There can be very few within the women’s football community who have a story to match that of Ireland’s Stephanie Roche.
At just 27, Roche has gone from being totally unknown outside of her home country, to being one of the most recognisable faces in the women’s game and sharing a room with the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi.
Fame didn’t come without a price, though; Roche endured tough spells in France and the US which made her consider her future in the game, whilst she battled serious illness just last year, before starting to rebuild her career in the FA Women’s Super League with Sunderland Ladies.
But like many, Roche’s life in football began on the streets of Dublin with her mates.
“I just played on the street with the boys,” she says. “I had a good group and I was always a tomboy growing up. I had my girlfriends and the lads who would ditch the girls to go and play football. I started when I was about 7 or 8 and joined a boys’ team at 11.
“I played with them for two years - at 13, you couldn’t play with the boys anymore so I went to an all-girls team. A year later and I got into the Ireland U17 team, and it all took off from there.”
Roche went onto play for some brilliantly named teams as she moved up through the age ranks quickly; Cabinteely were her team in Dublin, before she moved onto Stella Maris FC.
Further moves to Dundalk United and Raheny United would follow before Roche’s big moment came with Peamount United in 2014.
Yet unlike some, Roche feels she was completely welcomed by her male teammates, and enjoyed her time in Ireland before eventually moving onto France when she was 24.
“They treated me like one of the lads,” she recalls. “I remember they were all my mates from back playing on the street, so when we played other teams, they had my back.
“In our first game, there was one lad who was a complete idiot. He just kept going on about ‘the girl’, so in the first few minutes I made an absolute show of him. I went past him, swung a cross in and set up a goal.”
Roche doesn’t set a specific moment in time on when she believed she could make it as a professional footballer, but the forward reserves praise for how quickly the women’s game in Ireland has progressed.
“It’s come a long way, so it’s not unusual to see girls going abroad now. I played with a really good team at Cabinteely, while other teams had so much talent, and I remember thinking how much talent Ireland could have in the future.
“I didn’t really think about it [making a career] until I got into the Ireland team – I was in my comfort zone in the Irish league. The game improved but I was top scorer, winning player of the year, but in the back of my mind I knew it wasn’t at the level yet to compete with the best.”
Several of the players who inspired Roche to reach for the stars included Irish internationals Aine O’Gorman and Diane Caldwell. O’Gorman would go on to play for Doncaster Rovers Belles in the FA WSL, while Caldwell currently plays her football in Germany with SC Sand.
With a career in football now fully focusing her mind, Roche joined the former for a trial in the north of England whilst she was still playing her football in Ireland.
“I went over to Doncaster with Aine,” she recalls. “I enjoyed it there, but unfortunately they didn’t take me. It set me back a little, I started doubting myself and whether or not it was best to move away. Aine said the career path wasn’t there yet and it made me wonder whether it was all worth it. One part of me wanted to settle down and go to college, but the other part of me wanted to play football.”
It wasn’t the only knock to Roche’s confidence she would endure during her career; she failed to get into the Ireland U15s side without even passing the first trial, but weeks later was called up for the more experienced U17 team.
“Sometimes coaches see different things; maybe some don’t see the good in players, while one coach sees something that another doesn’t.
“I had to be mentally strong - having good teammates around you helps, and my dad has always given me a lot of support, as has my boyfriend. There’s not many footballers who have had all highs, there’s going to be lows so you need that kind of support system.”
In October 2013, everything changed. Whilst Roche had made a name for herself in Ireland by winning golden boots and representing Peamount in the UEFA Champions League, recognition outside of her own home was sparse.
Against Wexford Youths, Roche would score a goal that went viral across the internet within 24 hours, changing her career. After receiving a ball from now-friend and teammate O’Gorman, Roche flicked the ball over her own head and volleyed in a sumptuous left-footed volley into the top corner of the net.
Fortunately, the Wexford video analyst was recording the game, and before Roche knew it, the video was on Sky Sports News and being circulated across every corner of the internet.
“I remember straight after the game the girls saying the goal would go viral, and it was just crazy the way it took off. You didn’t think the league could get that exposure; everyone says you have your 15 minutes of fame, and I’m glad it put the women’s game out there.”
Within a year, Roche was playing her football in the French Ligue 1 for Albi after joining the club in 2014, eight months after scoring the goal that would eventually see her sharing a stage with some of the biggest footballers in the world.
Come September, Roche would receive further news that would ensure that, once again, her life took on another exciting twist.
“I came back from France for a bit to watch an Irish league game,” Roche recalls. “My dad was speaking to another player’s dad who said he’d heard a rumour my goal was going to be up for the FIFA Puskas Award.
“I laughed it off, and to be honest, I thought he was just taking the p**s! Two weeks later I found out through Twitter, the FIFA account tweeted my name, and from then on it was just crazy. It was a first for anyone in Ireland, they really cared and they really got behind me in getting people to vote.”
Roche would go on to become the first to make the final three of the vote, eventually finishing second behind James Rodriguez’s strike for Colombia at the 2014 World Cup.
But whilst well all was going well for Roche off the pitch, on it she was enduring one of the toughest periods of her career in France.
“I’d gone to France in September, just a month before the Puskas nomination was announced. I was there six months and enjoyed the football, but where I lived was really difficult.”
She adds, “It was a small town with a big language barrier. I had an agreement to get French lessons but the girl teaching me had to go back to college. All of my teammates spoke French, and they weren’t the most welcoming to someone who didn’t speak the language.
“I had good games but it wasn’t right for me, I came home at Christmas and realised how much I’d missed family and friends. I would be in my apartment on my own all the time unless I was training, I came back at Christmas and just knew I couldn’t go back. I came back in the new year, packed my bag and knew I had to go - in my heart I wasn’t happy.”
Off the pitch, all was rosy; before deciding to leave France, Roche was Switzerland-bound for the annual FIFA awards ceremony and a chance to rub shoulders with the biggest and best names in world football.
“We were up against two of the most well-known players in the world [Robin van Persie and James Rodriguez] who would have Manchester United and Real Madrid on their side. On the day itself, I was exhausted, but it was over in a flash. It was all so surreal, the first people I saw were Ruud Gullit and Thierry Henry - I was going to my dad, ‘Look, it’s Thierry Henry!’.
Admitting she doesn’t get easily “starstruck”, Roche only had eyes for one photo opportunity on the night, and growing up as a Manchester United fan, it’s not hard to guess who her target was.
“All I wanted was a photo with Ronaldo,” she laughs. “We did get to speak to him, me and my boyfriend were in a room before with the other nominees and I asked our FIFA delegate if I could get a picture with him.
“He was so nice, you worry about how interested they’re going to be but he wished me luck, he seemed like a genuine guy – although I did ask him if he’d come back to United!”
To Roche’s surprise, the greatest player in world football had even seen her goal for Peamount, and he wasn’t the only one who was impressed.
“I didn’t think he’d seen the goal, but my agent later told me he and the Real Madrid committee had seen the goal on the way over on the plane, maybe they were just taking the mick out of James or something!
“On the day we arrived, I was waiting to have lunch before doing my FIFA interview with my agent, boyfriend, and his sister and my dad when Alessandro Del Piero walked in. He actually knew who I was, he’d seen my goal and that was the moment I realised how big it had all got.”
Whilst Roche accepts the goal changed her career and life for the better, she did have to bat away some unpleasant comments on social media as she realised fame came with a price.
“I remember responding to one tweet,” she recalls. “Someone said something stupidly nasty but I know I shouldn’t have responded. It ended up in the newspaper - he got the response he wanted, so now I just block and ignore it if it happens. It’s hard not to reply, some of the stuff being said was very personal.”
With the FIFA ceremony out of the way and Roche a free agent, the chance to go to America and play in the NWSL came up when Randy Waldrum and the Houston Dash came calling.
With the NWSL well thought of as the strongest league in the women’s game, Roche jumped at the chance to bounce back, but admits she may have been a bit hasty in her decision, having agreed without researching the league.
“It was never pre-arranged or anything to go to America, Houston just came in and wanted me to go there. France did make me think twice about it and maybe I didn’t look into the international rules as much as I should have.
“My boyfriend came with me, which helped, I don’t mind being away from home and I’ve been away from him for two years whilst in England but in France it was just lonely.”
Roche picked up a couple of niggling injuries during a spell in Texas which would last no longer than three months, the international rule ending her career as Houston became stretched in defence.
Injuries at the back led to coach Waldrum giving local youth players the chance to shine so he didn’t have to replace one of his international players, but eventually came the realisation he would have to bring someone in and let somebody go. Unfortunately for Roche, the sword fell on her in May, despite only arriving in February.
“I was called in for a meeting and I remember just thinking it was crazy, I just wasn’t expecting it at all,” she says. “I didn’t think it could be bad because I’d been training well, Randy told me he thought I was the best finisher in the squad the week before.
“I don’t really feel sorry for myself, but I think I was hard done by because I never really got an opportunity to play. Randy told me he was disappointed he had to do it and I have no hard feelings towards him, I really respect him and he was a great coach. But it was an awkward chat, I didn’t know what to say.”
It was another blow to a career that quickly appeared to be unravelling. Despite worldwide recognition, Roche had left France and USA after spells lasting just six months and three months respectively.
With options limited and a flight home not booked until later in the summer, the attacker was once again left in the lurch as she pondered her next move.
“There was a point where I started to wonder if it was all worth it,” she says. “My boyfriend was waiting for me outside and couldn’t believe it when I told him I’d been cut. We both sat in the truck for a moment outside the stadium and neither of us really knew what to say. I went on a quick trial to Boston [Breakers] but I didn’t like the setup there, I got the impression the girls weren’t that happy and I had to find the right move.”
Roche required a break, and with the summer transfer window in England having just opened, Sunderland’s General Manager Sonia Kulkarni got in touch and gave Roche the chance to finally play in the FA WSL.
“There were nights I just laid in bed wondering what was going to happen. Thankfully Sonia from Sunderland called and gave me an option. I had other discussions with managers in FA WSL 1 & 2, Bristol wanted to take me on a trial, but Sunderland were having a really good first season in the top division.
“I told her I’d take some time because it had been a difficult period, but I was soon back in Dublin and she agreed to let me come over. I trained with the team and it just fell into place, I’m more settled into a team now than I have been since I was in Ireland. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, I didn’t even know if I wanted to carry on playing football, but Sonia, the manager, and the players have really made me feel part of the team.”
Whilst giving up never really appeared a genuine option for someone who describes herself as “mentally strong”, the 27-year-old admits perception played a part in her motivation to carry on.
“I didn’t want to be one of those players remembered for one goal before disappearing, that played on my mind.
“I couldn’t say no to going abroad again, I’m still in touch with my coach from France and Denise [O’Sullivan] is doing really well in Houston. I’m really happy for her, she’s a great girl.”
Despite a difficult first season where Sunderland struggled to live up to the performances of the previous season, Roche was finally well settled and enjoying her football in more familiar territory than France or America.
But there was still one nasty sting in the tail for the Ireland international as a serious illness would keep her out of action for a couple of months.
“I was in training on the Saturday and I felt really bad. We were off Sunday so I knew I had a bit of time to recover, but on the Saturday night I was really ill. Fortunately, my boyfriend was over, I’m not sure what I’d have done otherwise. I was sweating, my glands were swollen, I went to the doctor and he said it could be quinsy – which I’d never heard of!
“The next day I was even worse, I had to go to A&E and was told if I’d left it any later it could have been even worse. A cyst had grown in my neck which could have burst and sent all sorts around my body. They tried to remove it four times and it was one of the most painful experiences of my life. I had to have my tonsils out so they could get to the lump, I lost a lot of weight because I couldn’t eat and it took me a while to get back in shape.”
Now, Roche is finally fit and happy, but is aiming to improve her performances on the field for Sunderland by the time the new season kicks off in September.
With the team having gone part-time after finances were cut over the winter, it’s yet more drama in Roche’s eventful career, but not something she is fretting about too much.
“My time at Sunderland from my point of view hasn’t been good because I know I haven’t played as well as I can. When I got sick, it was a really bad experience, but you have to just pull through it. I believe in my ability and I believe I’m good enough to make it work in England.”
Roche was also involved in a controversy with her national team at the start of 2017, as she and her teammates demanded improvements in the way the national setup was run in order to give Ireland a chance of reaching a major tournament before the bulk of the team hangs up their boots.
“It’s been happening in the background for a long time,” Roche admits. “We said as a group that to compete we had to do this, we didn’t want to just be the team that always just missed out. We held a press conference because behind the scenes we were getting nowhere, we had to take drastic measures to get what we needed and also what the next generation of girls need.”
After two failed moves abroad, being thrown into the limelight and a serious illness, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Roche ever wondered if her life would have been simpler had her goal for Peamount instead flashed the other side of the post, but the 27-year-old is forever grateful it was caught on camera.
“I’m glad it was captured, if not it would have just been me going on about this goal I’d scored and nobody would ever have seen it…”