WORLD CUP MELTDOWN | 

20 years ago a previously unknown word entered the Irish vocabulary - Saipan

"I look back at that time of ugliness and cruelty with mortifying embarrassment. In our immature, foaming over-reactions, many of us let loose our unthinking, rabid, inner buffoon"
Ireland manager Mick McCarthy and Ireland captain Roy Keane (right)

Ireland manager Mick McCarthy and Ireland captain Roy Keane (right)

Roy Curtis

Not unlike another spectacular eruption almost two millennia earlier, the one that engulfed Pompeii, history has immortalised Roy Keane's channelling of his inner Vesuvius.

The events of the summer of 2002, like the unfortunate Pompeiians, are forever frozen in time, buried beneath the ash of the Corkman's raging indignation.

Twenty years ago next Tuesday, I boarded a flight alongside Keane and Mick McCarthy, bound, via stops in Amsterdam and Tokyo, for a tiny 12x6 mile chunk of Pacific rock.

It would prove to be the sporting equivalent of landing a seat next to JFK on that fateful November afternoon in Dallas when the presidential motorcade wound through Dealey Plaza, and Lee Harvey Oswald aimed his Mannlicher-Carcano rifle through an open sixth-floor window of the Texas School Book Depository.

Here was a ringside seat to an imperishable, grotesque, unsettling moment in time.

In hindsight, as we hurtled eastward at 500mph, it ought to have been to the soundtrack of foreboding that announced the eponymous, bloodthirsty great white from Jaws was approaching Amity Island waters.

A previously unknown word was about to enter the Irish vocabulary: Saipan.

Through the fog of the passing years (it is amazing how little of those weeks I can summon), certain moments retain a vivid clarity.

A highly-agitated Keane berating a number of journalists at Schiphol Airport over their take on his recent non-appearance at Niall Quinn's testimonial.

It was an early and ominous warning that the volcano was already rumbling, the magma that would yield a Pacific ring of fire already coming to the boil in Keane's internal furnace.

In the Tokyo transit lounge, Shay Given played a Gift Grub Radio Roy sketch on what I remember as a ghetto blaster.

I watched with fascination as the real Keane listened to his Mario Rosenstock alter-ego.

The frigid, chilling smile on Roy's face was straight from the ice-box of a Zanussi refrigerator, or the cold-room of the city morgue.

The enduring memory of Saipan - think Canary Island of the Orient - is the overpowering, insufferable humidity.

Within five seconds of leaving our air-conditioned hotel, we were soaked in perspiration. In the clammy, liquid heat, every Irish head was a dissolving block of ice.

Not the greatest venue to be ferrying around a fraying temper.

I recall Mick McCarthy's well-intentioned if spectacularly ill-advised media/players get together in a beachfront garden area at their hotel.

At one stage the MC summoned a player and a writer to the stage to join in a traditional island dance.

Robbie Keane partnered plenty of uncoordinated duds over the course of his football life, but his rhumba with your correspondent was surely a career low point.

An anarchic, until-dawn drinking session followed in the Beefeater Bar. Most of the squad bar Keane, Lee Carsley, and, maybe one or two others, were present along with a dozen thirsty and ruddy-faced journalists.

There were games, rows, messing, wind-ups. And an abundance of alcohol. A little over a week before Ireland's World Cup opener against Cameroon, it was chaotic, unruly, lawless, borderline insane.

I recall Steve Staunton fuming over a piece I had written questioning the morality of lavishly remunerated footballers being awarded money-spinning testimonials.

A teammate, very much the worse for wear, a bottle of beer held unsteadily in his hand, his eyes darkening, asked Staunton if he wanted to have the situation "sorted out".

Ian Harte wandered around the bar enthusiastically brandishing a snooker cue, inviting anybody and everybody to join him in a frame of pool.

Another player earnestly quizzed journalists as to why his lifestyle should be a topic of conversation. At that very moment, 4am, a week before the World Cup kicked-off, he was cradling a lit cigarette while holding two beers.

He seemed oblivious to the irony.

Scarcely 100 yards away, wrestling with his own demons, no longer a drinking man, Keane sat alone in his hotel room.

A couple of days later came the row that annihilated all perspective, ending an age of football innocence that had yielded the madcap glories of Euro '88 and Italia '90.

We all took sides (though I knew McCarthy well and had formally ghost-written his newspaper column, I enlisted on the Keane side of the civil war), subtlety and perspective among the first casualties in the angry crossfire.

All these years on, I look back at that time of ugliness and cruelty with mortifying embarrassment.

In our immature, foaming overreactions, many of us let loose our unthinking, rabid, inner buffoon.

Fissures opened in a number of my closest friendships that took the longest time to heal. Too many of us who should have known better got a little lost on our dizzying ascent to the high moral ground.

The overpowering sensation of Keane's absence and the accompanying annihilation of optimism, cast a grim shadow as the travelling party advanced to Japan.

I recall sitting in the press box in Niigata for the opening game with Cameroon and not giving a fig how Ireland fared.

Too much had been said, too many emotions set on fire.

Six thousand miles away, alone with his thoughts, a teetotal Roy Keane took Triggs on yet another walk around Cheshire's leafy lanes.


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