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Stephanie Roche interview: Ireland striker and the homeland hitmakers

 

Stephanie Roche’s name has spread far and wide over the past couple of years, introducing the Irish international to situations and settings that may once have been inconceivable, although no matter where the ride takes the Sunderland striker, the steady sounds of home remain.

For the Shankill native, her standing in the women’s game has developed over time, with her days as a youth international eventually leading to a 2008 debut with the Irish senior squad. Steph’s magnificent volleyed goal for Peamount United against Wexford Youths in October 2013 took her all the way to the star-studded FIFA Ballon d’Or ceremony last January and has come to be instantly connected to her every mention.

The strike was an online sensation, attracting millions of views and ultimately earning her second place in FIFA’s 2014 Puskás Award after an overwhelming wave of support and over a million public votes for the forward. Being a prominent part of the showpiece occasion in Zurich was a spectacular experience to usher in an incredibly eventful 2015 which brought a move to the U.S. with Houston Dash, a later switch to Sunderland, as well as continued involvement in her country’s latest on-field pursuits.

While it is true that a lot of the wider footballing world and beyond got to know of Steph for that famous goal, there is so much more to the 26-year-old’s story. There have been heartaches to go with the highs and it has been an ever-changing recent picture for her in many senses, with her club career taking in three new countries in the last two years.

Steph became a full-time professional for the first time with France’s ASPTT Albi in 2014, and although you now find her in Sunderland, home signifies a consistency for a player and person who is immensely proud of her Irish roots. On top of life on and off the pitch, we discuss the musical side of players on here and how it enjoys its own role in their career. Steph explains how it is a constant backdrop to Ireland’s women’s national team and representative of familiarity in her life.

“When we’re away with the Irish team we’ve got a few musical talents. One of the girls plays the guitar very well, Karen Duggan, and Julie-Ann Russell plays the tin whistle, which I know a lot of people won’t know much about but it’s involved in a lot of Irish music.

“When we’re away we often have a little céilí…I don’t know if you know what that means! It would probably be myself, Karen, Julie-Ann, Áine O’Gorman, Ruesha Littlejohn, and we’d usually at the end of trips have a bit of a sing-song and a bit of a laugh.”

A champion in the inaugural Irish Women’s National League campaign with Peamount United in 2011/12, Steph was the division’s leading scorer in two of the first three seasons. At national team level, she is an undoubtedly experienced player and currently part of a group aiming to deliver Ireland’s first qualification for a major women’s international tournament as they bid to make Euro 2017.

Of course it is never solely down to the eleven on the pitch in determining a team’s success and Steph describes how a duo from the backroom staff recently proved they have multiple attributes at their disposal.

“Two of the staff members when we went away with the Irish team a couple of months ago had an initiation. Obviously it’s kind of cringeworthy when people get up and start singing but they were actually really good.

“Our kitwoman, Clare Conlon, sang a song and then the goalkeeping coach, Micheál Schlingermann, got up as well. In Sunderland, there’s a young girl who plays for the reserve team, Tyler Dodds, who’s actually a very good singer and she does some really good covers and goes around places singing too, so I could see a future for her in singing as well as football.”

For any lover of the game, the idea that someone could play professional football without being fanatical about it is hard to comprehend, though there are examples of players who’ve admitted just that. The same is not even close to being true for Steph, who grew up playing the archetypal robust street football back home in Shankill, County Dublin, taking the rough with the smooth as she established an understanding and love of the game’s core principles.

The youngest of four children – she has two older brothers, Paul and Eric, and a sister, Sinead – Manchester United fan Steph has found that football is never far from her family. Her mother, Anne, and father, Fergus, have supported her throughout the way, ultimately being able to see her represent her country on the pitch, as well as flying the flag beyond it.

The Irish influences naturally made it into her childhood music choices, although her first ever CD was one from the winners of the UK TV show Popstars back in 2001.

“The first song I ever bought was ‘Pure and Simple’ (Hear’Say) and I remember buying the single in the shop near where I live. I would’ve probably been a big Westlife fan growing up, I think everybody in the area was, obviously with them being Irish and being so popular around the world.

“When I got a bit older Black Eyed Peas came out with ‘Where Is the Love?’ and I loved them at the time as well. I loved all sorts of music and I used to love Eminem and used to own loads of his albums.

“I had a different array of music in my house when I was growing up. I’m kind of open-minded with music; I like listening to everything that’s in the charts really.

“Ed Sheeran at the minute’s been really good and Justin Bieber’s been one of my guilty pleasures, which is the same for a lot of people because he’s come out with some classics lately! I listen to all types; rap, hip-hop, pop, whatever has a feel-good thing to it.

“I kind of like the new song ‘7 Years’ (Lukas Graham).”

Joining Sunderland part-way through the 2015 FA Women’s Super League, Steph notched her first goal for the club in July as they beat Everton 5-2 in the Continental Cup. Carlton Fairweather’s side defied expectations to challenge at the top and ultimately finish 4th in their debut WSL 1 campaign and all efforts for Steph in the early months of 2016 have been focused upon hitting the ground running this season.

Teams will feel this year they are more aware of what Sunderland bring to the league, although the squad will be confident they can be a formidable proposition once again. Behind the scenes, Steph shares some of what can be heard when it comes to the dressing room tracklist on match day.

“Again, anything that’s in the charts I suppose. The DJ tends to be whoever has their phone handy; Beth Mead or Brooke Chaplen I suppose would be the ones.

“At Sunderland we listen to music in the dressing room but it’s not kind of something they’re adamant about, whereas with the Irish team we always have to have a set playlist and people go around getting a song from each player and stuff like that.”

 

Steph (right) with Sunderland goalkeeper Hilde Gunn Olsen. instagram.com/stephanieroche9

Steph (right) with Sunderland goalkeeper Hilde Gunn Olsen. instagram.com/stephanieroche9

 

In the Irish senior team at present, there are a group of players Steph has been familiar with at both club and international level for a number of years. One of those is a defender who has been plying her trade in Sweden for the last three years and was an integral part of the Eskilstuna United side that finished just a point from Damallsvenskan champions FC Rosengård last year, sealing UEFA Champions League qualification in the process.

The 25-year-old was on Steph’s side when Peamount United made the Champions League knockout phase in August 2011 after a 5-1 win (in which Steph scored two) over Estonia’s Pärnu JK that lives long in the memory of those who represented Peamount. The group they contested was hosted by Slovenian team Krka, an opponent Peamount beat 7-0 with a brace coming from Steph and a hat-trick from 2013 FAI Senior Women’s International Player of the Year, Quinn.

While the footballing aspect may speak for itself, Steph knows another side of her teammate and she was the first of two she mentioned when asked about those who aren’t afraid of showing off their musical side, in whatever way that may be!

“Who am I gonna stitch up here?! Louise Quinn is known for a few dances and I’ve seen her put up a few dodgy videos from her club, Eskilstuna.

“Ruesha Littlejohn is overall a bit mad so she’d be one who wouldn’t be shy to get up and dance or sing or anything like that, so I’d say maybe the two of them.”

Littlejohn, who rejoined nine-time consecutive Scottish champions Glasgow City this year, is one of the footballing performers Steph singles out, but taking it completely over to music, which artists has she seen in person?

“I went to see Rihanna in Dublin about five years ago and she was a very good performer, I really enjoyed the gig. I also saw Black Eyed Peas.

“At the minute I don’t really have much time to go to gigs but they’d be the top two I remember.”

It was after a friend’s mother noticed her talent that Steph joined her first team, the boys side Valeview FC, although the time came when rules stipulated that she could no longer play on a mixed team. She subsequently went to Cabinteely Girls, and senior Ireland coach at the time, Noel King, told her after a game he was watching that she’d play for the full side one day if she kept up her progress.

Steph still remembers the impact her coaches had on her during her time at next club Stella Maris, and it was there that she and others came to the point as teenagers where it was a case of either drifting away from the game or making sacrifices to carry on. Going on to represent the likes of Dundalk City and Raheny United before Peamount, Steph had played her whole career in her homeland before a completely new challenge with French team ASPTT Albi two years ago.

One of the standout moments was when a French TV station came to training and had Steph recreate her famous goal, which she duly managed to do. Along with the task of staking her claim in a new team and living away from home in a different culture, there was also an initiation to be tackled and she explains the reasoning behind her song of choice.

“I remember when I was in France I had to sing a song and one of the girls told me to sing ‘Oh Happy Day’ out of Sister Act because obviously a lot of them didn’t really know a lot of the music I listen to. It was a bit embarrassing; I’m not a great singer but I suppose it had to be done at the time!”

Steph’s first senior international goal was one to remember as she came off the bench to grab the winner on 87 minutes in a 2-1 World Cup qualifying win over Kazakhstan in 2009. Last March saw her take a bouncing cross on the chest before hitting an inch-perfect volley from outside the box to score against Costa Rica in the Croatian-hosted Istria Cup.

As a forward, understandably some of her most vivid and enjoyable memories are of goals, but her part in the Irish team goes comfortably beyond just trying to find the net. Asked about a cover song she’d record with any career teammates, she referred back to the ensemble she mentioned earlier with Julie-Ann Russell, Áine O’Gorman, Ruesha Littlejohn, and also Karen Duggan, who would be driving the group on.

“As I said, Karen’s very good on the guitar and I suppose one of the songs we’d sing together would be ‘Fast Car’ by Tracy Chapman. She plays that really well and she’s actually quite a good singer as well, so we’d all just kind of join in with that.

“A lot of Irish music as well, kind of Irish folk music, ‘Dirty Old Town’ by The Dubliners, things like that. Overall if someone shouts out a suggestion she’ll try and play it and we’ll sing along, so it can be a bit of a laugh.”

During the 2015 World Cup qualifiers, Ireland ran Germany extremely close in Dublin’s Tallaght Stadium. The April 2014 clash with the two-time world champions saw Louise Quinn’s early opener cancelled out by a Simone Laudehr penalty before Lena Lotzen gave the visitors the lead on 84 minutes.

Steph levelled at 2-2 on 89 minutes, only for Melanie Leupolz to snatch a German win in injury time. In that qualifying campaign, Steph also got a dramatic winner against Slovakia, but although they won half their games, Sue Ronan’s side finished 3rd behind Russia and group winners Germany, who won all ten of their fixtures.

Having competed with the leading nations in her career up to now, Steph’s big ambition is to reach a major tournament. Ireland have beaten Portugal away but also suffered defeats to Finland and Spain in the early exchanges of their Euro 2017 qualifying group and in April they will travel to both Montenegro and Spain.

Although just 26 herself, Steph is one who can really offer something to the squad’s up-and-coming prospects. Speaking also about her own breakthrough, she gives praise to the youngsters currently making their mark, with a former Peamount colleague who has just won Senior FAI Women’s Player of the Year and signed for Steph’s old team Houston Dash the first of those she highlights.

“I suppose what sticks out is we’ve had a lot of good young talents come through. I think the standout player over the last couple of seasons has been Denise O’Sullivan; she came through the Under-17 side that qualified for the World Cup and she’s done really well.

“A few of them have come through like Clare Shine, Katie McCabe, and obviously as well as that we still have the likes of Emma Byrne, Áine O’Gorman, and I suppose myself to a certain degree, who’ve been there a long time. It’s that mixture of youth and experience we have that we’re hopeful will help us qualify for a tournament, because that’s what we want to do.

“I think I was very lucky when I came into the squad because Noel King was the manager at the time and I’d known him for a long time through my football with Stella Maris and obviously with the underage teams. He was always someone who encouraged me, as well as gave out to me when I needed that as well, and I think I learned a lot from him as a coach.

“Obviously I believed in my ability but he kind of reassured me how good I was and I owe a lot to him with how my career’s gone.”

 

 

The smallest decisions and actions can end up shaping something so much bigger and that was undoubtedly the case with Steph’s FIFA-nominated goal. It was reported that only around 95 spectators were in Ferrycarrig to see Peamount United beat home side Wexford Youths 6-1 in October 2013, but thanks to someone filming the game, the world was able to see the first of Steph’s two goals as she cushioned Áine O’Gorman’s cross with her right before flicking over the defender’s head and unleashing an outstanding left-footed volley into the net.

Peamount coach Eileen Gleeson uploaded the clip to YouTube and shared on social media to start what turned into a wave of attention beyond the imaginable. Just over a year later, it was one of ten nominated for the FIFA Puskás Award before making the final three alongside goals from that year’s World Cup from the Netherlands’ Robin van Persie and Colombia’s James Rodriguez.

Although Rodriguez’ volley against Uruguay won, Steph managed to poll 33% of the 3.3million public votes to finish in 2nd and there were many well-known figures who believe her goal deserved to win. She was a notable attendee at the Ballon d’Or ceremony in Zurich, alongside fellow footballer and long-term boyfriend Dean Zambra, who himself has come up with a stunning strike before, for Bray Wanderers against Athlone.

The ceremony was screened for a large following of friends and family at the pub Brady’s back home in Shankill, which also hosted a homecoming party for Steph, with those present including 2012 Olympic gold medal-winning boxer and former football teammate for Ireland, Katie Taylor. The strike was a truly superb example of footballing flair, but beneath all that media attention there was a person trying to adapt to it all as best she could.

This was also a player who’d represented her country on many occasions and played in the Champions League (facing Paris Saint-Germain in the 2011/12 knockout phase) during her career. For an already accomplished footballer in her own right, despite the undoubted greater good of the exposure it brought to the women’s game, what were her feelings on having to constantly replay the same moment in interviews?

“I think it kind of showed how little people knew about women’s football, for me anyway because people were like, ‘Who’s this person coming out of nowhere and scoring the goal?’ and that just for me showed how much they didn’t know about women’s football. That’s nobody’s fault, I think it was just a lack of coverage on it up until maybe two years ago.

“I’d been playing senior international football since 2008 and I obviously played underage football before that, so that was something I knew myself, but I never was going to shout at people because they didn’t know it. The exposure that it got was unbelievable and for my goal to be nominated for a FIFA award was something I never thought would happen.

“I had to learn quickly how to deal with it and I was lucky that I had help from the likes of Karla – Karla’s my boyfriend’s sister – she’d worked in media before so she knew what people wanted to know. She was really good with scheduling the interviews because it was crazy; I was literally on the phone five or six hours of the day trying to do interviews and it was something that I wasn’t used to.

“It was a great experience but it was tough at the time. I remember I couldn’t sleep because I was having to get up in the middle of the night doing interviews with people all over the world.

“I tried to put women’s football under the spotlight as much as I could because I’m not the only female footballer who can score goals like that and I’m not going to be the only one to ever do it either.”

 

Photo: Karla Zambra

Photo: Karla Zambra

 

In February last year, it was announced that Houston Dash of the National Women’s Soccer League had signed Steph, with head coach Randy Waldrum describing her as ‘possibly the best goalscorer to come out of Ireland since Olivia O’Toole’ and speaking in very complimentary terms about her technical ability. There was great surprise from many when Steph was waived by the Dash three months later after two sub appearances in the NWSL to free up an international spot on their 20-player roster as they bid to reinforce their backline.

On so many occasions in life it seems that things happen for a reason and much like Steph’s goal being captured on video, maybe the same was true with this. She has since returned to the U.S. to play the national team as a starter with Ireland in January with over 23,000 watching in San Diego, as well as facing the Under-23s with the seniors during their time in California.

Would she, however, consider returning full-time with a Stateside club one day in her career?

“I think I’d have second thoughts; I wouldn’t be as quick to jump on it the second time. Playing in England, I think it’s more suited to the way I play football and I’d be happier to stay closer to home.

“At the same time, if an opportunity arose and it was the right move for me I would consider it, but right now I’d be more inclined to stay where I am. I’ve said before that I think I would have been stupid not to take the opportunity and I know Randy had to let me go in the end but at the same time he still gave me the opportunity to go over.

“I always said I’m very thankful for that but the football over there as a business is kind of cutthroat and I suppose I never expected what happened to happen. I only started playing professional football in France for a year before and I suppose I was new to that life.

“I think I needed a bit of time to adjust and overall I felt I was doing ok in training, but as I say it’s a business and they didn’t have the time to let me settle in, I suppose. I’ve been lucky enough since coming to Sunderland that I’ve been given that opportunity to settle in and I think that’s the difference over here; it’s a bit more player-friendly, rather than club-friendly.”

Following her time in Houston, there was other NWSL interest in Steph, who briefly spent time with Boston Breakers prior to heading back over the Atlantic. She explains why it was England’s North East and not America’s that came next for her.

“I was in America still and my flights for home were booked for four weeks or so later. When someone got in touch and asked if I’d like to go down and visit I kind of had already been in talks with Sunderland and was planning to come here anyway, but I just said I’d go, kind of out of courtesy to the person who’d organised it for me.

“I went down for a week and trained with the team for two days, I think it was, because they had a match at the time and I went to watch them play. It was good but I just felt it wasn’t the right fit for me.

“I think the manager at the time (Tom Durkin) has gone now and with everything that had gone wrong at Houston I didn’t want to experience something bad again, so I felt I wanted to come home, see my family and look at Sunderland before I made any decisions.”

The first woman to ever make the final Puskás Award nominations, Steph was a guest of honour at the White House on St. Patrick’s Day last year and later received a letter of thanks from President Obama for gifts she gave to his family. Exactly a year earlier, she was marking the day at the celebrations in Bray with her niece and nephew, and even with all the spotlight that has fallen on her since, there has never been a hint of her losing her charmingly grounded personality.

She reflects on how the incredible experiences and the harsh lessons have all gone together, especially in more recent times.

“I kind of have learned how to handle myself better and obviously being trusting to the media. The way I was, I never expected that to happen to me and the way it all came about was very quick and very strange for me.

“I had to handle myself in the best way possible and I had to learn quickly how to do it. I think I’ve become a better person in the process; I’ve had to deal with some bad news and some great things that have happened to me.

“I’ve tried to push on from that and carry on my career here but at the same time I’ve learned from all the stuff that’s happened. I’ve said before I think everything happens in life for a reason so I’m not the type of person who’ll dwell on the past.

“I think I’ve proven I just want to get on with my life and continue to do well with football.”

The footballing seeds were planted in Steph’s mind from the beginning by her dad, Fergus, and he was a huge influence in a multitude of ways as she made her way up in the sport. It’s a sentiment that doesn’t cross our minds when we grow up just wanting every opportunity to play the game but other areas of life do have to be considered as time goes on.

Steph has made undeniable commitments to football, and although she strongly continues to do so, other ideas are certainly in her mind for a day somewhere off in the future. She detailed this when considering what she’d say if she could go back now and talk to the childhood version of herself.

“To concentrate more in school because growing up I was always just mad about football! I’m lucky enough now that I have a profession in football but that’s not going to last forever so right now I’m trying to do stuff to get myself a degree in something I can do after football.

“To be honest with you, growing up all I cared about was football and I always wished I’d play for Ireland. I was very lucky that at 14 I went on trial for the 17s and I suppose I was given an opportunity very young so I was focused on becoming a footballer.”

Steph has met figures from all kinds of sectors during the last year or so, including fashion, which remains a long-time love of hers. Even when pinpointing interests away from football, however, it still led her back to the game, alongside more than a touch of wanderlust for herself and her boyfriend, Dean.

“We love to travel and we haven’t really had chance to do it over the last four years. He was playing in Ireland for a long time and when I was playing there our seasons kind of overlapped so we didn’t really have time to do it.

“We’ve had some really good holidays; we’ve been to Vegas a few times and we plan to go back there. I’d like to travel a bit more and something we’ve discussed is going to some football matches in European countries and around the world.

“Obviously that still involves football but we both love football and to get chance to watch a game at the San Siro or the Nou Camp is something we’d love to do.”

An elderly neighbour of Steph’s when she was growing up, who has sadly since passed, used to call her ‘Baggio’ in reference to the Italy icon Roberto, so maybe she will smile at that when she does finally visit the San Siro once graced by the former Milan and Inter star. For this last question here, however, it is the fantasy arena she is stepping into.

In the past few years, the players on the site have been asked at the end of their interview to put forward four career teammates they’d have alongside them in a 5-a-side line-up. There is no emphasis on the choices being an outright ‘top four’ they have worked with, so the player can name their team based on ability alone, friendship, on-field understanding, or whatever they wish.

When Steph was put on the spot, these are the names who came up, with her eventually deciding to take a watching brief from the sideline in this particular game in order to squeeze one more player in there!

“I suppose I’ll go first with Emma Byrne – I suppose we need a goalkeeper! I was going to say we’ll play ‘last man back’ as we usually would in that situation!

“Emma Byrne’s been in the Irish squad since I got there and been a very good mentor to me and become a friend to me through football. She’s got a wealth of experience and if we were losing she wouldn’t let it happen for too long!

“I’ll go with Áine O’Gorman – she’s a player I’ve played with for a long time with club football as well as with Ireland, since we were 12 or 13 with Stella Maris. She’s a hard worker, she never wants to lose and I think when we played the games at the end of training she was always the most competitive.

“That would be the number one reason why she’s in the team and also she’s a very good footballer and I think we play really well together. I’d have to say Beth Mead – she’s obviously a very good finisher and technically one of the better players, so I’d have to put her in as well.

“Ruesha Littlejohn – again, she’s technically a very good footballer and has a good football brain. Playing 5-a-side, you have to be quick with your feet and with your head so she’d definitely be there.

“I suppose Carli Lloyd would have to go in there! I don’t know who I’m going to take out to make room…you can take me out of it!”

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