It was a crisis so profound that they made a drama out of it. But when Sunderland meet Wolverhampton Wanderers at Molineux tonight, or rather Roy Keane faces Mick McCarthy for the first time as a manager, it will be a footnote rather than an epilogue to those utterly mad events in the remote island of Saipan before the World Cup four years ago. Nothing could compare to what happened then and certainly nothing that takes place on a chill Black Country evening between two once grand clubs in the Coca-Cola Championship.
It was perhaps right that I Keano, the play co-written by Arthur Matthews, the creator of Father Ted, was a comedy re-enacted in the Roman Empire.
A hapless legion led by General Macartacus is sent to prepare for battle with a brooding soldier, Keano, in their midst. For what happened - to Keane and ultimately to the Republic of Ireland and to McCarthy - was a farce. But it was also a sporting tragedy, and a tragedy in the Greek sense - a man's pride being not only the thing that drives him but also his fatal flaw. And it is not just Keane's pride we are talking about.
So many words have been written on the subject of Keane's pre-World Cup walk-out, what was said and why it happened; so many opinions passed. It has been the central theme of numerous books and biographies with even the ghost writers mapped out on tribal lines. For Keane there was the malcontented Eamon Dunphy, never a McCarthy supporter, and a book so sulphuric that it earned the player a five-match ban. And then there was McCarthy's own post-World Cup diary penned by Cathal Dervin, a journalist who once urged the Lansdowne Road crowd to boo Keane.
But, despite all these hundreds of thousands of words, neither Keane nor any of the other protagonists have ever truly told the world what happened. And, even now, and with Keane rehabilitated and then retired as a player, and McCarthy having moved back into club management - first, ironically, at Sunderland - the wounds remain raw.
Some, players in the sorry saga, still cannot bring themselves to refer to their enemies by name. The look in their eyes - and they include Steve Staunton, the current manager of the Republic of Ireland - simply says "don't go there" when the issue is raised.
But there is also one common reaction. Everyone always shakes their head in utter disbelief. It is the disbelief that says 'did that really happen?' Unfortunately for Ireland, yes, it did.
The pair were never close. Keane, of course, does not really do friendship, especially with other players. The best that could have been hoped for was respect. And he never respected McCarthy. Niall Quinn, now Sunderland's chairman in another of those weird ironies that increasingly suggests this is some kind of familial, internecine affair, tells the story of the contempt shown by Keane, then a novice in the Irish squad, as long ago as 1992.
On a summer tour to the United States, Keane and Staunton, again ironically given subsequent events, went drinking before the flight home. They were late back to the team hotel and when they were finally rounded up, McCarthy, then the captain, with Jack Charlton, the manager, tried to reassert his authority. Keane was having none of it. "He took on Mick McCarthy, the World Cup captain and legend, and put him away - gone in 60 seconds," according to an awestruck Quinn.
It was an early warning of Keane's acerbic tongue. And this from a young player wearing a "kiss me quick" hat when delivering his put-down. Again, presciently, Keane never apologised. It set the tone for their relationship and few will forget the image of McCarthy seeking out Keane, then his captain, for a handshake after his colossal performance against the Netherlands that helped drive the Republic to the 2002 World Cup. Keane could barely raise his hand, never mind his eyes.
That contempt never faded. Some say it was because the Barnsley-born McCarthy was not regarded by Keane as a true Irishman. But there is no evidence, having spoken to those who witnessed the extraordinary tirade eventually aimed at the manager, that he was called an "English" anything.
More clearly, Keane questioned McCarthy's ability, both as a player, a no-nonsense but not particularly talented defender, and as a manager. He associated McCarthy with the amateurism that always dogged Irish preparations, the "have-a-lash-Jack mentality" and the belief that reaching a finals was reward enough. The tipping point came in Saipan although Keane, distracted by his sore hip, had been on the edge for some time.
On the island he wanted a training camp, McCarthy saw it as a chance for R&R and a little light work before the real stuff began. Arguments raged over preparations, facilities and even there not being enough balls - or goalkeepers - for a practice match. Keane gave an incendiary interview to an Irish newspaper, McCarthy called a team meeting and what happened next was utterly extraordinary.
According to Quinn and others present, Keane, cornered, brought up "every incident and perceived slight" since 1992, and did it in an utterly devastating tirade of obscene eloquence. He also, amazingly, did it chronologically. "I didn't rate you as a player, I don't rate you as a manager and I don't rate you as a person," Keane exploded.
McCarthy later claimed in his diary that he had "never seen any human being act like this before, never mind a footballer. He is delirious." Keane's onslaught lasted for about 10 minutes. And he didn't repeat himself once. "I am every expletive imaginable from c to w," McCarthy wrote. "I was a crap player. I am a crap manager. I am a crap coach, can't organise training. I can't make a decision. I can't get inside players' heads. I can't manage people, even though I have been managing him with kid gloves for six years now."
"It was the most articulate, surgical slaughtering I ever heard," Quinn recalled. Keane walked out and, in the blame game, a nation ripped itself apart. The madness reached its zenith when, asked for his reaction by a radio journalist in Dublin's O'Connell Street, one Irish fan said Keane's return was "our September 11".
Later, the Football Association of Ireland commissioned an investigation into how the team prepared. The report vindicated Keane's complaints but the damage was done. The Republic did well in the competition but, surely, with Keane they would have had the nous to see off 10-man Spain and progress beyond the second round.
McCarthy's days were numbered. A poor start to the European Championships campaign and he was gone. Last week he claimed he was about to walk anyway but, given his own stubbornness, that is hard to believe. To his credit, it has been McCarthy who made the move towards brokering a peace, although Keane also did so in accepting the relentless implorings of Quinn, a man he had sarcastically dismissed as "Mother Teresa", to become Sunderland manager. Keane even revealed he had made apologies to Quinn and Sir Alex Ferguson for previous behaviour - "I crossed the line," he said.
But, even if Keane held out the possibility of a handshake, that line did not apply to McCarthy, who had accused him, heretically in the player's eyes, of picking and choosing his matches. The two men have now spoken. McCarthy phoned to inquire about the availability of defender Neil Collins. "He accepted the call," he said of Keane.
"We both felt it was the right time to talk and it was a cordial conversation. We chatted about the players and a couple of other things that will remain private. It's been four years now and it should be put to bed. Life goes on. The only two people who weren't getting anything out of it were me and Roy. It's the media that drives it on."
That may be true but, in another interview, McCarthy went a little further. "Four years on I was man enough to make a call to Roy Keane recently and he was gracious enough to take it." Man enough? It is not the sort of comment that will go down well with Keane and reveals a chink of the emotion that is still stirred by what happened in 2002.Reuse content