FEATURES INTERVIEWS

IN CONVERSATION WITH STEPHANIE ROCHE, THE STORIED IRISHWOMAN ON A COMEBACK TRAIL

Stephanie Roche is widely known for that wondergoal which saw her earn a nomination for the 2014 Puskás Award. Her career, though, is more than just that and in this exclusive interview, she reveals all.

Amongst a small crowd of just around 95 people in a little-known league match between Peamount United and Wexford Youths, there wasn’t much expectation that this game would garner international attention. The two teams are hardly known – they’re two Irish clubs with small hopes and dreams, but in that match in 2013, there was to be a moment of sheer genius. These matches aren’t televised and very few people get to know about them, but in this particular encounter, one Stephanie Roche’s life would change.

She would score the sort of goal most professionals dream of – a strike of great suave and flair. Receiving the ball from a cross from the right side, she would control the ball, chip it back and over a defender with a deft touch before smashing it with her left foot from outside the box as it flew into the corner of the net – far from the goalkeeper’s reach. Roche would hit international popularity as Eileen Gleeson, her manager, uploaded the video on YouTube.

From there, there would be interviews from the world over, a starry night at the 2014 Ballon d’Or as she was nominated for the Puskás Award for the best goal of the year and much more. But for Stephanie Roche, her story goes beyond just one excellent goal, and in this exclusive chat with Football Chronicle, she reveals all.

Growing up in Ireland, the women’s game wasn’t all that prominent, but it was something she did well in, seeing as it was popular amongst the boys. It was in this way that she learned the trade and wanted to continue growing in the game. “Women’s football wasn’t big when I was growing up, but I played with the boys all the time. Football is a big sport in Ireland, our national sport is Gaelic football and our rugby team have a lot of success, but football is huge in Ireland. Everyday growing up we were out playing football, sometimes the whole estate – parents and all! I have great memories of learning the sport in the best way possible, on the streets with friends. “

Roche was born and brought up in Shankill, a suburb in the capital of Dublin, Ireland. Rather expectedly, she had to play with the boys of local team Valeview FC and that would be the start of her making the sport her career. It was with their assistance that she would take the next step and she has fond memories of her time there.

“I started playing for Valeview when I was 11. I spent everyday playing with the lads in my estate – we had a really good group of friends. It was through one of them that I ended up going to train with Valeview and then joined them. His mother came to me and asked if I’d be interested. I never really knew about the team for girls and wasn’t sure if the girls could play with the boys. I remember my dad bringing me to get my first pair of boots – a pair of Puma Kings – and I went to training that evening. I knew a lot of the boys on the team from playing in my estate, so the transition was easy for me with all of them there.”

Following her time with Valeview, Roche would go around Ireland in the hunt for solid opportunities. She would spend time at clubs such as Dundalk, Raheny and Peamount, but before all that were her early starts with Cabinteely and Stella Maris. These were important experiences in her younger years as she would set foundations for herself. In addition to that, she would also have a homely feeling, seeing as several of the players she played with and against were from the areas she grew up in.

Raheny United v Peamount United - Bus Éireann Women’s National League
PEAMOUNT UNITED WAS ONE OF ROCHE’S FIRST CLUBS IN IRELAND

Growing up, I went from team to team, mainly because clubs found it hard to keep players and the teams would disintegrate. I played for my first all-girls club, Cabinteely, and we had a great group. I loved it there. Our manager, Mick Caufield, was such a good man. We played against Stella Maris a few times, they were a really good team and had a lot of players from my area.”

“After we played them, I was asked to go train in the Wicklow academy with Tony Pouch, Hughie Nolan and Dave McGuirk – three great football men who ensured as young players that we enjoyed the game first and foremost, which I loved. After a few seasons at Cabinteely, a lot of girls left, and we didn’t have the same team, so I decided to leave and I joined some of the girls from the Wicklow academy at Stella Maris.”

At Stella, she would improve even further, playing good attacking football and learning in a better environment. In addition to that, she had a competent coaching staff that ensured she would get better.

But, due to the relative lack of interest in the women’s game, there would be change. “Stella was great, where I formed my partnership with Aine O’Gorman. We always played great together, we had an excellent young team I remember just loving playing football when I was there. Sean Ryder, our manager, was a great coach and just a really good guy. I’ve so many fond memories of Stella. Again though, things started to change, and we lost some players.”

“I played at Rahney and Dundalk before finding my place again at Peamount. I had initially planned to play for a local club, Bray/St Joseph’s, in the inaugural Women’s National League but was asked to be a guest player for Peamount in the Champions League qualifiers. We had a really good team, worked hard for each other and just gelled really well. I loved every minute of the Champions League campaign.”

Roche is full of praise for Eileen Gleeson, a manager she holds in high regard and credits massively and cherishes the time they spent together at Peamount. “Eileen Gleeson just had a way of getting the best from players, she didn’t focus on bad qualities in a player, she tried to improve the bad, of course, but focused on what each player was good at and it worked. We made history by being the first Irish team, male or female (at the time), to qualify for the knockout stages. Unfortunately, we got Paris Saint-Germain who were an incredible team! As a part time team, we put it up to them, but it was a step too far in the end.”

“After the Champions League, as agreed, I was to go back to play with Bray/St Joseph’s but as it turned out they pulled out of the league so in a way it was fate that I ended up signing for Peamount for the first Women’s National League. We won the league and I was top goalscorer!”

Football in Ireland has seen relative improvement over the last few years and Roche is proud to be part of that change. She does feel, though, that there is room for more and hopes that changes come around soon enough.

“Football in Ireland is big, there is a huge interest in the sport here. The women’s game is growing, and the men’s national league is also improving, but it simply needs more investment. Ideally, you want people in the country going to the local games but the reality of it is that most football fans travel to the United Kingdom to watch Manchester United, Celtic and the others. Until we can make the leagues more professional in Ireland I think we will continue to lag behind other countries.”

After impressing early in Ireland, Roche had a trial with Doncaster Rovers in England. That trial didn’t go to plan, but it is something she has taken positivity from. “I went to Doncaster on trial and if I’m honest I thought I did okay. I played a game with them and had positive chats with the coaches after the game but at the time I wasn’t the right fit for the club. I really believe that everything happens for a reason, I don’t think I was ready to go there at the time, I needed more time to grow as a player and I got that. Also, if I had gone, I wouldn’t have played for Peamount where I felt I came into my own as a player.”

Following her time in Peamount, Roche would have her first professional experience abroad, going to France to play with Albi. There, she faced issues with settling into her surroundings: the language, atmosphere and general adjustment to life weren’t all rainbows and unicorns. But, just like all negative experiences, this too was something Roche learned and grew from.

Albi was my first experience with professional football. I was on €700 a month, lived alone in a quiet rural village, didn’t speak the language and really felt quite isolated from my teammates. The club weren’t used to dealing with foreign players. I knew one girl at the club, Solene Barbanque, who I played with at Peamount. She got me to the club. She translated a lot for me when needed and really helped me in the first few weeks. Unfortunately, she left the club soon after I joined which really affected me. There was another girl who was close with Solene, Chloe, and was very welcoming with me, helped me integrate but she also left too.”

Roche continues: “There were a lot of things at the club that I didn’t agree with so after all this I decided for my own well-being and mental health that it was best for me to leave. I had a very good relationship with the manager and still speak to him to this day (through Google Translate!) but it just wasn’t meant to be at Albi for me. At the end of the day, if you’re not happy it’s not right to stay.”

Ireland
ROCHE HAS REPRESENTED IRELAND 50 TIMES SO FAR

After her journey in her home country as well as France, Roche would get American, English and Italian stamps on her passport, becoming a well-travelled athlete and having gone through many systems and changes. Each country has a different league and each league has a different style, meaning there was further footballing education for Roche.

I’ve been lucky to gain the experience of playing in different countries and I’ve used all of it as a learning curve. The differences in some countries are minimal, England and USA were quite similar in terms of professionalism and approach to the game. France was very technical, and I actually enjoyed the league but as I mentioned above, it was the stuff off the field that affected my time there.”

“America (Houston Dash) was a bit of a shock to the system when I first arrived, I’ve always been a technical player. I like to play, get on the ball, pass it and move. But in the US, it was mainly about strength, power, and fitness. Something that, if I’m honest, I lacked compared to other players who came through the US college systems into the league. Technically I was as good as most of the girls, but I needed time to adjust to the different style and unfortunately, it’s quite cutthroat there and I wasn’t afforded that time.”

She adds: “When I went to England (to Sunderland), my experience in the US stood to me. I was fitter and sharper. I also played a lot of my time in England out of position – on the wing and wing-back, which again was a new experience for me, and I tried to learn every game I played to be better in that position. I think as a player I am tactically aware and understand what’s needed in most positions so if I’m asked to play there I can do a job.”

“But ideally as a player, you want to play where you feel you can be most effective and for me, that’s through the middle. But as I said, each league I’ve played in I’ve learned something from and for that, I’m thankful and very grateful for the opportunities with the teams I played for.”

Roche was a relative unknown when she scored that wondergoal and naturally, there were a few positives and negatives of the sudden shot to international fame. She recalls the time fondly and remembers how she was impacted by it all. The Puskás experience for me was surreal. I was relatively unknown outside of Ireland, and all of a sudden I was doing interviews with sports channels all across Europe, South America – everywhere. It was an incredible experience and something that I have to say was 99 percent positive experience.”

“The number one thing for me was that so many people voted for me because they believed it was the best goal. To be amongst the names I was with and people to vote my goal into the top three was very humbling. Before all of it, I was a fairly shy and quiet person, I knew this was something that was going to give me opportunities to promote women’s football, particularly in Ireland”, she added.

Ever so passionate about the game, she wanted to use her status to improve the game in her region and encourage more Stephanie Roches in the future: “I suppose what I tried to do was use the platform I was given to try and promote the women’s game in Ireland. We have some fantastic players and I firmly believe that with some investment we could create a professional women’s league that would thrive.”

Roche continues: “We are still a long way off that, but I hope in the future it will happen. It also gave me some personal opportunities, mainly off the pitch, which once again I was new to, but throughout everything that was happening I really just tried to be myself and thankfully some brands saw me as a good ambassador for them and I have worked with and continue to work with some fantastic companies.”

Recent times have been a bit more difficult. Roche suffered a few long-term injuries which threatened her career growth and forced her to spend a lot of time on the sidelines. She has only made a comeback recently but was still struggling a bit and had to face a few testing phases as a footballer.

“The injury I had in 2017 was the hardest part of my career to date – mentally more than anything. Originally, it was suspected that I’d done a lot more damage. When I was told my knee was strong and it was ‘just a depressed fracture’ to my tibia, I was delighted. Twelve weeks out and I’d be back training.”

“The injury happened in our first qualifying match in September 2017 with Ireland and I was back training with Sunderland in late December. When I was given the all-clear by the doctors I remember thinking to myself, that it didn’t still feel right. But really I just put that down to me being over cautious after the initial injury. I was back running, doing strength work and more for two to three weeks and still felt a lot of pain. It wasn’t until I joined in playing and struck through the ball and felt a sharp severe pain that I knew it definitely wasn’t right”, Roche added.

Bdo
ROCHE ATTENDED THE 2014 FIFA BALLON D’OR AWARDS AS SHE WAS NOMINATED FOR THE PUSKÁS AWARD

“So, I went home to Ireland for another scan. It turned out I also had a stress fracture to my lower femur, which is what caused me the pain I was still getting but it had been missed before. I then started rehab again. My contract with Sunderland was up in June 2018 and I was only getting back running in August.”

Naturally, clubs considered whether they should give an extended period to a player that has struggled with injury, but Roche wanted to hold her own. “I did speak to Sunderland about re-signing for them, but the club were going through some changes and wouldn’t be playing in the Women’s Championship, so I decided not to sign. It was a big decision because I hadn’t played in a year and wasn’t going to be ready to play for a few months so I was uncertain where I would play.”

“I was also reading articles saying I’d retired from international football which infuriated me as playing for my country is a huge honour and I have no plans to announce my retirement anytime soon. I was fortunate to get an opportunity with a club in Italy, Florentia San Gimignano. I spent most of my first season regaining fitness and getting match sharpness so I’m happy to say they offered me a new deal and I’m hoping this season will be my official comeback!’

The women’s game in Italy is undergoing massive growth. They qualified for the Women’s World Cup for the first time in 20 years this past summer and teams such as Juventus, AC Milan and AS Roma have been intent on taking part in the revolution. Roche, too, is proud to be part of it and has been excited about her time in the country.

The league in Italy is really competitive. The style of football is entertaining, and they have some great players – as most people would have seen in the World Cup. It’s a growing league and there has been huge investment which can only make it stronger. The girls on the team are really friendly. This season there are more foreign players like me so that makes the transition a little easier. With the language, I’m learning every day. For the new season, I will have lessons also so I’m hoping that will help me improve. Right now, I can understand most but I’m not too confident in speaking it – also, my Irish accent can be hard for the girls to understand!”

As for her home country itself, she is hoping there are changes and is encouraged by recent times. Colin Bell, their most recent manager, changed the way of things for the women’s national team and enforced new methods – something Roche was incredibly impressed by: I think there were a lot of changes for the better with Colin Bell coming in. He brought a professional, positive mindset that I feel was there in parts before, but he really enforced it and got the best from the team. I really thought with time he would make us a successful national team.”

However, Bell left his role to take up the assistant manager’s position at Championship side Huddersfield Town. An opportunity like that was difficult to turn down and that has left Roche worried that the progress made by the national team will start to deteriorate – especially seeing as they haven’t yet brought in a permanent replacement.

“With his recent departure, if I’m honest? I’m worried. We currently don’t have a permanent manager and our first qualifier is in September. There is a lot of turmoil within the association at the moment and I worry that we won’t be a priority.”

She continued: “There are some fantastic people within the Football Association of Ireland, some of whom I’ve worked with and played under over the years and have great respect for. But I think it’s been proven that someone like Colin, with professional football experience (within the men’s and women’s game), a positive, winning mentality is what is needed to make real change within the Irish women’s team and I feel anything less than that will be a step backward for the national team. The overall goal, with the squad of players that we have, has got to be qualification for the Euros in 2021.”

Outside of football itself, there isn’t much that Roche saw herself doing. A perennial lover of the beautiful game, football was always her biggest interest and she sees her future in the game even after retirement. She has laid the groundwork to carry her passion forward and knowing how much she adores the sport, it’s likely she will do well there as well.

“For me it’s always been football, if I wasn’t playing, I believe I would definitely be involved in some way. I love kids and really enjoy coaching them. Seeing them learn and have fun is really a great feeling. I recently started my own coaching organisation and it has been so good to see it grow and see that our coaching can help young players to better their game and have fun while doing it!”

Florentia
ROCHE CURRENTLY PLIES HER TRADE IN ITALY WITH FLORENTIA

For now, though, Roche’s aim is to get back into full swing and win some admirers in Italy. She has had an incredible career and story so far, and she wants to add to that by putting her injury woes behind her and succeeding in Serie A with Florentia: “This is a big year for me, I believe that having been out for so long that I need this season to be a good one for myself. I’m excited to get going fully in Serie A with Florentia and really get back to enjoying my football. My main goal for the coming months is to play well for my club and get back into the Irish squad.”

There’s a big season ahead, one where she needs to prove herself once again and put the doubters away. Roche hit international fame with a superb goal, but her career is more than just that. She looks forward to enjoying a resurgent season as she aims to remind everyone of how good she is.

BY KARAN TEJWANI