This article was first featured in Issue 5 of the Box To Box magazine on the 2002 World Cup with words by Paul Severn and accompanying illustration from Alvar Sirlin.
The Saipan incident in which Roy Keane walked out of the Republic of Ireland’s squad for the 2002 World Cup was something bigger than football. On Wikipedia, it is filed under “industrial relations” with Keane, manager Mick McCarthy, Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern and Irish society itself listed as “participants”.
The verbal tirade unleashed at McCarthy was even more shattering than any Roy Keane tackle. The Guardian reported that McCarthy was told to stick his World Cup up his “arse” in one of the more polite remarks. As a Forest fan, who watched Roy Keane arrive in English football so spectacularly, it remains a strange, sad incident – impossible to understand.
Keane was last seen in a Forest shirt running down the tunnel on the 1st of May 1993. Despite Forest’s relegation, Keane was the shining light in a dreadful season and though a young man, he was an example to all. In the nine years following his move to Manchester United, he became a winner, but unrecognisable. Who was this guy flying home in disgrace? Why was he out walking his dogs rather than taking on the world’s best?
The fall out appeared to be a saga that lasted several days regarding a range of issues surrounding the Irish training camp. A clear-the-air meeting descended into the fabled row between manager and captain and then continued at a distance via the media once Keane had left.
McCarthy told the Mail on Sunday: “I have never witnessed such an attack from any human being. It was vicious and it was unjust. I looked at him as he waded in with one expletive after another and I asked myself if this was my captain; if this was one of my players. Was this a man who could serve Ireland as a role model for our kids, for the youngsters who dream of following him on to the World Cup stage?”
One of my first memories of Keane was watching him from the Bridgford End terrace at the City Ground, celebrating as he crashed a header into the net as I stood behind the goal. I marvelled at the ferocious power of the teenager. It was reported that his Forest teammates had to be introduced to him before his debut at Liverpool in 1990, such was his rise from obscurity. I watched in awe as my new hero surged forward from midfield. He was more of an attacking, box-to-box midfielder in the early days. He had a great ability to pop up with crucial goals – as he did in the 1991 FA Cup Semi Final against West Ham United to help Forest into the final. He was dynamic, exciting and was a simple choice for Nottingham Forest’s midfield in the greatest-ever team announced in 2016 for the club’s 150th anniversary.
Journalist Daniel Taylor featured Keane in his book Deep into the Forest. Predictably Keane was not available for interview despite making the cut for this book about Forest heroes. There are stories of drunken nights out and Clough once sending Keane home after an incident on a pre-season tour. But Keane was committed to his manager right until the end – even playing in central defence for a broken team which resembled its fading manager.
In another book, The Man With Maradona’s Shirt, fellow midfielder Steve Hodge recalls one exchange in the 1990/91 season in which Clough put down each player with a quip. Stuart Pearce was told he was “crap” since signing a new contract, Hodge was told to get through 90 minutes. At the end of the line was Keane. “I love you, Irishman” said Clough.
In his own book Walking on Water Clough says of Keane: “He became a real player at Forest, though. His Irish brogue was so pronounced we considered employing an interpreter in the early days. He was shy off the field, but a revelation once his feet touched the grass. He was everywhere doing everything, the only thing he didn’t tackle at Nottingham Forest was me.”
But Clough also wrote: “Let me say right here that Mick McCarthy was right to dispatch Keane from his World Cup camp. In his position I’d have done the same, but I’d probably have strangled or shot him first.”
Clough couldn’t understand the reasoning and can only speculate on why Keane walked away, pointing out that many practice pitches in his day were also poor and that Keane would “regret it for the rest of his life”.
As a Forest fan I saw a change in Keane after he left Forest. He became a different player and different person. He was never sent off for Forest. He was spiky, but stayed within a set of boundaries. At Manchester United he became a defensive midfielder – one of the best in the world. He continued the simple passing he learnt under Clough but the red cards started to flow – eventually reaching eleven. Keane missed the 2001 Champions League Final through suspension and the shockingly ugly incident in 2001 with Alf Inge Haaland was perhaps the lowest point of his career.
But at Manchester United, Roy Keane was also a ruthless winner and leader. A legend. He managed the dressing room, combining with Ferguson to break records and establish a dynasty which only Arsenal could threaten. The ITV documentary Keane & Vieira – Best of Enemies is a fascinating insight into his rivalry with Arsenal and his personal battles with Arsenal captain Patrick Vieira. The ugly incidents in the tunnel and on the playing field are alien to the Nottingham Forest sides of Brian Clough. Keane had grown up, left home and I couldn’t recognise him.
That change ultimately led to his downfall in the 2002 World Cup. In that same documentary, Keane admits he should’ve stayed on with the squad – for his country and family. The boy that Clough had tamed, had become untamed and in 2005 Keane left Ferguson and United also in acrimonious circumstances after an interview with the club’s television station. Keane seemed to have even outgrown captaincy, but as his powers waned and injuries mounted, he eventually became dispensable and life was possibly easier for Ferguson without him.
The standards of behaviour set by Clough were different to those set by Ferguson. Both were winners, but through Keane, we saw that winning came at a greater cost at Manchester United. Clough found joy through playing the ball on the ground and upholding standards of behaviour towards officials, but at United something quite different was unleashed in Keane. Was Keane easier to manage as a teenager? Certainly, but I agree with Clough that it was sad, and perhaps unnecessary how things turned out, despite the trophies.
Even though management didn’t work out for Keane I was glad to see him return to the fold with the Republic of Ireland as Assistant Manager. Predictably it was a former Forest man in Martin O’Neill who provided this path to partial redemption.
In his first press conference as assistant, Keane said: “There’s areas I need to look at, particularly now I’m the assistant. I need to learn my boundaries, when to say something, when to step back and hopefully I’ll get that right. There are ways to speak to people, you have to show them respect.
“We’ve had a lovely few days, the hotel’s been lovely, the food has been excellent, the training ground is lovely… no pot-holes, we’ve had footballs, it’s been great, bibs… everything. Major progress.”
Footballers, like all of us, change over time. Their quickness, energy and exuberance of youth makes way for other attributes as players learn to read the game through experience. Personalities also change too, as they move from teenager, to man, to leader – but in Keane’s career, there were big mistakes made along the way. No player in modern times has displayed these changes so clearly and starkly as the man from Cork.