his hand. “Write it down and I’ll read it in your next book,” McAteer tells Keane, who responds with a tackle on McAteer which earns him a red card. Quinn and Ferguson get involved, possibly the biggest media frenzy generated by a sports book.
Some stories remain untold and may only be passed on, privately, to family members. In Shay Given’s autobiography (2017), he reveals that as the crisis was unfolding, teammate Alan Kelly was noting it all down.
After Kelly, Staunton and Quinn had appeared at a press conference to back McCarthy following Keane’s walkout, Kelly was one of five players who called to see Keane in his room (Steve Staunton, Quinn, McAteer and Ian Harte were the others), but Given revealed that Kelly was keen to keep note of the history unfolding before his eyes.
“I was rooming with Al, he went up to see Roy and was with him for 30 minutes,” Given said. “He got back to the room, opened his laptop and started writing down everything he had seen that day. He wanted a live account of what had happened while it was still fresh, he was tapping away for quite a while.”
Kelly has rarely spoken of Saipan in the last 20 years but the fact he has a Word document stashed away on a hard drive, or possibly even an ancient floppy disk, somewhere breeds hope that some stories of Saipan are yet to be told by those who were there and have remained silent.
But now, two decades on, this is what we know and what we learned from the Battle of the Books.
Opinion is divided on what Keane’s frame of mind was as he came into the camp in May and in the time between Keane landing in Dublin and the squad’s arrival in Saipan.
For those who knew the history between manager and captain, was a row inevitable? Yes, said Given. “The ingredients for a clash of personalities were in the pot from the start,” Given writes. “To me, Roy seemed a bit ‘off’ a bit distracted for the entirety of the build-up to the World Cup, even from the moment we left Ireland.”
McCarthy, Keane and Quinn play down the story – played out in the media – that Keane’s “snub” of Quinn, by not attending his testimonial, was one of the first blows in the war to come. “That he wasn’t at my testimonial doesn’t surprise or hurt me,” Quinn says.
But the fact it was an official at Keane’s club, and not Keane himself, who informed McCarthy that he would skip the testimonial is an issue for the manager. “Maybe he should have called me himself but that has never been the way between us, we don’t have that sort of relationship,” McCarthy admits in his World Cup diary (2002).
Menton was alarmed by blurred lines of communication. “The Irish team gathered (in Sunderland) without its captain and without clear knowledge of why he wasn’t there, the first seeds of dissension between Roy and some of the senior players had been sown,” Menton writes.
Quinn spotted an early fault line, claiming Keane “was not entirely happy” about being asked to play in the friendly at home to Nigeria, the last match before departure.
Every one of the Saipan party who committed their memories to print in book form agrees their journey to Saipan was less than ideal, but looking back now on those accounts, the mood music ranged from shrugged shoulders to real anger.
“There was pandemonium at Dublin airport when we were due to depart,” says Kilbane, who mentioned the presence of Taoiseach Bertie Ahern and “two guys dressed as leprechauns promoting The Sun who were hassling Roy”. But Kilbane was not upset. “For me this was all just part of the pleasure of playing for Ireland. We were unlike every other footballing country and I loved it.”
McCarthy admits the airport was “bedlam” but is not stressed. “Some of the players are a little hassled by the crowd awaiting them... what did they expect? This is the World Cup and this is the Irish team, the fans want to send us on our way with a thousand slaps on the back, they want to see us and touch us. We don’t do back doors, we don’t hide from the fans.”
Given was not as relaxed. “Roy complained about how chaotic our preparations were and he had a point. If you believe in omens there were plenty to choose from,” Given notes, adding that Keane looked “tense” on the flight.
McAteer notes Keane’s grim mood in Dublin airport: “He has that face on him again, the war face.”
And Keane is already seething. “The trip is a shambles from the beginning, the ‘package tour’ image comes to mind again,” Keane says. Quinn sees “Roy kicking off about the players having to carry their bags through the public area” and adds “he has a point, but only Roy would have the energy or intensity to make that point”.
Menton’s account notes Bertie Ahern, in the airport terminal to say goodbye, gets the cold shoulder from Keane: “Roy didn’t stand or sit up to facilitate the photograph, Bertie had to kneel down so that the photo could be taken”.
Even the most loyal of the McCarthy camp do not defend the training facilities in Saipan. Kilbane notes that the hotel was top class but “the training pitches were definitely sub-standard, rock-hard, full of potholes and definitely dangerous”.
In Given’s account, upon arrival at the training ground with its poor surface, “it all started to fall to pieces from there on in”. McAteer says the squad are “livid”. “Much and all as we love the notion of Ragarse Rovers and Ireland being the Dog and Duck team in international football terms, there is a time and a place for everything”.
“We all thought that these things were extremely unfortunate but we didn’t have any other choice than to get on with it and make the best of a bad situation,” Kilbane says.
Quinn agrees. “We’re different, no harm comes from the difference, we thrive on it,” Quinn says. “I know about the complaints that Roy is submitting but I don’t care that much. Roy is furious over the training gear but for some of us it amounts to round necks or v necks for a couple of days. I can live with it, nobody will die.”
But Keane can’t see that. “We go there in happy camper mode with no real ambition, settling for second best,” Keane writes.
They had survived the “dangerous” training ground, coped with absent kit, come through Keane’s bust-up with the goalkeepers over their early exit from training (“you’re tired, do you want a f**king medal?”), the barbecue with the media, Keane’s decision to go home and then his change of heart and decision to stay.
Already hectic, yet many of the Saipan survivors were unaware of what was about to unfold at the team meeting in the hotel dining room, when McCarthy confronted Keane with the contents of his Irish Times interview.
Four of the squad were at the cinema, watching Spider-Man, right before the meeting but others had a sense of what was to come.
Some accounts stress the ferocity of Keane’s address to his manager. Early reports of the outburst claim Keane had called McCarthy “an English c***” but all the written accounts deny that.
“I’ve witnessed lots of arguments on and off the field in my time but I never heard such a tirade, sometimes it reached screaming pitch. I was sure it would come to blows,” Kilbane recalls. “It was without doubt the biggest bust-up I had witnessed in my professional life,” Given says.
“I have never seen any human being act like this before, never mind a footballer. He is delirious,” McCarthy writes.
In his book, Keane claims McCarthy said “you faked an injury to get out of playing for your country” for the second leg of the World Cup playoff in Iran, but Quinn’s version is tamer, which had the manager asking Keane: “Did you pick and choose your matches, Roy?”
This tallies with McCarthy’s own account, where McCarthy claims Keane said “friendlies are not for him”. Quinn quotes Keane as “shrieking” at McCarthy “I don’t do f**king friendlies”. Keane makes no mention of that.
In his own version, Keane is more measured on that exchange, though he admits that he called “this impostor” (McCarthy) “a f**king w****r” and tells his manager “you can stick your World Cup up your arse” – which is more anatomically plausible than the much-quoted “stick it up your bo*****s”. Keane finishes that act with a plain “at that I got up and left the room”.
Quinn’s version has more detail, quoting Keane as saying “I’ll f**k off then, I’ll not go to the f**king World Cup, now you have your excuse, it’s all Roy’s fault, see you later” before he walks out.
In his account, Kilbane says when Keane walked out of the dining room that evening, “that was the last we saw of him”. Quinn says: “I’m not sure that any of us, apart from Mick Byrne, even knocked to say goodbye, we’re too pissed off with him, it’s too raw.”
But that’s not the case. In Keane’s own book he lists the players and staff members who came to see him after the row. Keane seems cheered by the fact that Gary Breen and David Connolly called to say: “We agreed with everything you said about facilities, you were dead right but who are we to say anything?” Even the simple manner of how Keane made it off Saipan and back to his Cheshire home is disputed.
McCarthy’s version is that Keane cut himself off from the FAI. “The FAI have booked him a flight home but their travel arrangements are no longer good enough for Keane. He has handed all responsibility for his flight home over to Manchester United so we leave him to his own devices,” McCarthy says.
Keane saw it differently. “I rang United, I told Ann Wiley, who took the call, that I needed to get home as soon as possible. I asked her to ring the FAI in case there would be double bookings,” Keane says.
“Ann rang back to say that the FAI had told her to do what she wanted. They’d been quite insulting to her, a ‘Roy Keane has nothing to do with us’ kind of vibe. She said she’d organise my trip.”
Even a week spent reading over the published accounts of May 2002 don’t lead to answers of whether the whole debacle could have been avoided – like everything else around it, it depends on what you read.
“My World Cup experience deepened my appreciation of the great football club that I play for (United). Also reinforced were friendships, old and new that are cornerstones of my life. In the days that followed the melodramatics of Saipan, many well-meaning people tried to fix what was broken. Some bluffers also got in on the act. They know who they are. And so do I.”
Keane: The Autobiography
“Most of the lads couldn’t understand Roy’s behaviour but felt that such disorganisation was nothing new for us. The Irish players put up with more hassle at international level and muddled through because of their pride in playing for their country.”
Kevin Kilbane, Killa
“I reckon Roy would go down the Mick McCarthy route himself if a player did what he’d done. But I think the players of today can trace the professionalism of the current squad back to Roy kicking off that day in the Hyatt Regency Ballroom.”
Shay: Any Given Saturday
“Maybe I should have stepped in when he (Keane) started ranting at Mick, maybe I should have said that I wasn’t happy with the training ground, that the balls should have arrived on time. I wasn’t happy about any of it but I wasn’t going to let it jeopardise my World Cup.”
Blood, Sweat and McAteer
“A lot of us, even those who resent what he’s done, quietly have sympathy for Roy. But every second conversation reaches a point where somebody says they can’t believe a guy as smart as Roy managed to get himself into a position where he wanted to walk away from the greatest tournament in the world.”
Niall Quinn: The Autobiography
“I wish the Roy Keane incident had never happened.”
Ireland’s World Cup 2002
“As bad as the conditions were in Korea (sic), Roy shouldn’t have pushed his anger to such levels. But that was Roy, he was a man of extremes.”
Alex Ferguson: My Autobiography