Tommy Martin: It’s 20 years since you-know-what but does Saipan still matter?

This weekend in 2002, the sporting tragedy/theatre (depending on your take) of our lifetime was about to erupt on an island few had even heard of. How many column inches have been afforded to a two-decade-old row between the recently sacked manager of Cardiff City and a famously irascible TV pundit?
Tommy Martin: It’s 20 years since you-know-what but does Saipan still matter?

SAIPAN STANDOFF: Roy Keane alone with his thoughts on a Pacific island that became a byword for a changing Ireland. 

And so, this year of commemoration dawns. We recall a great conflict, a war to end all wars. A bitter feud that divided families and rent the nation in twain. We pray for the fallen, shot down on radio phone-ins and internet message boards. Man’s inhumanity to manager.

Age shall not weary them, whose arses were on the bacon slicer.

Sorry to break it you, folks, but 2022 marks 20 years since Saipan. Two decades since it all went pear-shaped in the Pacific. Jeez. Hard to believe. How should we mark it? Perhaps there could be a schedule of official events. An ecumenical religious service. A specially commissioned set of stamps. Michael D could compose a poem.

Too soon? Are we ready to confront it? Ready to ‘engage’ with our past, as they say. Sure why would you want to bring all that up again, say the older folk. Let sleeping dogs lie. Your mother is only just talking to me again.

The McCarthy family had a grim joke for many years afterwards. The first person in any given social situation to mention Saipan would be awarded ‘dick of the day’. That, I suppose, makes us ‘dick of the year.’ But we’re just getting in early.

Come May and June, there will be no shortage of dicks. There will be documentaries and pull-outs, features and panel discussions. Not too many Irish sports stories will get the column inches afforded a two-decade-old row between the recently sacked manager of Cardiff City and a famously irascible TV pundit.

What more can be said about it, though? It all came out in the wash, did it not, in the years that followed? Every interview and autobiography was an aftershock to the initial quake. Who said what and when? Walked out or sent home? Take me back? Take me back?

And — not a major point admittedly — did he really say ‘stick it up your bollocks’?

We thought that, by picking through enough ghost-written accounts from INSIDE THE ROOM, eventually, like one of those 19th century boxing matches, an exhausted, bloodied winner would have their hand raised in victory. And that would be how the battle of Saipan would be won. One man would have been PROVEN RIGHT!

The years wore on and we all grew up a bit. Roy fell out with plenty other people, grew beards, shaved them off. Was a manager for a while, until he wasn’t. Mick dug his way to over a thousand games in football management, mostly in the hardscrabble world of the Championship. Kept the people that mattered inside the tent pissing out, until they weren’t.

There were handshakes and conciliatory words when they occupied opposing dugouts. Both of them came back to the Ireland scene for a while, walking subtexts to their own backstory. Unfinished business, they were asked? No, yet it was healing in a way. All men soften, even the tough ones, or at least the fire burns out a bit. That should be that, really. Why drag it all up again?

Hey, they still write books about World War Two even though everyone knows the Germans lost.

Looking back on the coverage from this remove, it’s notable how fixated everyone was by the blow-by-blow minutiae. The sheer volume of events and the time difference meant that doing anything other than processing the next twist was impossible.

Yet it seems obvious now that the fuse for Saipan was lit long before, when a young Keane with his barrel-load of grievances and intolerances hitched a lift on the later Charlton Years and didn’t like what he saw: Dublin-centric, phoney and happy-clappy, blunt English voices preaching a gospel he didn’t believe. He didn’t like being around it and less so when he gave up the drink.

Mick was Continuity Jack in his eyes and the Ireland set-up became somewhere to put the blackness inside him. No wonder I’m angry, look at these fools. After Ireland, he’d find the fools elsewhere, even at Old Trafford. Back in 2002, bundled up in a stupid hotel on a stupid island thousands of miles from home, the blackness consumed him and then turned on his manager.

Does Saipan still matter? At the time some big-brained people ascribed deeper sociological meaning to it all. The argument, you may remember, was that Roy represented the new, thrusting Ireland while Mick and the FAI stood for the gap-toothed simpleton ways of old.

This was, of course, nonsense, because Roy Keane is utterly singular and everything that happened that summer the result of his unique personality jack-knifing its way through the scattered objects of his football life. There is no drawing broader conclusions from Keane — he, himself, contains multitudes.

But it’s a bit like what they say about fame, that it doesn’t change a person, rather it changes everyone around them. Saipan is less now about the two greying men with their regrets and dog-eared accounts of an old quarrel than the neuroses of the silly nation that watched on, tearing itself apart.

Nowadays we might understand Saipan at least partly as a mental health story. Keane’s on-field majesty was never seen to have a cost for the man himself. We didn’t figure that this obsessiveness and drive had to come from somewhere. He didn’t talk about it, like athletes do today.

Today we’d look at the things he did and said and we might see deeper pain. He was, and remains, a brilliant shaper of the narrative, quick-witted and alive to weakness. It is his great defence mechanism. So we took it at face value when he said he was fighting the old Irish tolerance for mediocrity. It made sense for an insecure, changing nation. We made Roy a martyr and then we crucified Mick. At least in the Bible, one of Jesus and Barabbas walked free.

If the Charlton Years were our Swinging Sixties, Saipan was Altamont, the end of the dream. “This is Ireland’s third World Cup,” Niall Quinn wrote in his book, diarising the disaster, “the first since the economic boom time arrived. Somehow we sense that it means less; the old, excited innocence of our first great adventure 12 years ago is gone.” 

Mick had tried to keep that pot boiling, acting paterfamilias in the old happy formula that worked when we were all Jack’s children. But by then there were too many outside the tent, pissing in.

The other thing that sticks out, the one inarguable truth, was the shitshow of the FAI. This was the exploding clown car in its pomp. Saipan begat Genesis, which begat the Delaney power grab, which begat corruption, debasement, penury and the austerity of today, when the association are afraid of giving a manager a new contract because they can’t afford to sack him.

Maybe the modern divisions over Stephen Kenny are a continuation of the Saipan conflict. Maybe they are an effort to finally move on from it, for football in this country to find a direction it hasn’t had since two men had a row in a Hyatt Regency Hotel somewhere in the Pacific 20 years ago this summer.

Or maybe, like the old line about the French Revolution, it’s too soon to tell.

*This first appeared on January 1, 2022 in the Irish Examiner

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