Canny career change sees Grace swapping his stripes for Hoops
Lee Grace left the army to join a relegation battle but this week his career path has changed dramatically.
The Carrick-On-Suir native signed a two-and-a-half-year contract with Shamrock Rovers on Monday, with the 24-year-old reaping the rewards of dedicating his life to football.
It is the by-product of the defender's rapid improvement. He wasn't on the radar as a schoolboy who played in central midfield on the Waterford scene and he was playing junior football when he signed up with the army.
A growth spurt in his late teens led to a change in position from midfield to centre half.
The real change in direction came when a couple of Wexford Youths players that lined out with him in army representative sides recommended him to their manager, Shane Keegan. That set the wheels in motion.
"I was a private in the army and I did three years. I was due to go abroad either this year or next year but I was never going to turn down full-time football," said Grace yesterday, speaking at Tallaght Stadium ahead of tonight's important league encounter with European qualification rivals Derry City.
The crunch came last winter after suffering relegation with Wexford Youths as Keegan offered the player the chance to follow him to Galway. A year's leave of absence was floated but he ended up making a clean break.
"I was always taking a chance leaving the army because there is so much security in that job," he explains, "As I said, I couldn't turn down full-time football so I had to go. I had to hum and haw with my family and it was a big decision to go to Galway but it worked out alright in the end."
He was straight into another fight against the drop and Keegan was desperate to keep him for the campaign's duration, much as he was resigned to losing him at the end of it because of Grace's swift progression.
Rovers were willing to pay a fee for the player at the start of the summer window and were knocked back. Rovers' boss Stephen Bradley was given further support by his board last weekend after Roberto Lopes suffered a setback and an improved offer was made which convinced Galway to sell.
"I was surprised because Shane said he had me until the end of the season and the club had his back and weren't going to agree a deal," he explained.
"It is nice that a club wants you, especially as big a club as this, the biggest in the country. So I can't wait to kick on now."
Bradley is ready to pitch the player straight in this evening and is convinced there is much more to come. "He has everything you need to be a proper centre-back," he said. "I think he'll get better in our environment. I've no doubt he will be a top player for us because he is a leader as well. You can tell by the way he goes about things in training."
Rovers were poor at home to Bohemians last Friday and are five points behind third-placed Derry with a game in hand.
Elsewhere tonight, Cork City look to bounce back from their shock defeat to Bohs on Monday when they visit struggling Drogheda United. "That result does us no favours," said Drogheda boss Pete Mahon. "Cork will be coming here with a point to prove."