In many ways, it feels like yesterday when a Nokia 3210 with a ‘Put ‘em under pressure’ ringtone woke me from a foolishly Guinness-induced slumber. The exasperated voice of my travelling companion Kilian advised he was en route with his father to drop us to the airport. And that he wouldn’t be getting off the phone till he was sure I was up as I’d sounded “absolutely s**t-faced” when he’d rung me at 10.30 the previous night.
A few farewell drinks in the now sadly missed Conways on Parnell St had gotten a little out of hand. I dragged myself to the shower and attempted very shakily to finish packing. It was 4am on Monday, May 27 and we had a 6.30am flight to Heathrow before a connection in Munich to Tokyo.
It was also five days before Ireland’s World Cup opener and four days since Roy Keane had left the Irish camp from Saipan, just after the rest of the squad had left the Pacific island for their base in Izumo, Japan.
I gradually came round over the course of the next few hours, glad that the greenness around my gills had cut off any accusations of faking my hangover when I declined a drink on the first leg of the journey.
I’d recovered sufficiently to partake by the time we got to Munich, only to feel a bit of my inner Roy come close to exploding when greeted on arrival at Narita International Airport by a hostess from the airline with my name written on a card who soberly advised me that my luggage had gone missing en route.
Going home in a huff wasn’t an option for me and thankfully, my Japan Rail Pass was safely stowed in my hand luggage along with my passport, a pair of shorts, two tee-shirts and three pairs of socks and jocks. If my rucksack was only delayed for 24 hours, at least I’d have enough to get me over the hump.
With all the talk of how expensive accommodation would be in advance of the tournament, one of the lads had cleverly suggested we base ourselves in Nagano, which was within striking distance of Ireland’s match venues due to the stunning speed of the Shinkansen – or bullet trains in English. Having hosted the Winter Olympics in 1998 there was a glut of hotels in the city and, with it being off-season, the rates on offer were very favourable.
Remember, this was in the days before online booking sites became widely popular and, as I didn’t even have dial-up internet at home, another friend had booked rooms for a crew of us numbering around eight and arriving separately from Dublin, London and Birmingham. So the Holiday Inn became our base for the first 10 days.
Well, when I say base, I should really be saying bedroom. As with any troop of travelling Ireland fans, your real base tends to be a selected watering hole in the area, and after sampling a few local establishments we had found a nice welcome in a bar called Liberty, which had a fairly unique, and popular feature.
Again, in terms of technology, the potential to keep up with news from home was limited in the extreme. Japan’s mobile phone network was a generation ahead of Europe’s, meaning that our trusty Nokias were less use than two paper cups tied together with a string and the cost of a landline call was extortionate. Keeping up with friends back home or those based in Tokyo or elsewhere was best done by emails, whenever you had the opportunity.
And with a single old-style desktop computer sat just beyond the bar in the right corner of Liberty that the management were happy to let us use, this became our portal to the outside world.
There were no English language TV channels available anywhere so the only place we could get news from home was via the monitor of that PC. And each day, there’d be a line of people waiting to use it, with the latest news on the Saipan soap opera being relayed from whoever happened to be sitting at it back through the queue like a game of Chinese whispers. Or Japanese whispers in this case.
Initially, it was scraps from phone calls and emails that were providing our narrative, with varying degrees of reliability. In terms of websites, there was content on
Independent.ie, Ireland.com, for which Kilian had a subscription, and RTÉ.ie. But that content wasn’t updated as quickly as it is today, with one daily update the norm bar huge breaking stories. So the rumours filled that space.
Keane’s interview with RTÉ’s Tommie Gorman had gone out while we were in the air so details of that had started emerging by the Tuesday.
“Is he coming back?.”
“He says he will if he gets an apology.”
“Ah, here, there’s no way McCarthy can do that!”
“I hear Bertie is getting involved.”
“Are you f**king joking me?”
I’m sure that conversation was being repeated wherever Ireland fans had sequestered themselves with the time difference and distance to home adding a surreal air to what was already a surreal situation.
Eventually a full transcript of the interview appeared on the RTÉ site (video clips were non-existent with the likes of YouTube still three years away from being invented) and that felt like we’d hit the motherlode. But when you read it back there was nothing much new being said. “What about the children, Roy?” Give me a break. We’d have to wait another 24 hours for the next update.
When that update finally arrived, it seemed to put a full stop on things. Niall Quinn had given the FAI a statement from the players due to be issued to the press after McCarthy had held a press conference scheduled for May 28.
In true cack-handed FAI fashion, that statement was issued in advance of the press conference, during which McCarthy had been effectively muzzled as the association continued its back-channelling with Michael Kennedy – Keane and Quinn’s solicitor – to try and engineer his return.
Once that statement had come out, there was no way Keane was prepared to return and that should have been that. But with the opening match still three days away, the rumours and queue for that battered old computer continued. Plenty were still convinced some sort of rabbit in the hat could be produced.
In fact, the only hat produced was the one I’d packed in my rucksack when that finally arrived three days after we had. It seemed a long time since Roy had donned similar on TV as part of a full leprechaun outfit to flog Walkers crisps only a couple of weeks before.
By the time Saturday morning arrived and we set off for Niigata where Cameroon awaited, it was a relief to just focus on the football.
You’d like to think that was the end of it, but in reality it was only the beginning. Within the travelling ranks there was probably more support for McCarthy than across the general public but it was by no means unanimous.
And while the trip and tournament was the experience of a lifetime, for the first time since I’d started going on away trips eight years before for USA ’94 it felt like there was a split in the Irish support and a tribal element seemed to be driving that. On one side, mostly but not exclusively, Man United fans and Corkonians made up the ‘Keane-ites’, and on the other the ‘McCarthy-ites’.
To be honest, even those of us backing the manager could see merit in some of Keane’s points. We’d all had experience of dealing with the FAI and knew how haphazard it had been run for generations. But having saved for two years to make the journey, we felt that having got this far our captain should have been there to lead, not leave.
My own feelings were that those issues could have been tackled more effectively after the tournament. Instead, we had a distraction that threatened to overshadow the entire World Cup.
As it happened, the competition still had its magic moments. The welcome from the locals was incredible and Robbie Keane’s equaliser into the goal we were behind against Germany in Ibaraki remains the single greatest moment I’ve experienced at a sporting event.
But seeing two Ireland fans arguing over what happened in Saipan and having to be separated outside Paddy Foley's bar in Roppongi later that night was a first for me. We’d always felt like one tribe and now we were two. It felt like the end of the innocence that had driven Euro ’88, Italia ’90 and USA ’94. Plus it set the stage for John Delaney to manoeuvre his way to the top of the association and we all know how that ended.
That schism in the Ireland support remained to some degree and it’s only in recent times, with the near-unanimous support Stephen Kenny has got from match-going fans that the scars have begun to fade.
Twenty years on and these days with the way news travels with a tap on a smartphone, people have opinions on things before they’ve even finished happening. The thought of waiting 24 hours for a newsflash seems as quaint as Alexander Graham Bell’s invention of the phone.
But the one thing that hasn’t changed is the positions people took during that crazy period.
Well, that and the feeling that the FAI always remain only a step away from another crisis.
The tournament ended up in heartbreaking fashion with that last-16 penalty defeat to Spain in Korea. Having heard a whisper that the squad had retired to a Seoul nightclub called Buck Mulligan’s, we chanced our arms getting in and ended up on a pub crawl with some of the players until well into the next afternoon. I doubt Roy would have approved.
Saipan was a subject to be avoided until finally, at around 11 in the morning, someone blurted out “So what really happened with Keane?”
“If Roy wanted to be here, he’d be here,” the reply came. We left it at that.