Shooting Star - Stephanie Roche

STREET SMART: Stephanie Roche  hails from a football-mad family and took to the game at an early age. "I was always out on the streets," she recalls, "but if I was playing with the girls and lads came up with a ball I'd be gone."

A passion for the game, a natural talent with a football and a determination as a young girl to succeed in a boys’ world all helped lead up to the moment of magic which has seen Stephanie Roche nominated for Fifa’s 2014 Goal Of The Year.

Here are some key ingredients which went into the making of Stephanie Roche’s elevation from the relative anonymity of the women’s league in Ireland to a place on football’s world stage, chief among them, of course, that dream goal she scored when playing for Peamount United against Wexford Youths in October 2013.

First and foremost there was the sheer skill involved in her three steps to footballing heaven: the initial velvet touch to bring the ball under control, then the audacious flick to outfox her marker and finally, after a 180 degree pivot, the coup de grace – a spectacular volley into the far top corner.

Fate too played a significant role. Peamount United filmed their home games not their away ones but, fortunately, Wexford Youths were recording the action that day for their own coaching purposes and so a single camera captured for posterity a goal which, otherwise, would never have been seen beyond the estimated 95 people who attended the game.

Furthermore, it was actually a close-run thing that Stephanie Roche was even still on the pitch to score the goal. The previous week she’d injured her thigh and went into the Wexford Youths match strapped up. At half-time, her manager Eileen Gleeson was concerned enough to ask if she felt up to continuing. However, Roche said she’d give it a go.

Four minutes after the re-start, her team mate Áine O’Gorman found her on the edge of the box and, a couple of spell-binding seconds later, Stephanie had worked the piece of magic which is the reason she became an internet sensation and will now be travelling to Zurich on January 12 to contest Fifa’s Ferenc Puskas Goal Of The Year Award against her fellow finalists Robin van Persie and James Rodriguez.

“After the goal, I forgot all about the quad,” she laughs.

However, there’s another less obvious but no less crucial ingredient in the mastery of the ball which means Stephanie Roche will go to the ball: all the hidden years of commitment, self-improvement and resilience on and off the pitch, going right back to when, at just 11 years of age, she was the lone girl in a boys’ world, playing for her club Valeview in the Dublin & District Schoolboys league.

“I remember my first goal, it was against Palmerstown and I’d been getting a bit of stick off one of the defenders for being a girl,” she recalls.

“He said to his team-mates at the start of the match, ‘Lads, look, they have a girl, this is going to be easy’.

“My dad and my brother were there and they heard him and said to me, ‘Don’t mind him, just get on with the game.’ Obviously as a young girl you would get upset but it was something I dealt with most of the time. And I’ve always been quite hard-headed and stubborn.

“If someone insults me, it makes me want to do better. Same with when I was older and got dropped or I heard a coach say something bad about me, it would make me want to prove them wrong.”

And so, on that day 14 years ago, Stephanie answered her young critic in the best way she could.

“He was a centre half and I left him on his arse a few times,” she chuckles.

“I had a really good game, I scored one and set up another and after the game he came up to me and said, ‘Sorry’.”

The youngest of four, the affable 25-year-old Shankhill native hails from a football-mad family and took to the game herself at an early age.

“I was always out on the streets,” she says, “but if I was playing with the girls and lads came up with a ball I’d be gone.” It was those same lads who first ‘scouted’ her, telling the manager of Valeview that there was this girl on the street who was “skinning” them.

Although she excelled with the club, the gender rules meant she had to leave at 12 to begin her career in the girls’ game with Cabinteely Girls before moving on, as she got older and more experienced in the game, to Stella Maris, Dundalk, Raheny United and Peamount United, with whom she experienced Champions League football.

At international level, she showed her resilience again at age 14, bouncing back from the disappointment of failing to make the U15s to be selected for the U17s just a few months later. Senior caps followed in due course but, by the team she was getting ready to take the pitch for Peamount against Wexford in October of last year, she was facing another test of character, having been dropped from the Irish squad by manager Sue Ronan.

“I didn’t hear anything from them about why I had been dropped,” she says, “and it was really disappointing and upsetting for me at the time because I’d been in the team since 2008 and had always given my all and been there for every training session. But Sue did ring me later to say I was never out of her plans and she just needed something different at the time.

“But, as I say, when I didn’t hear anything at the time I was worried and thinking, ‘that’s that gone, I’m not going to get back in now’.”

She was also suffering a goal drought with her club, having failed to find the net in the opening half a dozen games of the season – “and anyone who knows me knows that if I don’t score I’m like a demon,” she says, as any self-respecting striker would.

But then came the goal that changed everything.

Did she have a sense out on the pitch of just how special it was?

“Well, that defender had been marking me tightly all day and I think I was just aware of where she was. And in games I do try that flick-over thing just to get past someone. But it wasn’t really until after the game when the Wexford manager called me over to where him and Eileen were looking at the goal on the laptop. And when I saw it then that’s when I thought, ‘Jesus, that was actually quite special.’”

Initially I just wanted to have the clip of it for myself but Eileen said she’d put it up on YouTube. We really wanted the league to see it and maybe put in on the website but I do remember Aine (O’Gorman) saying, ‘That’s gonna go viral’. But I don’t think any of us thought it was going to get the coverage it did get.”

A second goal in the game in Wexford and another brace the following week against Galway saw Stephanie win back her place in the Irish team. “I am a big-time confidence player and that goal really did build my confidence up,” she says, “especially when I was getting the likes of Matt Le Tissier tweeting about it.”

The extravagantly gifted former Southampton player, who recognised the creative quality of a goal which even he would have been chuffed to score, was one of the first stars to go public with his admiration, tweeting: “No skill in women’s football? What a finish.”

There would be many more high profile plaudits to come, including from Gary Lineker, Rio Ferdinand, David Luiz, Ian Wright, Laurent Blanc, Paul McGrath and John Giles, while media and public interest in the striker, first in Ireland and then beyond these shores, mushroomed.

But not all the feedback has been supportive and some, unfortunately, has been downright abusive. Apart from the fact that social media can act as a magnet for the mean-spirited and moronic, what the naysayers don’t seem to get is that the main criterion by which Fifa ask the public to judge the Ferenc Puskas contest relates to the beauty of the goal, not the stage on which it is scored – still less the gender or nationality of the scorer.

“I keep getting tweets from people who obviously don’t know a lot about football,” she says. “Someone tweeted me just the other day and called me a name as well. He said, ‘you’re a c**t – surely you can’t think your goal is near as good as these guys. Look at the stage their goals were scored on.’ I know I shouldn’t reply but I did. I just said, ‘If you look at last year’s winner (Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s long range overhead kick against England), it was scored in a friendly –and how many people were giving out about that?’

“And there was another guy a while ago who said something stupid and, again, I shouldn’t have but I replied to it. He said something like, “If you win the Puskas I’m going to kill so many young kids – and you can pick them’.

“I was just like, ‘what???’ I have to stop tweeting back but I couldn’t help it. I just replied ‘Are you for real, that’s a disgraceful thing to say’. I had just come off the phone to my sister and been talking to my niece and nephew – they’re seven and eight – so it was quite upsetting. I just blocked him and didn’t hear any more though apparently he’s said a few other things.”

Although it wasn’t solely a direct consequence of the goal – she’d attracted interest from France in the past — the other massive change in her life this year has been her move abroad to take up the offer of full-time football with ASPTT Albi, a club newly promoted to the French women’s top-flight.

If she hadn’t gone for it, she feels she would have been haunted all her life by ‘what ifs’ but, at the same time, she doesn’t seek to hide the fact that she has found the experience a testing challenge.

Although she’s taking French lessons, the language barrier has proved difficult (“I miss the dressing room banter”), while living alone in a foreign city has left her missing the company and comfort of family and friends, not least her boyfriend of eight years, the Bray Wanderers midfielder Dean Zambra.

“He’s always been very supportive, even about me going to France and leaving him for the last five months,” she smiles. “He’s been good about it all. He’s just happy for me because he knows how much it means to me like I know how much football means to him. We have that shared passion.”

On the pitch, meanwhile, it’s been another learning curve.

“The games are at a higher level than here,” she observes. “I do think there are plenty of players here who could play over there but it has that more professional element and I find that every game I go into I have to be on the top of my game or I won’t do well. I’ve got a few assists although I’ve only scored once, but I’ve been asked to play in a different position, on the left wing, and so it involves doing a shift, getting up and down and getting crosses in. It’s a big change to my game but it is something I want to work on because I have been put on the left a few times for the Irish team and it’s never been a position I was comfortable in in terms of knowing what I had to do, so I’m happy that I’ve done quite well in France against some big teams.”

Her current contract runs until May. “I wouldn’t not like to see it through,” is how she puts it, “though the stuff off the pitch has made it difficult.”

First up on the agenda, however, are those footballing Oscars on Monday, January 12, in Zurich when Stephanie Roche’s magnificent effort will go toe to toe with World Cup goals by Holland’s Robin van Persie and Colombia’s James Rodriguez for the Ferenc Puskas gong, an award never previously won by a woman.

A life-long Manchester United fan, Stephanie is naturally tickled to be up against van Persie, although it’s Ronaldo – who will also be there on the night, competing for the Ballon D’or (Player of the Year Award) with Lionel Messi and Manuel Neuer – who she rates as her favourite player. Ronaldo was also, as it happens, the winner of the inaugural Ferenc Puskas gong in 2009.

“So I’d like to meet him,” she confesses. “But even though people keep saying, ‘you’ll have to get loads of pictures and autographs’, I don’t want to look like I’m not meant to be there either. I want to be professional about it.”

Initially, FIFA supplied her with only two tickets, plus flights and accommodation, which, her family understood, meant only Steph and Dean would be able to attend. However, she asked the FAI if they could possibly come up with two more – and they duly obliged. Which is how Stephanie, back home in Shankhill for the holidays, was able to surprise her dad Fergus with a mysterious present on Christmas morning.

“I went out and bought him a dicky bow – I got him something else obviously too! — and wrapped it up and gave it to him. He opened it up and I could see him looking at it, like, ‘what’s this all about?’ and then I gave him the envelope with his invitation. And when I told him Eric (her oldest brother) would be going as well, he was just so delighted. They have to pay for their own flights and accommodation but I don’t think they really care!”

And what of Stephanie Roche’s own frame of mind, now that the great day is almost upon her? “To be honest, when I got in the top ten, I was saying to people, ‘I just want to make the top three and be able to go to the awards’.

“I wasn’t nervous about it at all – until the day of the actual announcement. And then I got really nervous and was worrying about it. So I think the day of the actual awards I will be really nervous and be like, ‘I have a chance of winning this’.

“If I win it, it will be unbelievable and if I don’t, people will say it was still an achievement, all that sort of stuff. But, at the same time, I’m a very competitive person, and I’d love to win it.”

* Voting for the Ferenc Puskas Award continues up to and including the day of the ceremony in Zurich, on Monday January 12. To vote, go to www.fifa.com.


Lifestyle

In aid of Cancer Awareness Week, we convinced four of our columnists to bare all for our Examine Yourself campaign.Examine Yourself: Baring all for Cancer Awareness Week

It was an effervescent and often moving turn by an artist with a meaningful claim to the title of world’s most interesting pop star.Ariana Grande's opening night at 3Arena in Dublin proved why she is the world's most interesting pop star

Marian Duggan was in her 20s and could not imagine that her symptoms could be so serious, not even when a tennis-ball-size cyst was removed from her left ovary, says Helen O’Callaghan.Examine Yourself: 'I thought I was too young to have cancer'

More From The Irish Examiner