By Jason Pettigrove.
Republic of Ireland international and Sunderland AFC Ladies’ newest signing Stephanie Roche talks to The Offside Rule about what got her started in football and her favourite career moments so far including a certain strike that was nominated for FIFA Puskas Award for goal of the year.
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Who was/is your biggest influence both personally and professionally, and why?
Personally, my dad. He was always there to encourage me and brought me everywhere growing up: trials, matches, and training. He always pushed me to be the best I can be. Professionally I’ve had a few, Tony Pouch, Sean Ryder and Dave Mcguirk were great in my Stella Maris days but I think I’d have to say Noel King. He was the senior women’s manager when I started out at underage international level. He was at a club game I played when I was 14 and told me after the match that if I keep playing the way he had seen that I would play for Ireland one day. It was only something simple but it gave me confidence and years down the line he gave me my first senior international cap. For me he’s the best coach I have ever had and I’ve had a few very good coaches!
What inspired you to take up football in the first place?
I just enjoyed playing football with my friends in the street; from there I joined a team and knew I wanted to play for as long as possible!
What would you say are the best aspects to your game and what do you need to improve on?
I think technically I’m good on the ball, I like to score goals and I think there’s always room for improvement to every aspect of my game.
Do you have a footballing idol?
I wouldn’t say idol but I admire Cristiano Ronaldo. For me he’s the complete player.
Tell me some more about your early career, from Valeview to Peamount United. What fond memories do you have of time spent at your various clubs?
I joined Valeview with lads from my estate so it was great because I played on the street with most of them every day. From there I went to Cabinteely where I had a great two seasons, I played for Stella Maris where I had my most successful few years at underage football.
At Peamount I had a great three years. We were the first Irish team ever to qualify for the knockout stage of the Champions League in 2010. We also won the league and cup double in the inaugural season of the women’s national league. Again, I made some very good friends and really enjoyed my time at Peamount.
Could you realistically see a career path in women’s football from a relatively early age and is the infrastructure of the Women’s National League in Ireland conducive to bringing through talent such as your own?
For me, my goal from an early age was to play for Ireland. It wasn’t until I was playing senior international football that I thought of a career in professional football. I think it can be hard for most girls to make a good career from football as there isn’t a lot of money, but for me and most girls playing professionally (we) were happy to get anything to play football as a profession.
We do what we love and get paid for it. No matter what amount we get. The new league in Ireland will definitely improve Irish football and I think we will see a lot of young players come through the league and onto professional teams abroad.
Do you have an opinion on how women’s football in general has changed since you started playing?
Women’s football has grown so much since I started. Growing up in Ireland, I had to play with boys, and then when I went to girls’ teams they would be the ONLY girls’ team in the club whereas now, so many clubs have girls’ teams at every level which is great to see. I also think success at international level has brought the spotlight on the game and I do think programmes like ’emerging talent’ from the FAI have helped all this.
“That” goal not only brought you international coverage but also raised the profile of the women’s game somewhat. Have you encountered any jealousy because of the exposure that you personally received and whether yes or no, have you noticed a change in how certain aspects of the women’s game has been perceived since then?
I think there’s always going to be that bit of jealousy from certain people and some can be quite nasty and sly about it. For me I’ve said all along that I was lucky to have my goal caught on video and had great support to get to the Puskas final three (although the goal wasn’t bad to be fair, ha!) but I’ve just done whatever I can to try and raise the profile of the women’s game while I was in the spotlight. I didn’t expect or ask for this to happen to me but I’m happy I was given the opportunity to experience everything I have the last few months. I definitely think the perception of women’s football has changed. More and more people are taking an interest and it’s getting a lot of coverage but it is a long process that needs to be maintained if it were to see real changes.
Did it disappoint you that some mainstream media were still more concerned with the dress you were wearing at the Ballon D’Or awards and doesn’t that still show that there is a long way to go for areas of the media to accept women’s football for the superb game that it is?
No, for me that was just a good picture and a good talking point for the media. Anything involving the two best players in the world is always going to catch the media’s attention, whether it’s on or off the pitch. I think sometimes people look too much into sexism in the women’s game. For me it was a good picture and the media used it the best way they could.
You’ve recently put pen to paper on a contract with Sunderland Ladies, following hot on the heels of short-lived spells with ASPTT Albi in France and Houston Dash in the USA. Do you hope for some more career stability in the north east? Why did you choose Sunderland and did you have other offers to consider?
Definitely, I think it’s what every player wants. I think France was a great experience for me, on the pitch. I’ve spoken to the manager since leaving and he has continued to support me and even said he would like me to play for him if he gets a new team (He recently left the club too)! It was the situation off the pitch that was a problem. The language barrier was very difficult as I didn’t speak French and the girls on my team wouldn’t speak English! Houston was a disappointing time for me. I was enjoying my time and it was ruthlessly cut short. It was another experience and hopefully something I can learn from. I want to stay at Sunderland for as long as I can and I’m looking forward to the season restarting this weekend.
What are your realistic ambitions with the team?
The girls have made a great start to the season and are currently 4th in the league. There’s a long way to go this season but I just want to help the team in whatever way I can and finish as high up the table as we can.
Talk me through a typical day with a professional women’s team…
We train in the morning 9:30am-11/11:30am. Usually we do technical work and individual stuff in the morning. We eat lunch at the Academy of Light straight after training then we go to do some work for the club. This might be school visits to encourage people to come to our matches or even going around the local shops with posters. Then I go home, have a small bite to eat before heading training again. We have S&C at 6:15 then on the pitch for half 7-9. Then do it all over again the next day!
Proudest moment as a footballer?
Making my senior Irish debut.
I’ve read that you describe the world of professional women’s football as “cut throat.” What advice would you therefore give to any young woman starting out on a path toward hopefully realising a career at the highest level of the women’s game?
I think just to be careful what club you go to. Make sure it’s the right one for you and you’re getting what you want. It’s very easy to be tempted by the sound of being a part of a professional club. Just make sure they are what you want and that they have your best interests at heart as well as their own before making a final decision.
What aspirations do you have for the future in the short, medium and longer term?
Short – make a good start for Sunderland.
Medium – consistency in my game. Improve as a player for Sunderland and Ireland.
Long – play at a high level for as long as I can. Make a major tournament final with Ireland.
Read more from Jason Pettigrove here!