Double can cap Rice redemption
Skipper eager to lift cup after reviving career in Tallaght
STEPHEN RICE is 90 minutes away from being a Double-winning captain. Not bad for a man who was sick of football just a few years ago.
The Dubliner has endured a couple of highly publicised fall-outs in his career. A tiff with Sean Connor precipitated his departure from Bohemians to Shamrock Rovers, and a row with new boss Pat Scully left Rice in the cold back in 2008.
He seemed destined for the exit door, before Scully departed first and his career with the Hoops was saved.
From there, it's been all good news for a man who possesses character in abundance. He has proved a hit in Tallaght due to his combative style, and he will be important on Sunday in a midfield battle that will be the key to the Ford FAI Cup final with Sligo Rovers at the Aviva Stadium.
An injury to the unfortunate Dan Murray has given him the armband for the final weeks -- indeed, it's likely the two men will lift the trophy together if the league champions secure a seventh Double in their glorious history -- but the real motivation for Rice is to put a smile on the face of his grandmother, Helena Rice, who is fighting a long illness.
She was watching from hospital as Rice and his team-mates secured the league title in Bray last Friday week.
"The next day I went in and put the league medal around her neck," Rice says. "It's not just about the players celebrating, it's the families making the sacrifices because they have to deal with us when things aren't going right... the girlfriends, the wives, the parents."
"I think she will be there (on Sunday). She hasn't been out for a while. If she's not there, she'll be watching. She hasn't missed a game in years."
The support of those around him pulled Rice through the difficult moments when he was isolated from his team-mates and branded a bad egg in the midst of his disputes.
He doesn't wish to go over old ground, yet acknowledges that his mood was dark in the solitary days.
"It's been an up and down few years, but probably more downs," he says. "The league title makes everything fade away.
"There was a stage," he continues, when asked if he was ever sick of the game. "I loved the game, but there comes a stage in your career and I got to that after the second -- was it the second, or the third, fourth, fifth or sixth manager?! -- nah, the second manager, you think 'is it really for me?'
"But my family were there for me and friends of mine too and you just get through it.
"It was a tough time but lifting the league title made it all go away. Once the gaffer (Michael O'Neill) came in I was back loving the game."
What's different about O'Neill, the Northern Irishman who has brought success back to a club who had forgotten the feeling?
"He's a top manager," answers the 26-year-old. "The club probably took a bit of a risk because he wasn't known in the league and the league wasn't known to him. He's great on a personal level and on the game and he's helped me improve as a player. He notices your strengths and your weaknesses and he talks you through them. He's great with all of the lads in the dressing-room. He has the whole package, he really does."
For now, though, this Rovers team are one medal short of a perfect year. Rice is ready to seize the day.