Saipan: The year was dominated by that single word. Chances are no-one in Irish football had ever heard of the place before but by the time 2002 was out, it was as infamous as the other distant battlefields young Irishmen had fought in — Ypres, Gallipoli, and the Somme.
Compared to those tragedies, it’s crass to overplay Mick McCarthy’s personal war with his captain, and yet there is almost a duty to explain why 2002 was such a long, bitter summer.
Books were written, newspaper columns filled, talk shows adding to the noise.
And all this time, McCarthy endured the consequences and reached out to the future, only to discover that as soon as he took his first steps in that distant direction, it was clear he wasn’t going to escape the past.
You could sense it this night, October 16, 2002 — an evening when Switzerland did a number on Ireland, winning 2-1, igniting a spark in the crowd, whose increasingly loud jeering provided the FAI and McCarthy with an impromptu opinion poll as to how their constituents were feeling.
By the final whistle, as the rebellious soundtrack of ‘Keano’ roared down from the terraces, the Ireland manager stood alone, just his thoughts for company, before he walked onto the pitch to shake each of his players by the hand.
His actions momentarily stopped the booing, fans falling silent out of respect for McCarthy’s grace in the depths of his crisis.
Soon after he’d stop being their manager, though, handing in his notice the following month, a 43-year-old unsure of where he’d end up next.
Now, 17 years on, he’s had three different jobs, precisely 700 more games, even one new hip, as his Swiss nemeses arrive back in town.
They’ve changed. The 2002 Swiss side may have been “a dirty, horrible, nasty, physical, underrated type of team,” according to Kevin Kilbane, but this year’s model is an upgraded product. Lansdowne Road too, has a shinier look, rebranded as the Aviva Stadium. But as McCarthy stands on redemption’s doorstep, 17 years after his darkest hour, is there anything different about him?
“In many ways, there isn’t,” Daryl Murphy, who was twice signed by McCarthy, said. “What I mean by that is that he’s such a consistent person. He’s straight, admirably so. I loved working with him because he could see right through me, knew exactly what way I was thinking. ‘Curly finger Friday’ was what the lads used to call it.
“Week after week my standards would slip — maybe even by just 5% in training — and Mick would shout over at me: ‘Murph, office’. The rest of the lads all laughed. ‘Ooooh, Murph, you’re in for it’.
“But even though part of me was thinking ‘shit, I’m in trouble’, by the time I left his office — and this is the funny bit — I always ended up feeling better about myself. That’s man management.
“With me, Mick was always making sure I never slacked off. With others, like say Didzy (David McGoldrick), he would have been different. Didzy had injuries, like, and Mick regularly took the time to check in on him, show that he cared. People underestimate man management. They don’t realise how far it can take you.”
The evidence shows it took McCarthy from Ireland to a club on the brink of relegation (Sunderland), and subsequently to two Championship teams, Wolves and Ipswich, who were also suffering crises of confidence. Each time, McCarthy was equal to the challenge, restoring Sunderland and Wolves to the Premier League, steering Ipswich away from the relegation zone to respectability.
“Mick was the main reason I signed for Sunderland in 2004,” Stephen Elliott, the former Ireland striker said.
“I had other offers. Celtic were interested. I had a meeting with Martin O’Neill. But as soon as I spoke to Mick, I knew, personality wise, that he was for me.
“The first thing I’d say about Mick is he’s a very good manager but he’s a very good person too. You like him. You give 100%. You want to make him proud of you. He is superb at getting dressing room togetherness — he wants fellas who have a point to prove.
“You see he’s doing precisely that with Ireland now, too. Gelling lads, trusting them, making them trust him. If you do well, you’ll stay in the team. That goes a long way with players.”
There’s no doubt it does, and while the brusqueness of his words have a tendency to offer sober perspective rather than inspirational oration, all the players we spoke to remarked on how McCarthy tirelessly delivered the consistency they crave.
“We all knew where we stood with Mick,” Stephen Ward, who played for McCarthy at Wolves, said.
“Yes, he liked things to be competitive amongst us, often saying a bit of insecurity never did anybody any harm because it makes you fight for your place and work harder. But it was always fair.”
This is Elliott again: “When he was sacked by Sunderland, no-one in the dressing room was saying, ‘Yes, the gaffer’s gone. Life will be better now’. Genuinely there was disappointment.”
But isn’t that always the case?
“You serious?” Elliott laughs. “Far from it. Mick was different to most other managers. He’s a great bloke.”
Being a nice man isn’t why he became Ireland manager again, though. Other factors contributed to that, notably a tactical maturation over the years, the sobriety of relegation with Sunderland turning him into a wiser man when he brought Wolves up in 2009. It was here he developed a fetish for 4-5-1, a system he stuck rigidly to against top six sides, yet while it would be a lie to suggest he was ever likely to become a clone of Pep Guardiola, he also had the wherewithal to adjust his formation and personnel whenever weaker opponents visited Molineux.
Still, like Sunderland, his time there ended with the sack, not that it affected him.
“I believe in myself, believe in the fundamentals of what I am as a manager and what I am as a person,” he said to me in an interview in 2012.
“That comes back to my upbringing, how my parents taught me to behave. I like to speak to people, look them in the eye, be polite to them, but I also have those modern-day things — where we have GPS, tracker systems, the stats, the data, the modern nutritional information, the aides.
“Having these fabulous regimes are crucial but you have to back it up. Personality is still a big part. Management is about getting other people to do your business to the best possible level that they can. So how do you manage to do that? You need to create a good environment and a winning environment, otherwise people won’t work.”
That work ethic is a key principle of McCarthyism and yet these old-fashioned qualities of his seem so terribly quaint.
More than ever before, today’s generation of football fans are tactically obsessed, intrigued by the nuances of the game, worshippers at the altar of Guardiola and Klopp. Man management? Surely, you need more than that.
“Of course you do,” Murphy says. “Look, I played under Rafa Benitez and he was unbelievable with his level of detail. But Mick too is tactically astute, of course he is. He’s been doing this job since the early 1990s. The game’s changed dramatically since then. He wouldn’t still be managing if he didn’t know his stuff.”
Knowing his stuff is only part of this story, though.
The second half doesn’t really have much to do with McCarthy, but everything to do with the FAI and the way John Delaney ran the place.
If it hadn’t been for Saipan, Keane wouldn’t have walked out of the 2002 World Cup squad, Ireland would possibly have gone on to reach the semi-finals of the tournament and McCarthy’s popularity would have soared rather than diminished.
So the 2-1 defeat at home to Switzerland probably wouldn’t have happened, the post-match boos wouldn’t have been heard and the manager’s subsequent resignation letter wouldn’t have been written.
Instead, the Yorkshireman’s tenure would have been lengthier, the Genesis report into the pre-World Cup mess wouldn’t have been commissioned and Delaney’s star might not have risen.
But Saipan was a turning-point not just for McCarthy but also Delaney, who, after three years of boardroom upheaval, became the FAI’s new chief executive in 2005.
Delaney justified Brian Kerr’s dismissal on the basis that he could deliver a world-class manager.
Alas, he ended up with Steve Staunton. Two mad years followed, and after a draw at home to Cyprus, boos were once again heard inside an Irish stadium, resulting in Staunton going and Delaney coming under pressure.
He knew he had to deliver a name. Giovanni Trapattoni was the one.
Then both Trapattoni and his ideas got old, and Martin O’Neill became available.
More to the point, he brought Roy Keane in with him, and the return of one Saipan protagonist, ironically, made it entirely reasonable for McCarthy to become Ireland manager again. You know what they say, 17 years is a short time in FAI politics.
To date, the second coming has gone according to plan, but drawing in Denmark, beating Gibraltar and Georgia, there’s nothing new or special about that. O’Neill has those lines inserted on his CV, too.
Nonetheless, tonight’s game may end up being categorised in the same pivotal bracket as the painful nights in Skopje, the draw with Germany in Ibaraki, the barnstorming evenings and afternoons when Croatia, Yugoslavia and most memorably of all, Holland, were beaten.
On a personal level, though, it’s bound to have even deeper significance to McCarthy, considering the things he had to listen to from the sideline way back in 2002.
Seventeen years is a long time to spend in sporting purgatory. This, finally, is his shot at redemption.
Mick’s a very good manager but he’s a very good person too. You like him