You remember Steph Roche. Scored that unbelievable goal that had her being compared to Cristiano Ronaldo when it was nominated for FIFA’s goal of the season. Suddenly it was all red carpets and glamour. Except it wasn’t. Will Moulton discovers what Steph did next during a two-year rollercoaster in football’s headlights.
It is an old cliche, but sometimes one moment really is all it takes to change a life. Little over a year ago Stephanie Roche was a relative unknown in the football world, playing for Peamount United in the Irish Women’s National League. Since then she has rubbed shoulders with some of the greats of the game, been involved in the race for a title and played in three of the biggest leagues in the world. All because of one goal on a Sunday afternoon in October 2013. Her story may seem like a Hollywood script, but for Roche the last twelve months have been anything but a fairytale.
Roche is a humble character. When asked about that goal against Wexford Youths she replied: “I’m very lucky that the goal was caught [on film] and FIFA got wind of it. There are girls who score week-in, week-out and they may not get caught on camera, so I was just happy it did get spotted.” She makes it sound as though it was just a regular goal that anyone could have scored. It was anything but.
Her incredible piece of skill to control the ball, flick it over the defender and volley into the net was so good that she received a nomination for the 2014 FIFA Puskas Award for the best goal of the year. This is a highly prestigious award won previously by the likes of Neymar and Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Roche was only the sixth woman to be nominated. Suddenly, a part-time footballer barely known outside of her country, was being compared with the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo.
It may seem like the stuff of dreams, but for Roche it was a reality. As idyllic as it may seem for any young footballer, having the limelight suddenly thrust upon you isn’t as glamorous or enjoyable as it sounds.
Roche recalls that the days after her nomination were “a hectic time, something that I loved but also wondered if it was ever going to end”. Roche was so inundated with requests for interviews that she had to ask her boyfriend’s sister to help organise her schedule. “She was getting people to ring me at certain times. I’d have phone conversations for two hours on end, then have Skype calls to answer. It was crazy.”
Although Roche didn’t particularly enjoy all the attention she was getting, she knew she had to make the most of it, not just for herself, but for the women’s game. “It would have been selfish of me not to take the opportunity I was given to try and promote women’s football and I tried to do it as best I could. I think women’s football in Ireland has grown as a result and I’m happy to have been a part of that.”
The difficulty of suddenly becoming a household name was compounded by the fact that Roche was in the middle of a “difficult” period in France, having failed to settle after leaving Peamount for ASPTT Albi. “I wasn’t homesick at all – I’m used to being away from family and friends. The biggest difficulty was the language. I was told I would be given French lessons and only had four before my tutor had to return to college in Montpellier. There was a girl who I had played with previously who was translating for me, but she had a falling-out with the manager and left the club.”
The language barrier may not have impacted on her performances on the pitch, but it caused real problems for Roche away from the game. “I was playing in a country where nobody spoke English and I was on my own. I was enjoying my football but I had no real friends around me. I wasn’t invited to team activities because the girls couldn’t speak to me. I’d go to training, come home to an empty apartment, go training again. That was pretty much my life for six months.”
Roche ended up leaving France at the same time as her goal was voted runner-up to Colombian James Rodriquez’s World Cup strike against Uruguay in the men’s World Cup. Not long after, Houston Dash offered her the opportunity of a lifetime to play alongside the likes of Carli Lloyd in the American National Women’s Soccer League, arguably the best league in the world. “The whole thing with me going to America was huge in Ireland,” recalls Roche. “I was in pictures wearing Houston Dash tops and I thought it was going to be a great experience and a great journey.”
However, the move also didn’t work out and in May she was cut from the team. One of the world’s best-known female footballers was now out of a job. She contemplated “going back home to play part-time and work” just to get away from everything. Despite this, a number of high-level clubs were still interested. The Republic of Ireland international plumped for Sunderland who she found the most attractive, the “friendly, family-based club” being exactly what she needed after a challenging year. “I was a bit all over the place at the time, but when I had my trial and met the team I knew that this was where I wanted to be.”
Although their form fell away at the end of their first season in the top flight of the Women’s Super League, Sunderland surpassed all expectations and even lead the table with a handful of games to play. Ultimately, Chelsea, Manchester City and Arsenal pulled away, but Roche believes this has nothing to do with them being more established clubs with more money and greater squad depth. “We have fantastic facilities and we train more than most teams in the league so I don’t think we can say money is an advantage. We have a good squad and the experience we’ve had this year is definitely going to help us because now we know what is needed and expected. I think we’ll finish higher next year.”
After arriving in July the midfielder quickly became a first-team regular, establishing herself as a key figure in attack and playing a pivotal role in Sunderland’s exceptional run when the league resumed after the World Cup break. Roche, though, believes that she still has a lot more to give. “The club treated me really well and I’m hoping that I’ll be able to return the favour next season – they’ve not seen the best of me yet. I think I’ve done well, but next year, with a steady pre-season behind me, I’ll have my best season in football.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Will Moulton is going into his third and final year studying Sport, Exercise and Physical Activity at Durham University. He follows and participates in a large number of sports, including cheerleading, but specialises in cricket, football and F1 and has written for his university newspaper. Will is reporting on the Sunderland Ladies football team this season. Will’s latest articles
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