ROY KEANE IN SAIPAN
Could the ex-Ireland captain’s row with manager Mick McCarthy, asks Dion Fanning, have been down to cultural differences?
Roy Keane has always been misunderstood, perhaps even by himself. During his years as the most influential player at the most famous club in the world, it became common to see him described as a brutish, mindless thug. When he transformed his life at the turn of the century, and his physical appearance altered as he became lean and more imposing, it was not unusual to see him referred to as a ‘keep-fit fanatic’.
When he erupted at Mick McCarthy in Saipan, it was, many said, an example of the new, modern Ireland — an Ireland that wasn’t prepared to settle for the old ‘ah, it’ll do’ philosophy.
“What I noticed about him that day as I was arguing with him was that his eyes started to narrow, almost to wee black beads. It was frightening to watch.”
This description of Keane would tally with what we have heard about his row with Mick McCarthy in the ballroom of the Hyatt Hotel in Saipan.
But this wasn’t Mick McCarthy — this was Alex Ferguson, the manager who rebuilt Manchester United into England’s most successful club; the manager who never had an ‘ ah it ’ ll do’ philosophy about anything, who ruthlessly discarded those — such as Keane, eventually — who could no longer serve him. The manager whose philosophy was “Get rid of the c***s.”
This was Ferguson recalling his final argument with Keane at Manchester United in 2005. This was a few months after Keane had spent some time at a pre-season training camp in Portugal complaining about his allocated villa.
Then he spent some time complaining about his second allocated villa and, according to Ferguson, he then complained about a third allocated villa.
Roy had a list of complaints, among them was the air-conditioning. This was Keane wanting the best, this was Keane wanting more.
Saipan, we were told, with its nonexistent pitch and the absence of footballs and training kit, was too much for a man like Keane, who was used to the best at Manchester United. “All I want is what’s best for me and the team,” he told Tom Humphries in the interview that would play a key role in ending his time at the 2002 World Cup.
Going back over Saipan is simultaneously tedious and incendiary. Those who believe that Keane walked out on his country are as dogmatic as those who think he was taking a stand for what was right.
Keane has appeared to be wrestling for a long time with the familiar conundrum: do you want to be happy, or do you want to be right?
In Saipan, he was probably right that there should have been a training kit.
He was probably right that there should have been footballs, and he was probably right that there should have been a pitch that the players could train on without fear of injury. He was probably right that Mick McCarthy shouldn’t bring up previous games Keane had missed in a team meeting in front of the other players — but did all this righteousness make anyone happy?
“The question in life is: how far do you take a grievance?” Ferguson asks in his book. In Ferguson’s case, and in Keane’s, quite far.
Saipan might have been a clash between two traditions in Ireland, and, if it was, it was a clash between the minority sober tradition and the more mainstream culture.
Keane has talked a little about his decision to quit drink, but not in great detail. In 2002, he said he quit to prolong his career. In 2010, he said that he no longer drank. “I’ve no interest in it.”
It would be interesting to hear what effect the removal of alcohol — which was a central part of his story for many years — had on his life. He is entitled to say nothing, of course, but he would not be unusual in finding that, once he stopped, things began to matter more, not less.
“All the big questions come up when you get sober,” Tom Waits said. “What am I made of ? What's left when you drain the pool?”
The story of Saipan was not about one man standing up for what was right, or one man letting his country down, it was more complex — and, therefore, more interesting — than that.
It was one man struggling to come to terms with himself and how he accommodated his new self in an old world.
The rest of the squad in Saipan were probably right, too, that the absence of training kit, balls and the presence of a bumpy pitch wouldn’ t have mattered too much during a week that was designed for team-bonding as much as anything.
The team-bonding was underpinned, naturally, by a team all-night drinking session which, according to Niall Quinn’s autobiography, involved some tiptoeing around Keane.
“Roy hasn’t been drinking for some time now, so we keep it low-key about what we have planned for the rest of the evening . . . The players circulate dutifully for a little bit, Roy slips off into the night and then some of the lads make a fairly theatrical show of yawning and stretching and pretending to be heading off to bed.”
The rest of the squad were behaving as they had always done, and there was no reason for them to do otherwise. Keane was left to his own devices.
He seemed to have no problem with that. Most footballers crave the artificial sense of belonging that comes from a dressing room. Keane was happiest away from anything that seemed phoney.
As a man, this made sense — but when he tried to be a manager, this has been his struggle.
Keane is at his most i nteresting when interpreting his own experiences, yet he can sometimes display a profound indifference to the experience of others.
Keane demands of others what he demands of himself, and he asks a lot of himself.
He is his own worst critic which, you sense, allows him to be everybody else’s worst critic, too.
Ferguson’s book revealed a pattern that suggested that it might not have been about the detail.
Saipan cer tainly wasn’ t all about training kits and bumpy pitches. Roy Keane’s story is much too interesting for that.