Without wanting to revisit Saipan and all that went on, maybe it’s time to look at it from a different perspective. Let’s look at the positives that have occurred as a result of it. Yes, while everyone debates the rights and wrongs of it, something else also occurred. Expectations rose and as a result of the fallout and essentially because of Roy Keane, we’ve never had as much sporting success in this country at local, provincial and national levels. The standards Keane set for himself and the standards set for the Irish team were miles apart. Keane’s expectations and the Irish team’s expectations greatly differed, some turned up for a piss up, Keane only ever turned up to win. Moral victories didn’t cut it. Keane demanded more, he was used to better at Manchester United and couldn’t see why the Irish players were happy to be treated like second class citizens in terms of preparation, travel, training facilities etc… At the very least, he wanted a level playing field before they took to the pitch. Nothing unrealistic here, let’s give ourselves the best chance we can and see where it takes us. It was perhaps the first time an Irish sports star publicly demanded better, he demanded more, he wanted to win.
Look at what has happened since at provincial rugby level. Munster rugby had failed on two previous occasions to lift the Heineken cup. Men like Axel Foley, O’Connell and O’ Gara would have taken note. They were the driving forces behind Munster rugby, and still are in Foley’s and O’Connell’s case. They would have raised expectations within the group. Success followed. They won the next two Heineken Cup finals they played in. They weren’t a team full of superstars and weren’t a flamboyant team but they played to their strengths and ultimately were rewarded.
Leinster rugby were in Munster’s shadow for much of the 2000’s and were seen as perennial underachievers in Europe. Always close but no cigar. In the years that followed, they smoked three of the finest cigars and became the ring bearers not alone in Ireland but in Europe. As a result of provincial success in Europe, it resulted in numerous triple crowns and a first grand slam for the Irish rugby team in 69 years. At the core of the Leinster and Irish teams was Brian O ‘Driscoll. One of our greatest ever sportsmen and a known admirer of Keane, O’ Driscoll became the go to guy in both teams. He challenged himself and challenged those around him. Talk of winning World Cups was been mentioned, surely a first. It showed how far we’d come.
On a local level in the winter of 2002, following Saipan that summer, the Cork hurlers went on strike. After a poor campaign in 2002, they had had enough. They demanded more. Keane would have been proud. They heaped pressure on themselves by going on strike but they backed it up too. They appeared in the next four All-Ireland finals winning two. In fact, Keane himself met the group during this time and challenged them to win three and four in a row. This proved elusive but again here is Keane challenging others the same way he challenged himself.
Inter county hurling and football teams throughout the country continued to raise standards in the 00’s and continue to do so. Look at how many different football teams won All-Ireland’s, some for the first time. It was in our nature to compete gallantly and hope to spring the odd surprise. Keane changed and raised expectations. Competing was no longer enough, winning was the goal. Take someone like Kieran McGeeney from Armagh. The heartbeat of the Armagh footballers, the leader, the general. He’s cut from the same cloth as Keane. Always demanding more, expecting more. He eventually led Armagh to All-Ireland glory. Even as manager of the Kildare footballers, he challenged them individually and collectively. Johnny Doyle, who recently retired from Inter county football with Kildare tells a story regarding McGeeney. Johnny was on the B team in an A v B game in training and approached McGeeney questioning this. McGeeney responded and challenged Doyle. He wanted him not only to be the best forward in Kildare but one of the best in the country. He wanted more from Doyle and this was his way of challenging him.
Imagine if Keane had played in the 2002 soccer world cup, could Ireland have won it or at the least, made it to the final? It was a fairly average World Cup won by Brazil who defeated Germany in the final. The very same Germans we drew with, albeit with a last minute equaliser, without Keane. Turkey won the third place play-off against South Korea. In 2004, Greece won Euro 2004 with hard work, organisation and a solid game plan. Why not us in 2002? With the same attitude and more talented players, we could have. But we didn’t believe we could, we were happy to be there.
Since Keane’s outburst, we’ve had other success stories. We all jumped on the bandwagon following the Irish cricketers’ at the last cricket world cup, more recently we had Rob Heffernan’s win at the world championships and Katie Taylor continues to dominate women’s boxing. The Cork women’s footballers have won the last nine out of ten All- Ireland’s while the Irish women’s rugby team won the grand slam just recently. How much of an effect Saipan had on these successes is debatable, the effect Keane had on raising standards is not. He demanded more, he challenged people, he inspired individuals and teams. Despite all that’s gone on, we owe him a depth of gratitude for changing the mentality of sports people. The days of turning up unprepared are over, expectations continue to rise. We no longer hope to compete, we expect to.
Everyone loves an underdog but secretly even the underdog dreams of success!