Looking back on Saipan and a whole world of problems 20 years later


Brief encounters at airports. It’s the 2002 World Cup for me.

The first was at Ibaraki in Japan, hours after Ireland drew 1-1 with Cameroon.

On his way to the gate, this writer passed two men sitting together in Irish tracksuits – Clinton Morrison and a member of Mick McCarthy’s staff.

As I passed, the staff member got up and approached me, staring at me without saying a word.

When I got on the plane I thought and thought maybe he was getting up and there was nothing to do.

A few weeks later, at another airport, in another country, I knew that was not the case.

We were in Seoul, South Korea, and Ireland had withdrawn from the World Cup the night before on penalties against Spain.

The trip home would be exhausting and I tried to catch 40 winks in the departure lounge but was woken up by a tap on the shoulder. It was the same staff member. “Are you Kieran Cunningham? I nodded. “I’ve never met you, never spoken to you, I just mean, I think you’re a ***.”

This brief encounter summed up Saipan’s sourness and stupidity.

Roy waiting for his flight from Saipan

There were no winners in Saipan, only survivors.

No one was ever the same again.

McCarthy, Roy Keane et al went on with their lives but they were bruised and bloodied by what happened on a nondescript island in the Pacific.

So much can be traced back to Saipan. John Delaney seized the reins of power on the back of the Genesis Report on what was wrong there. Steve Staunton became Ireland boss thanks to the leadership he showed after Keane’s departure.

There would have been no move for Giovanni Trapattoni had Delaney not felt the heat of the disastrous Saipan experience.

Dublin manager Dessie Farrell will never forget May 23, 2002. It was a special day for him and he buzzed as he directed his car to the Berkeley Court Hotel in Dublin.

The Dublin footballer had been active with the Gaelic Players Association from the start and was set to be unveiled as the GPA’s first chief executive. “No one showed up at the press conference. There was a man and a dog on it,” he recalled.

Dessie Farrell

“Everyone else got sucked into the news and followed this story.”

This story took place 8,000 miles away, on what was until then the little-known island of Saipan.

Saipan. A word. Two syllables. A whole world of trouble.

Andrew Paton is now settled with his family in Fermanagh, working for a local newspaper, but 20 years ago he was in a very different place.

“I was 24 years old and I was going to the World Cup for the Inpho agency. I will never cover something like this again,” he said. “What I remember most was the frenzy after it became clear Keane was heading home.

“We were all on an organized trip and supposed to fly to Japan for the start of the tournament with the team.

“But all the photographers got together and decided we had to stay to try and take pictures of Keane leaving the island on his own. We weren’t sure if he had left the hotel and I went to the reception and I asked the woman who worked there.

“She picked up the phone and made the call to his room and he answered! She said “there’s a man who wants to talk to you, Mr. Keane”. We were all waving our hands frantically at her – ‘no!’

Keane was whisked out the back door of the Hyatt Regency into a waiting taxi, leading to a frantic chase to the airport.

“Whatever happened, his taxi actually passed us and one of us spotted him, so there was a mad rush to get to the airport in time,” Paton said.

Roy Keane arrives at Saipan airport in 2002

The photographers took their shots while Keane waited through the gates. It was a strange experience.

“One of the things I remember is what he was wearing. It looked like he got rid of the Ireland kit,” Paton said. us away and he just stared straight ahead – didn’t recognize us, look at us or say a word.

“After a while we had enough pictures and there was this really awkward moment. He was still standing in line and we were there next to him, our job done, just standing.

On the eve of the second leg of the World Cup play-offs in Tehran in November 2001, a local reporter annoyed McCarthy with a pointed question.

“Is it the Republic of Roy Keane or the Republic of Ireland?” he asked.

McCarthy overlooked the questioner, but Keane completely dominated the Irish setup.

Wherever Ireland went, his name was repeated – by rival players and managers, even by waiters and taxi drivers.

Roy Keane, Roy Keane, Roy Keane, all the time.

It never stopped.

But he went to this World Cup at war with himself and was battling an injury he picked up in the Champions League quarter-finals with Deportivo La Coruña.

Keane’s mood grew increasingly black in the days leading up to his departure for the Far East.

Lee Carsley is England Under-21 boss, but he will always be an Irishman and the 2002 World Cup is not the one he watches fondly.

On the evening of a famous barbecue in Saipan, two Irish players did not go to a bar where a drinking session lasted until morning – Keane and Carsley.

His former Irish housemates talk about waking up early in the morning to find Carsley on the floor doing push-ups and sit-ups.

He was the ultimate professional and he thought Keane’s departure would open the door for him.

Instead, he was given two minutes against Saudi Arabia when the score was already 3-0 against Ireland.

It was his World Cup.

Her son, Connor, was a toddler and was born with Down syndrome.

During his empty days thousands of miles from home, Carsley found himself questioning himself.

“I was at the World Cup but I felt out of it. I was playing well for Everton, I felt I could definitely contribute to the team,” he said.

“Then to only have a few minutes – especially after Roy Keane came back – was really frustrating.

“I don’t see the World Cup as a great experience.

“The fact that I played two minutes at a World Cup is not something I would talk about.

“At that time we had Connor. He was then two years old.

“I’m not saying I had mental health issues or anything like that, but my wife was pregnant with our third. We were dealing with Connor and all the challenges that come with that.

“Being away with Ireland for long periods of time, there were a lot of times where I thought to myself it was really worth it, was it worth being away from home?”

A sad smile crosses Farrell’s face as he thinks back to May 23, 2002, but he can understand why it was so important.

“Everyone was looking forward to the World Cup and, bang, one of the best players in the world is not going to play,” he said.

“I can absolutely see why it captured the imagination of the country at that time.

“And, in fact, it still resonates to this day.”

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