FIFA Ballon d'Or

Roche recaps rollercoaster ride

Stephanie Roche of SAFC Ladies signs an autograph for a supporter (Courtesy: SAFC Ladies)
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“I think I’ve got a recording of a goal that was sent to me. I always get things tweeted to me.”

Stephanie Roche scrolls through her phone.

“Yeah, here it is. Sheffield Wednesday.”

The ball is flicked over the head of a hapless defender using the right foot and volleyed into the net with the left. Superb technique, and eerily similar to Roche’s 2014 FIFA Puskás Award runner-up.

“His bounced before though – I’m not going to give him the credit there.”

Roche’s widening grin suggests her tongue is very much in her cheek. It will ever be thus for Roche. A Republic of Ireland forward of some pedigree, now playing in England’s top flight for surprise package Sunderland Ladies, her career will forever be associated with that remarkable goal uploaded to *YouTube *in October 2013, which took social media by storm. It kicked off a whirlwind year that ended with a place at the FIFA Ballon d’Or Gala, rubbing shoulders with Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi and the eventual Puskás Award winner James Rodriguez. She is not only a sounding board for stunning strikes, but has become a voice and talisman for women’s football – no other woman had reached the top three before Roche.

“I’ve tried to handle myself as best I can,” Roche said about her time in the intense media spotlight. “There are some fantastic female players all over the world that people might not even know about, and I was thrown in there. People seemed to know a lot more about me than they would about anyone else, which was strange for me.

“I could’ve easily said, ‘No, I'm not doing that’, and not really taken the opportunity to put women’s football in the spotlight. There were people from everywhere ringing me asking me to do things and I tried my best to do everything I could to talk about women’s football, to talk about how my goal wasn’t just a one-off, it wasn’t something that one girl scored and no other girl could ever do. There’s been more goals scored like that all over the world, they just haven’t had the publicity that I was lucky enough to get.”

*Irish pride *For Roche, it was a heady mix of ‘girl power’ and national pride, with seemingly the entire Republic of Ireland backing the forward’s bid for Puskás glory.

“People in Ireland were so proud of it,” Roche recalled. “When we were at the awards my local pub, Brady’s of Shankill, had a get-together. My mum and the rest of my family were at home and they were at the pub for the night of the awards, and they said it was something like USA 1994. The pub was packed with people, there were Ireland flags everywhere, people were singing Irish songs.”

But what of post-Puskás life? As well as the regular tweets from golazo fans, Roche has moved clubs twice. She first switched France for the USA and Houston Dash. That arrangement ended abruptly in the summer. Despite assurances that she was doing well, an international squad place was needed for defensive reinforcements and Roche saw her contract terminated.

“I think over there it really is a business, there was no sensitivity,” Roche said. “After everything that happened I didn’t hold any grudges, Randy [Waldrum, the coach] was a nice guy, he gave me the opportunity to go over.”

Sunderland Ladies offered the Irish international an almost immediate return to action.

“I think I was really lucky that Sunderland came in as quick as they did because it gave me less time to dwell on it,” she said. “It was a difficult time for me. Anybody that’s been through that situation will know that it’s not something you want to be a part of, it makes you doubt yourself.”

Growing the game
It is surprising to hear Roche, who exudes a sense of calm self-assuredness throughout the interview, speak of insecurity. She is strong of character though, a girl that began playing the game on the streets of Shankill, a suburb of Dublin, and in boys’ teams. She is proud of how far the womens’ game has come in her lifetime.

“I’ve seen it grow so much since I started playing,” Roche said, smiling as she speaks. “It’s great to see because we’re getting publicity and that is majorly thanks to the U-17s who got the World Cup with Noel King (in 2010), the U-19s who got to the European Championships (in 2014) as well. There are players in those teams that are coming through to us now. I hope they’ll help us get to a major tournament. I think the popularity comes with success. Let’s hope it continues to grow.”

Roche is hoping to play a direct part in that growth on and off the pitch, she was enrolled in a Futsal coaching course, before her goal for Peamount United catapulted her into the global footballing spotlight.

“Coaching is definitely something that I want to do,” Roche said. “I loved going out, even with little kids and trying to get them playing football and get them involved. I have my youth certificates so I want to try and do my UEFA B Licence when I get a chance.”

If she can pass on her finishing skills, or the technique in those myriad golazo *clips she is sent on *Twitter, to the next generation of Irish youngsters, the country may just dominate the Puskás Award in years to come.

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