New screenplay will detail the Saipan saga


Michael Brady

“WHERE were you when Kennedy was shot? Where were you when the Berlin Wall came down? Where were you… when Roy Keane was sent home from the World Cup?”

Big questions all around, but regarding the latter of those three groundbreaking moments in history, the story of the infamous Irish team bust-up in Saipan is now being made into a screenplay. And what’s more, it’s been penned by The Irish Voice’s own Johnny Foley who explained his reasons for taking up his latest project.

“I suppose I’ve always enjoyed dabbling in the creative side of writing when I have the time,” he said. “Even though I’ve often taught Shakespearean plays in schools, I thought a screenplay might be a fun project to keep me busy.”

For the unaware, The Saipan Affair derives from a notorious few days in May 2002. A time when the spotlights descended on the Republic of Ireland team just before that summer’s World Cup finals tournament in Japan and South Korea.

Team-captain Roy Keane and manager Mick McCarthy had a spat so furious at the Hyatt Regency Hotel on the island of Saipan, that the manager effectively sent his captain home.

A frenzy over who was right and who was wrong gripped the nation. Almost to the point of Civil War, some said, as disputes between friends, co-workers and even families became rampant.

It seemed that the battle for public support via the media was campaigned by both Keane and McCarthy and it even went so far that the leaders of the newly-elected government got involved.

“I was about 17 years old at the time, so I can remember it all really well,” Johnny added. “There was no social media back then, of course, but rumours and rumblings flew as the disagreements deepened.”

Through careful research over the last few months, Johnny delved into autobiographies, archived newspaper articles and televised interviews to try and make some sense of the incident.

This paved the way for him to create a narrative from factual information that came out from the team’s training camp, but of course, there was time to generate some fictional fun too.

“The story is mainly told through a pair of feuding next-door neighbours during the whole saga, one pro-Keane, the other a bit more conflicted, and those lads were great fun to write,” Johnny enthused. “During the writing process for those two—Whacker and Denis as I called them—I guess I drew inspiration from those Roddy Doyle films like The Van and The Snapper, where Colm Meaney is often eyeballing the ones next door.”

“Getting information from what exactly happened in Saipan was a bit trickier, and of course, I had to dramatise some parts like the dialogue, but I did try to stay as true to the sources as I could” he added.

A book called The Gaffers by Paul Howard got the idea rolling for Johnny. This was mainly because—unlike the autobiographies—this one took more of a neutral stance on the matter.

“That book was a tremendous help because I really didn’t want to make the screenplay look as though I was favouring McCarthy over Keane, or vice-versa; it’s better to let the audience decide for themselves really,” Johnny said. “Red Mist was also a brilliant resource. I found it on YouTube. It’s a short mixture of documentary footage to a kind of heartfelt family story that anyone can enjoy. Not just football fans.

“Much of the screenplay is based on the theme of nostalgia. Essentially, it centres on two characters and their families living in the world of restrictions, social distancing and a time of mental health awareness casting their minds back to the economic boom 2002.

“Having said that, a large chunk of the storyline focuses on the players and coaches on the island.”

Casting one’s mind back though was something Johnny himself had to do plenty of during the long hours of writing.

“It’s crazy but it just doesn’t seem like 18 years ago, but yeah, to get in the zone, I’d play pop songs from that era while writing and it was kinda cool to go back in time a little bit,” he said. “The only problem was I had the likes of Avril Lavigne, Nickleback and Missy Elliot songs stuck in my head for a solid week after. Ah but no, honestly, it was great fun.”

What’s next for this particular project is hard to know. Maybe it’ll just gather dust in a drawer, maybe a drama group will pick it up or maybe Martin Scorsese might happen to wander up to a house in the Gortlee area sometime soon!

You can follow Johnny’s progress via the Facebook page entitled ‘The Saipan Affair’