Tuesday 21 August 2018

'A whole generation of people my age will never get to buy their own place' - Ireland striker Stephanie Roche

Star striker Stephanie Roche tells John Meagher why we need to bust the myths that prevent young girls playing sport - and why she backed a 'yes' vote

Stephanie Roche is happy with her progress as she sets her sights on the World Cup qualifier in August. Photo: Julien Behal
Stephanie Roche is happy with her progress as she sets her sights on the World Cup qualifier in August. Photo: Julien Behal
Stephanie Roche in action for Ireland. Photo: Damien Eagers

Irish sports star once said in an interview that she wanted to have children and a house by the age of 27.

Neither has happened yet for the 28-year-old, and she says buying a home is by far the least likely of the two.

"The prices are just crazy, especially in Dublin and I think there will be a whole generation of people my age who will never get to buy their own place."

She's one of only 12 Sunderland players on full-time contracts - the rest are part timers - but even then the money is but a fraction of what their male counterparts make. She lives with Zambra, but his earnings with Longford Town are low and he has to supplement it with a regular job.

Stephanie Roche in action for Ireland. Photo: Damien Eagers
Stephanie Roche in action for Ireland. Photo: Damien Eagers

During our interview, Roche also has an admission to make. She doesn't like her knees being touched, in fact, she hates it - and she's felt that way for as long as she can remember.

With that in mind, the last seven months have been especially tough for her, because all manner of sports therapists, physios and doctors have been probing her knee as they help her get back to full fitness.

"It's been a bit of a nightmare," she says, with a grimace, "but whatever it takes to get back playing I'll do it. I can't wait to get back out there, it's been really tough not being able to kick a football. So if they need to do stuff to make my knee better, that's fine."

The 28-year-old Dubliner fractured the tibia in her leg and damaged her knee while playing for Ireland against Holland in September and she has been on the long road to recovery ever since. That's meant not being able to play for her club, Sunderland Ladies - although they are paying her wages until next month. That's when her contract is either extended or not renewed, but she says she's not worried about that.

"The thing that's been on my mind is recovery and I've been doing as much gym work as I can. I've followed the instructions to the letter and I'm desperate to be playing for Ireland again.

"But, you know, it's not so much the physical side of things that's tough. It's the mental side. I've been lucky in my career in that I haven't had many injuries, but this one - being so long - has been hard to take and there are times when I say to my boyfriend [Longford Town footballer Dean Zambra] 'What if I never play again?'"

It's a fear that has long haunted sports stars - and is likely to be paramount in the mind of Mayo's Gaelic football star, Tom Parsons, who suffered a horrific leg injury earlier this month. But Roche has used the example of others to boost her confidence in those moments where she feels she'll never play again.

"I think of the players who had really bad injuries, people like Ruud Van Nistelrooy who was out of the game for a long time just as he was on the verge of signing for Man United. But he did all the right things and recovered and went on to be a hero at Old Trafford."

Roche is Manchester United mad. She has been a fan of the Red Devils from the moment she first kicked a ball - and beat the boys at their own game. She is in especially good form during the interview with Health & Living, because she has just secured a pair of tickets for the FA Cup.

United has long lagged behind Manchester rivals City when it comes to women's football, but has now, finally, created a team to play in the embryonic Women's Super League. "Playing for them would be the dream," Roche says. "Being able to put on that shirt and go out and play for Man United… wow!"

Roche is one of the country's best-known sports women and much of her household name appeal came courtesy of a wonder goal she scored for her then club, Peamount United, Dublin, in 2014. It was a goal that was so outrageous, so audacious that it was nominated for FIFA's prestigious Puskás Award, which seeks to honour the best goals scored - by men or women - in the world in any given year. It came second, beaten only by a stunning effort from James Rodriguez for Chile at the World Cup.

"Getting nominated for the Puskás opened so many door," she says, "and if it helped raise the profile of women's football even a little, that's a great thing."

She loved attending the glitzy ceremony in Zurich, which featured the world's best players, and she got to meet Ronaldo. "Each of the nominees was given a person to assist you when you were there and she said 'Is there anything you'd like?' And I said, 'I'd love to meet Ronaldo'. And then it happened and I was brought into the room where he was. He was lovely. I asked him if he would please go back to Man United."

A celebrated photo of Roche was carried in all the newspapers the following day. She looked resplendent in a pink dress custom-made by the Irish designer Helen Cody while walking past a seated Ronaldo and Messi. "People said to me afterwards, 'You were in a dress!' Like it was strange that I would go to an event like that and not get dressed up. Did they expect me to wear a tracksuit?"

Roche says women's football has to be able to convince football-mad girls that they can be interested in fashion and makeup and so on and still play football. "I think some girls are put off because they think they players have to look a certain way, or that you can't be girlie if you want to play football. But you can. Some of the girliest people I know play football. Maybe others are put off because you sweat when you play and you mightn't look your best - but that sort of activity is so good for us, health-wise."

Ireland has a significant problem with obesity and, alarmingly, 40pc of our children are now classed as overweight. Roche says urgent action is needed to stem the tide, but admits it can be hard to get the message through.

"The problem is children aren't exercising as much as they should and they're eating too much of the wrong things," she says. "When you combine those two, it's easy to see why so many are overweight - and at a really early age too."

She believes schools need to place far greater emphasis on physical activity, and not just the privileged ones with their state-of-the-art sporting facilities. "Being physically active has to be normalised and playing a team sport really helps with that no matter what your ability is."

She is adamant that children need to have their intake of high fat, sugary foods limited, pointing out that the cliche of not being able to work off a bad diet is, indeed, true. "We've got to get the food right," she says, "but it's really hard when temptation is there all the time."

Despite being a professional footballer, she says she can struggle with a sweet tooth herself. "It's nice to have a bar of chocolate with a cup of tea, isn't it?" she says. "I really try to limit it - and if I do have one, make it a small bar - but it can be hard."

She says she agrees with the concept of treat days and hers falls on a Monday - that's the day she and boyfriend Dean go to the cinema and have popcorn and a fizzy drink. "It's everything in moderation. Once a week for that sort of thing is okay - but you can't get away with doing it every day."

She has lukewarm feelings about the new sugar tax on soft drinks which was introduced at the beginning of the month. "I suppose it will get people to think about how much sugar is added to our food and drink, but I can't help but feel it's just another way for the government to make tax." It's a view that she says is hard to discount when one considers that revenue raised will not be ring-fenced for health promotion, but will instead be part of the general tax pool.

Like many of her male counterparts in professional football, Roche is hoping to launch summer camps for children. She wants girls to discover the joys of playing the game and hopes that enough can continue with football past the age of 15 when many drop-out. "I want to do it properly," she says. "Get insurance, the right set-up - and not do it willy nilly."

She says she doesn't like to look beyond her playing career, focusing instead on the here and now. She is, after all, at an age considered to be the peak for professional sportspeople. "I'd love to keep playing until I'm 35," she says, "but there are so many things that are out of your control." Career-ending injuries happen, although she never thinks of those when she's on the field of play. "You just can't let your mind go there."

There have been occasional sponsorship opportunities for her in recent years and the odd 'ambassador' role. Today, she's helping to promote Best Foot Forward, an initiative from Pamex, the Mayo-based distributor of foot health products, Mycosan and Dermatonics Once.

"I don't want to say yes to everything, but this is a good fit for me considering that my feet are so important to what I do for a living."

She hopes to have children when she retires. "There are some players who are mothers, but they tended to have their children when they were younger. At this stage in my career, I'd look to continue with my career because it might be difficult to come back after having a child." Roche tends to let her talking happen on the pitch although, she wasn't afraid to severely criticise the FAI for failing to support women's football last year. Conditions, she says, have significantly improved since she and senior teammates raised concerns about being treated like second-class citizens.

She sees it as her job to score goals and not pontificate on political and social matters. She says she had little interest in telling people how to vote in Friday's abortion referendum but it was "a yes" from her.

"I don't think I would have an abortion myself, but I think others should have the choice if they wanted to."

It's time to go. Movie night awaits and another day down in her bid to pull on that Ireland shirt again. Home and away matches against Norway in early June will be beyond her recovery, but she is determined to be fighting fit by the time the Republic takes on Northern Ireland in a key World Cup qualifier on August 31.

"That's the goal," she says. "And I'll get there."

STEPHANIE'S FITNESS ROUTINE

• When Stephanie Roche is fully fit and in the midst of club training during a busy season, her day is comprised of gruelling work outs, intense football drills, carefully monitored dishes and lots of rest.

• "There's usually training in the morning and afternoon," she says, adding that she prefers to train with a ball rather than in the gym although the latter is essential for building up the strength needed for the cut and thrust of top-level football.

• "The night before a match I'll have pasta," she says, "and I try to get plenty of protein in on days I train."

• She believes rest is important and after the morning session she tries to take a nap. That preps her for the demanding sessions in the afternoon.

• Getting a good night's sleep is essential, she believes, and she is careful about limiting her consumption of caffeine. Although she loves coffee she tries to make sure that she has her final cup before 2pm.

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