You-know-what has been 20 years, but does Saipan still matter?
Thus begins this year of commemoration. We recall a great conflict, a war to end all wars. A bitter feud that split families and tore the nation in two. We pray for the dead, dejected by radio calls and message boards. The inhumanity of the man towards the manager.
Age does not tire them, whose asses were on the bacon slicer.
Sorry to break it to you guys, but 2022 marks 20 years since Saipan. Two decades since everything went pear-shaped in the Pacific. Shit. Hard to believe. How should we mark it? Maybe there could be an official events calendar. An ecumenical religious service. A specially ordered set of stamps. Michael D could compose a poem.
Too early? Are we ready to face it? Ready to ‘engage’ with our past, as they say. Of course, why would you want to go back on all that, say the old people. Let sleeping dogs lie. Your mom just talked to me again.
The McCarthy family had a sinister joke for many years afterwards. The first person in a given social situation to mention Saipan would be awarded the “dick of the day”. That, I suppose, makes us “asshole of the year”. But we arrive early.
In May and June, there will be no shortage of cocks. There will be documentaries and excerpts, reports and round tables. Not too many Irish sports stories will get the column thumbs given to a two-decade-old row between Cardiff City’s recently sacked manager and a famous and irascible TV pundit.
What more can be said about it, however? It all went up in smoke, didn’t it, in the years that followed? Each interview and autobiography was a retort to the initial earthquake. Who said what and when? Did you leave or send home? Take me back? Take me back?
And – not a major point, admittedly – did he really say “hold on to your bullshit”?
We thought that by going through enough ghost-written tales in INSIDE THE ROOM, one day, like in one of those 19th-century boxing matches, an exhausted, bloodied winner would have his hand raised in victory. And that would be how the Battle of Saipan would be won. A man would have been RIGHT!
The years have passed and we have all grown a little. Roy argued with a lot of other people, grew beards, shaved them. Was a manager for a while, until he wasn’t anymore. Mick worked his way to over a thousand games in football management, mostly in the tough world of the Championship. Made the people who mattered inside the tent pee, until they didn’t.
There were handshakes and conciliatory words when they occupied the opposing canoes. Both returned to the Irish scene for a while, telling subtexts to their own stories. Unfinished business, we asked them? No, yet it somehow healed. All men soften, even the tough ones, or at least the fire goes out a bit. That should be it, really. Why drag it all out again?
Hey, they’re still writing WWII books even though everyone knows the Germans lost.
Looking back on the cover of this removal, it’s remarkable how obsessed everyone was with the blow-by-blow details. The volume of events and the jet lag meant it was impossible to do anything but process the next twist.
Yet it seems obvious now that the fuse for Saipan was lit long before, when a young Keane with his barrel of grievances and intolerances hitchhiked on the last Charlton years and didn’t like what he saw: Dublin-centric, off-key and cheerful, outspoken English voices preaching a gospel he didn’t believe in. He didn’t like being near her and even less when he gave up drinking.
Mick was Continuity Jack in his eyes and the Irish setup became a place to put the darkness in him. No wonder I’m angry, look at these fools. After Ireland he would find the fools elsewhere, even at Old Trafford. In 2002, bundled up in a stupid hotel on a stupid island thousands of miles from his home, darkness consumed him and then turned against his manager.
Does Saipan still matter? At the time, some great minds attributed to all this a deeper sociological meaning. The argument, you may recall, was that Roy represented the new Ireland, while Mick and the FAI represented the silly ways of yesteryear.
It was, of course, nonsense, because Roy Keane is quite singular and everything that happened that summer was the result of his unique personality that cut its way through objects scattered about his life as a footballer. There are no larger conclusions to be drawn from Keane – he himself contains multitudes.
But it’s kind of like what they say about fame, that it doesn’t change one person, it changes everyone around them. Saipan is less now the two grizzled men with their regrets and dog-eared tales of an old feud than the neuroses of the stupid nation that watched, tearing itself apart.
Nowadays, we might understand Saipan at least in part as a story of sanity. Keane’s majesty on the pitch was never considered to come at a cost to the man himself. We didn’t think that this obsession and motivation had to come from somewhere. He didn’t talk about it, like athletes do today.
Today we would look at the things he did and said and we could see a deeper pain. He was, and remains, a brilliant shaper of the narrative, quick-witted and sensitive to weakness. This is his great defense mechanism. So we took him at face value when he said he was fighting the old Irish tolerance for mediocrity. It made sense for an uncertain and 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. “It’s the third World Cup in Ireland,” writes Niall Quinn in his book, recounting the disaster, “the first since the arrival of the economic boom. Somehow we feel that means less; the horny old innocence of our first big adventure 12 years ago is gone.
Mick had tried to boil this pot, playing the role of family man according to the happy old formula that worked when we were all Jack’s children. But by then, there were too many outside the tent peeing in it.
The other thing that stands out, the one indisputable truth, is the FAI shitshow. It was the clown car exploding in all its glory. Saipan spawned Genesis, which spawned the Delaney takeover, which spawned the corruption, debasement, scarcity and austerity of today, when the association is afraid to give a new contract to a manager because she can’t afford to fire him.
Perhaps the modern divisions over Stephen Kenny are a continuation of the Saipan conflict. Maybe they’re an effort to finally move on, to get football in this country to find a direction it hasn’t taken since two men had a fight at 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 early to tell.