It Was a Defining Moment in Irish History. Mick Was on the Floor Having Been Brutally Torn to Shreds by Keane and the Handshake That Infuriated Ferguson; Niall Quinn on the Stormy World Cup Showdown in Saipan

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Byline: DAVID THOMAS

NIALL QUINN struggles to fit his long, lanky frame into a hotel armchair, like a giraffe trying to squeeze into a bucket.

For half an hour he has been friendliness itself, answering questions with a smile, joking with the hotel staff, chatting to people as they come up to pay their respects.

But now the smiles have turned into a grimace. His big hands reach down and start fiddling nervously with his socks and the cuffs of his faded jeans. The subject has turned to Roy Keane.

Over the past few months, Keane has become perhaps the most talked-about, most judged man in Britain and Ireland alike. Now Quinn is adding his two penn'orth to the debate with his own autobiography.

Quinn has been called both a muppet and a coward by Keane, who felt the Sunderland man sided against him with Republic of Ireland manager Mick McCarthy - and the accusations have stung.

'I know what I would have done if I were a coward,' says Quinn. 'I'd have gone up to my room, or gone for a walk while everyone else went through their press conferences.

Ultimately, all I'd have done would have put Mick McCarthy in a weaker position.' Yet Quinn never rushes to judgment or trades insults in return.

'It's not the time now for pointing fingers and saying: "It's Roy Keane's fault",' he adds. 'A layman's assessment might be that Roy blew his top and showed absolutely no remorse until it was too late.

'At the time it all happened, I felt he had really let us down. I couldn't believe that, whatever problems were getting to him, he could let them come before the World Cup.

'But now, with all the lies and mistruths that have been flying around about this extraordinary affair, all I can do is to try to be fair to all sides, Roy more than anyone. I've shown the mistakes that were made, not just by Roy, but by all of us, including myself.'

IN QUINN'S opinion, 'Roy is the biggest victim of all here.

We'll never have to deal with the hurt he's suffering. No matter how sorry the rest of us were feeling for ourselves, we had a great World Cup. There was a feeling of a job well done in difficult circumstances. Roy just has an empty hole.

'When all the anger dies down, he will have to live with the fact that he was in his prime. He had the opportunity to confirm his standing in world football. And he somehow got himself into the position to walk away from it.'

Quinn sighs and shakes his head.

Even now, months later, his sense of disbelief is as strong as ever.

'Roy could have been the greatest player in the World Cup,' he says.

'He could have had immortality for all the right reasons. Why couldn't he put that above his own desire for perfection? The rest of us put up with the t-shirts being wrong in training.' Perhaps, I suggest, Keane simply could not bear the self-imposed pressure, the expectation piling up on him as Ireland's greatest star.

Perhaps, subconsciously, he just wanted to escape a situation that had become unbearable.

'It could be that, I don't know,' replies Quinn. 'Maybe the whole thing was getting to him. But I can't condemn Roy. Enough people have kicked lumps out of him. Half the reason he's got to this stage in the first place is because people keep kicking lumps out of him.' What makes Quinn's revelations all the more damning is the patent decency and fairness with which they are made. The evidence speaks for itself, perhaps even more than Quinn himself realises.

For he knew Roy Keane back in the days when he was just another young, hungry addition to Jack Charlton's Irish band of 'rag-arse rovers', as Quinn describes them.

'I think back on all the good times together. The younger Roy had a twinkle in his eye. He was fiercely determined to do well, but he was still one of the lads. …