Ireland’s other civil war simmers 20 years after Saipan

BACK in 2002 I was working in Belfast and as the World Cup approached it became a difficult place for a Corkman to reside.

it wasn’t because of old score animosities, the mockery of which was aimed my way on occasion only to be met with withering return fire.

The difficulties were created by Roy Keane and Mick McCarthy. Many will say the Irish captain went home sulking and cost Ireland the World Cup (which we were, according to an RTÉ documentary broadcast on Monday, doomed to win). At the time, I would have said he was sent home by the Irish manager when tempers plummeted in a team meeting. In other words, the fault lies with the Irish manager.

There were many bitter exchanges in Belfast during those heady days, especially as Ireland, without Keane, seemed to be doing well. We drew with Germany and beat Saudi Arabia and qualified to face Spain in the first knockout round. This game went to penalties.

And Ireland lost. Spain then lost to South Korea who were beaten in the semi-finals. The theory goes that we would have beaten Spain with Keane and easily eliminated South Korea and, after drawing with Germany in the group, we would have their measure in the semi-finals. And that would have left us facing Brazil in the final.

I don’t believe Ireland would have won the World Cup in 2002 with or without Keane. Not because I doubted our abilities, but I felt that we hadn’t done the necessary preparation to be the best team in the world. The Irish rugby team have appeared in the World Cup as a ranked side on several occasions but have rarely shone.

Keane’s attitude was that he was not going to the World Cup to make up the numbers and I respected that. But a run ending with him holding the World Cup in the air was a dream, not a realistic ambition.

There were still some in 2002 – and I have been involved in some disputes since, which nourished this vain hope.

It’s hard to believe that two decades have passed since that Saipan summer, but here we are and we haven’t reached the pinnacle of world football since. Our Euro appearances in 2012 and 2016 were respectively unimpressive and reasonable. It doesn’t look like we’ll be back to the World Cup anytime soon.

But Keane and McCarthy gave us great entertainment that summer and fueled a civil war that has been brewing ever since.

Both players have served Ireland well on the pitch and on the sidelines. They deserve our gratitude. It’s time to call a truce.

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