05 February 2008

I, Keano

Kelly & I recently went to a show at the Olympia Theater with friends Michael & Patrice (of camping blog post fame). The play involves possibly the biggest sports related controversy in Ireland, the Saipan incident of the 2002 World Cup. Since I am new to the whole football (soccer) scene, UCD political lecturer & Irish sports expert Michael Kennedy was kind enough to do the honors of reviewing the show and giving us the background behind the controversy.

I, Keano – He Came, He Saw, He Went Home
by guest blogger - Michael Kennedy, University College Dublin

Irish sport and Irish society more generally have always been inextricably linked. Public discourse and public morale eternally vacillates in accordance with the trials and tribulations enjoyed or suffered by our sporting teams and their heroes. Whether it be the counties contesting the All-Ireland hurling or gaelic football championships, or the national rugby or soccer teams. In fact, some theorists of the Irish phenomenon known as the Celtic Tiger postulate that the economic boom associated with it was intimately tied to the surge of cool and confidence which emerged from a hugely successful campaign for the Irish soccer team in the 1990 World Cup Finals in Italy, where a Packie Bonner save in a penalty shoot-out against Romania put Ireland through to the quarterfinals (where they lost narrowly to Italy). Since then, Irish soccer has dared to believe that it might be entitled to be considered amongst the top soccer teams in the world, a point proved perhaps in the 1994 World Cup Finals in the USA where Ireland defeated Italy, their previous conquerors, by a score of 1-0 courtesy of a spectacular Ray Houghton goal at a packed Giants Stadium. Following this, however, the standards that the team had set for itself, and for the Irish public in general, began to slip. After failing to qualify for the 1996 European Championships, manager Jack Charlton was replaced by one Mick McCarthy (a former player). McCarthy was unable to lead the Irish team to the next World Cup Finals in France in 1998, but after a truly challenging qualifying campaign where Ireland was pitted against the likes of world soccer powerhouses Portugal and Holland, and had to qualify via a two-legged playoff against Iran, they were able to once again join the global elite for the 2002 World Cup Finals jointly hosted by Japan and South Korea. And much of the success along the path to that tournament was down to the skill, drive and determination of the national team captain – Roy Keane.

Roy Keane is a native of Cork City, County Cork (ever-so-appropriately known as The Rebel County). After playing for Cobh Ramblers in Cork and Nottingham Forest in England, Keane was signed by Manchester United in 1992. His spell at Manchester United lasted until 2005 and corresponded to the most successful period in the club’s history (under the tutelage of manager Alex Ferguson). This period included 8 Premier League titles, 5 FA Charity Shields, 4 FA Cups, 1 Intercontinental Cup, and the 1999 European Cup in the 1998-1999 season which saw Man United win a historic treble of Premier League, FA Cup and European Cup in the same season. Throughout the course of his illustrious playing career for his club, one performance in particular in that 1998-1999 season epitomised the type of player and person that Roy Keane was. In the semi-finals United were pitted against Italian giants Juventus, and found themselves behind within the first 15 minutes through two goals from Filippo Inzaghi. Keane, however, dragged his team back into contention with an outstanding glancing header from a corner kick to put the scoreline at 2-1 to Juventus. Shortly after his goal, however, Keane was yellow-carded for a tackle on Zinedine Zidane, and as a result of this card would miss the final if his team were to win and progress. Rather than crumble at this prospect (some may remember England player Paul Gascoigne bursting into tears when put in a similar position playing for England in the 1990 World Cup semi-final), Keane worked twice as hard to ensure that his team made it to the final even if he himself did not. His manager Alex Ferguson described Keane’s performance in this way – “It was the most emphatic display of selflessness I have seen on a football field. Pounding over every blade of grass, competing if he would rather die of exhaustion than lose, he inspired all around him. I felt it was an honour to be associated with such a player.” United went on to score two further goals to win the game 3-2, and subsequently won the European Cup Final against Bayern Munich.

To say that Keane was known as an abrasive character would be an understatement. He demanded the best of himself, but also others (including players, and even fans), in an almost pathological way. Some notable contributions have included comments on Man United fans, some of whom had been spoilt by success - "Away from home our fans are fantastic, I'd call them the hardcore fans. But at home they have a few drinks and probably the prawn sandwiches, and they don't realise what's going on out on the pitch. I don't think some of the people who come to Old Trafford can spell 'football', never mind understand it.” In 2001, Keane was at the centre of controversy when, in a game against bitter rivals Manchester City, he targeted an opposition player named Alf-Inge Haaland who had previously accused Keane of feigning injury when they tangled in a game during the 1997-98 season which left Keane with a serious cruciate ligament injury (for footage of both incidents, see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fJuxKrnTP-k ). Keane was roundly condemned for this blatant act of revenge, and criticized further when describing the incident in his autobiography in this way – “I’d waited long enough. I f*cking hit him hard. The ball was there (I think). Take that you c*nt. And don’t ever stand over me sneering about fake injuries.” This attitude increasingly pervaded Keane’s on and off the field personality, and emerged again, with disastrous consequences, in the build-up to the 2002 World Cup Finals.

The official (ie Wikipedia version!) of the events during the 2002 World Cup Finals are as follows – “The Football Association of Ireland selected the Pacific island of Saipan as the training base for Ireland's World Cup campaign. During the course of the first training session, Keane expressed serious misgivings about the adequacy of the training facilities and the standard of preparation for the Irish team. He was angered by the late arrival of the squad's training equipment, which had disrupted the first training session on a pitch that he described as "like a car park". This was made all the more frustrating by the fact that Mick McCarthy had promised Keane that he would eradicate the lackluster and unprofessional approach to training that had personified the Jack Charlton era. After a row with goalkeeping coach Packie Bonner and Alan Kelly on the second day of training, Keane announced that he wished to return home to Manchester due to his dissatisfaction with Ireland's preparation. McCarthy approached Keane and asked him to return to the training camp, and Keane was eventually persuaded to stay until the end of the tournament. Despite a temporary cooling of tensions in the Irish camp after Keane's change of heart, things soon took a turn for the worse. Keane gave an interview to leading sports journalist Tom Humphries, of the Irish Times newspaper, where he expressed his unhappiness with the facilities in Saipan and listed the events and concerns which had led him to leave the team temporarily. McCarthy took offence at Keane's interview and decided to confront Keane over the article in front of the entire squad and coaching staff. Keane refused to relent, saying that he had told the newspaper what he considered to be the truth and that the Irish fans deserved to know what was going on inside the camp. He then unleashed a stinging verbal tirade against McCarthy: “Mick, you're a liar... you're a f*cking wanker. 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. You're a f*cking wanker and you can stick your World Cup up your arse. The only reason I have any dealings with you is that somehow you are the manager of my country! You can stick it up your bollocks.” Niall Quinn observed in his autobiography that “Roy Keane's 10-minute oration [against Mick McCarthy, above] ... was clinical, fierce, earth-shattering to the person on the end of it and it ultimately caused a huge controversy in Irish society.” None of Keane's team-mates voiced support for him during the meeting, although some supported him in private afterwards. Veterans Niall Quinn and Steve Staunton backed McCarthy in a press conference after the event. It was here that McCarthy announced that he had dismissed Keane from the squad and sent him home.”

All of these events penetrated the Irish consciousness deeply, and generated a public debate that saw the country evenly divided between pro-Keane and pro-McCarthy factions, in a classic battle of man against the world. It could not have been more appropriate then, that a play commemorating such events was created, casting the characters and storyline into a classic Roman tragic comedy called I, Keano. The all-singing, all-dancing play casts Keano as the foremost warrior in a Roman legion army commanded by General Macartacus preparing for a great battle. All the key events throughout Keane’s career that illustrated his unique character were included and referenced. As a representation of a period of incredible anger, disillusionment and seriousness, the play succeeds in being incredibly silly and enjoyable, even for those not entirely familiar with the context of the events it describes. And so perhaps, in final response to that classic battle of man against the world, it’s worth reflecting on the classic proverb – “laugh, and the world laughs with you, cry, and you do it alone!”


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