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Portrait of midfielder Jason McAteer from the Repu

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On This Day (15 June 2002): Sunderland’s McAteer considers his future & talks Saipan at World Cup

In a wide-ranging interview, the Irish international spoke of his admiration for Peter Reid and Mick McCarthy, and how the squad had come together after Roy Keane walked away from the World Cup.

Photo credit should read ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP via Getty Images

The so-called “Saipan Incident” provided a controversial backdrop to the Republic of Ireland’s 2002 World Cup in Japan and Korea. Although they had some great talent available, such as Damien Duff and Robbie Keane, their captain Roy Keane was perhaps their only truly world-class player, and his standards of excellence were legendary - as we would come to discover first-hand later in the 2000s.

The chaos of the Irish FA’s preparations for the tournament came nowhere near his expectations. Much to his chagrin, upon their arrival at their training camp on the Pacific island of Saipan in late May there were no footballs, no training kits, no “special drink”... and the resulting conflict with Irish boss Mick McCarthy has gained a special place in football legend.

Keane’s annoyance with the McCarthy regime eventually came to a head at a meeting before they flew on to Japan where accusations were made against him by the gaffer of having missed a qualifier without good reason. That was the final straw - he walked out of the camp and refused to come back.

The story of what happened is set out in all its entertaining detail by Keane in the Off The Ball podcast and in the final episode of Top Flight Time Machine’s ‘The Keane Odyssey 2’.

Nevertheless, Ireland managed to navigate their way through Group E with 1-1 draws against Cameroon and Germany, and a 3-0 victory over Saudi Arabia. This set up a last-16 game with Group B winners Spain in the South Korean city of Suwon.

On the eve of the big game, an interview appeared in the Irish Independent with Jason McAteer - one of three Sunderland players in the squad alongside Niall Quinn and Kevin Kilbane - who had spoken to journalist Vincent Hogan about the wonderful reception the team had received in the country, his reflections on Keane’s boycott, and firstly the passion of the Korean fans whose team was doing so well in their home tournament:

It’s just fantastic, so much livelier than Japan. I love this because we’re right in the heart of it here. We were away from things in Chiba [in Japan]. This is great to see. Its a spectacle and the people are enjoying themselves. If they win tonight, I don’t think we’ll get any sleep... The Koreans here seem to be enjoying themselves, just like the Irish. You don’t see any trouble anywhere.

Korea did beat Portugal, and went all the way to the Semi Final in a remarkable run. The interview, however, inevitably turned to the topic of Keane, although Scouser Macca attempted to make light of a situation that was still headline news across the football world and had clearly caused hurt in the camp, laughing as he told the reporter:

Who? Oh him, yeah, yeah, I’d forgotten completely. ...He’s probably boll***d in a bar in Florida or showehere. There’s something wrong if he’s not. No, he’s probably on holiday watching the lads.

I mean, if I wasn’t here, I’d be on holiday in a bar somewhere, having a drink, watching everything. And I’m sure he’s exactly the same. I’m sure he’s wishing us all well. I’m sure he wishes us to do the best that we can.

This was a very very unfortunate situation that happened. And it’s something that got put to bed the week before the tournament started. It’s not been spoken about at all.

McAteer used the Irish Independent interview to announce that he was considering retiring from international football after the World Cup in order to concentrate on playing for Sunderland, and suspected that McCarthy would follow suit:

Sometimes I find myself going into international, not fully fit. Then travelling back from an away game on the Thursday and that’s not ideal preparation for the Premiership on a Saturday. Every game is big in the Premiership, especially for Sunderland. You need to be 100% right. And, sometimes, you come back shattered. I’m not sitting here saying I’m going to retire. I’m just thinking I’ve reached a landmark and I’d be going out at the top.

The next day, Spain beat Ireland on penalties to put an end to their hopes of reaching the latter stages of what was a very open and unpredictable competition. But it didn’t put an end to the clash between Keane and McAteer, which boiled over at the Stadium of Light on 31st August that year when the two clashed on the pitch.

The Sunderland man told Keane to “put all in your next book” and the Manchester United midfielder retaliated by elbowing his international midfield colleague in the face and receiving a red card as the 1-1 draw came to an end.

McAteer didn’t call it a day with his country until 2004, and Keane played on for Ireland until 2005, but the bad blood has lasted a full 20 years, with Macca saying he would put both Saipan and Roy Keane himself into ‘Room 101’.

Recently it was his and fellow former Sunderland player David Connelly’s turn to give their accounts of their relationship with Keane and what actually occurred in the pre-tournament camp to On The Ball.

All in all, it’s a hell of a story - the whole ‘Sundireland’ aspect of supporting Sunderland throughout the 2000s making it intriguing for the legion of supporters the club has on the other side of the Irish Sea, and the rest of our fanbase too.


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