Jason McAteer on the Roy Keane he knows and the Roy Keane the public sees
Fourteen years on, the fallout from Saipan continues.
Roy Keane's controversial decision to walk out on the Republic of Ireland on the eve of the 2002 World Cup not only deprived them of their captain and most influential player, it created divisions that are still to be healed. For Jason McAteer it was the moment when an already difficult relationship with Keane broke down altogether. It is still to be repaired.
The paths of the former team mates might continue to cross but words are never shared. Being in the same room as one another might happen by chance but they may as well be in different continents. Bad blood runs too deep for a rapprochement and although McAteer continues to maintain that he would be open to an outbreak of peace, two recent encounters with his one time captain have left him with the impression that Keane has no interest in being friends.
“I couldn't tell you the last time I spoke to him,” McAteer says at the launch of his new autobiography, Blood, Sweat and McAteer.
“People ask me if I'd ever want to make up with Roy Keane but it's not about that, my hand is open and always has been and I'm always there for a chat if he wants to engage. I was at Wembley for a cup final a couple of years ago and I held the door open for him.
“He was working for ITV and I'd been working in the next box but I'd finished. As I walked in I've gone through the door, looked behind me and spotted him and I held the door open for him but he's just walked through it and straight past me without even acknowledging me. It was an opportunity for him to say hello but he didn't want to know."
“I'm also an ambassador for the FAI," he added, "so I've bumped into him in the lounges after games. He comes up and does a bit of speaking and on one occasion, about two or three games ago, he came off the stage after finishing and he had to walk past us on the table. He shook hands with Paul McGrath and Ray Houghton but he just blanked me and carried on walking. But listen, he's got his own reasons.”
In some ways, McAteer is one of the least likely adversaries Keane would have. In others, it seems that their mutual antagonism is unavoidable. While McAteer is not a natural enemy for most he has come across in football, his willingness to stand up to Keane, most notably in the aftermath of Saipan, has ensured that the duo have drifted apart to the point that even past shared experiences cannot bring them together.
Asked why, unlike many who have shared a dressing room with Keane, he has not been prepared to bend to his will, McAteer believes his own background made that unavoidable.“Because one, I've been brought up that way. And because two, the Liverpool/Man United relationship that we had at the time means that you can't [back down]. At the end of the day, I've got my beliefs and he's got his and if I don't agree with him I'm not going to ride along just because it's Roy Keane. I'll stand up to him or I'll go against what he thinks.
“There's a bit of fear that comes with him. He likes people to fear him and not a lot of people have spoken out against him because of that. But if I get asked a question I tell the truth, that's how it is, and if the story involves Roy Keane so be it. Maybe other players would shy away from talking about him, particularly if it's in a way that he might not like, but I've always called things as I see them..
“There's an infatuation with me and Roy Keane in Ireland. In some ways I keep it going but I always try to do it in a jovial way. I'm never disrespectful to him. He plays a pantomime villain. I know him, I know there's a soft side to him, a funny side to him and a nice side to him. But there's also a side where he plays that pantomime villain to everyone."
“If you ask the lads in the Ireland dressing room," he continues, "they will tell you that what you see on the television is not him. I'm telling you now that it's not him. But he doesn't like me telling you that. It's kind of like I'm banging on his armour and I'm exposing him a bit. I don't think he likes that but I'm saying it an endearing way because I see a different side to him. He makes me laugh when he plays that pantomime villain but I know he's doing it for a reason.”
Regardless of their conflicting characters, the inevitable tension that comes from one being Liverpool and the other being Manchester, and the strength of each of their personalities, there is no question that all roads in the breakdown in their relationship lead back to Saipan. McAteer's blow-by-blow account of the infamous confrontation between Keane and Mick McCarthy that led to the former storming out of Ireland's camp and returning to the UK is unlikely to bring him any closer to his old foe but he does admit to sympathising with the reasons for his outburst, if not the timing of it. He said:
“In the case of the World Cup, I actually agree with what he was saying [about the facilities in Saipan] but he did it at the wrong time,” McAteer says. “The training ground could have been better but he should have just waited. I just think he was just in a bad place at the time and I think he made a decision that, and I admit I can't speak for him, he regrets but he would never let you know that because doing so would be a sign of weakness.
“I do think he may have thought that he should have just waited until we got to Japan. But then you also have to throw into the mix my relationship with Mick – I was very much in Mick's camp and he was very much against that and maybe there were times when I would stick up for Mick a little bit too much – as well as the Liverpool/Man United thing and the fact that I'll stand up to him.”
The extent of their feud became public just months after the 2002 World Cup when Keane was sent off for elbowing McAteer in the final minutes of Manchester United's 1-1 draw with Sunderland at the Stadium of Light. An earlier clash between the pair during the same game had culminated in Keane threatening to rip McAteer's head off, a declaration that the Sunderland midfielder famously told him to include in his next book.
Now that McAteer has used his own autobiography to lay bare his version of their conflict he is anticipating further retribution from Keane, only this time it will be verbal rather than physical. “I'm thoroughly expecting that the next time he gets interviewed there'll be a belittlement on the way because that's the way he'll deal with it. He'll belittle me and he'll discredit me. Do your worst.”
Blood, Sweat and McAteer: A Footballer's Story is published by Hodder & Stoughton and is released on Thursday 29 September.