Sunday 21 January 2018

Wonder goal a real game-changer for humble Stephanie Roche

The striker's volley has opened the door for even greater rewards, writes Anna Kessel

Anna Kessel

THE tale of Stephanie Roche and her magic goal has been lighting up football for months now, but tomorrow at FIFA's Ballon d'Or ceremony in Zurich the world finds out if there will be the ultimate happy ending. The Irish striker's instinctive volley, shortlisted for the Puskas Award after being captured, by chance, on grainy footage, epitomises the romance of the game. Just 95 people watched that day as Peamount United took on Wexford Youths back in October 2013. It is a miracle the match was ever filmed.

Thankfully, for everyone who loves to be entertained or wants to see women's footballing talent on an equal platform with men's, it was. And what a moment to immortalise. As the ball comes in, Roche - with her back to the goal - takes three touches: right, left, over her shoulder and, turning, left, BANG, into the back of the net. The ball never touches the ground. Roche's manager at the time, Eileen Gleeson, was so overcome she pogoed about on the sidelines and claimed to have had "an out-of-body experience".

With the intent of sharing it among the Irish women's football community, Gleeson edited the clip and posted it online. "One of the girls said: 'Put that on YouTube and it's going to go viral, you're going to be a superstar' and she was laughing a bit," says the 25-year-old. "The way things have turned out now it is a bit surreal to think that she wasn't too far off."

Peamount, a small club, was not used to being headline news. But it did not take long before the requests came pouring in as well-known players, past and present, including Norman Whiteside, Paul McGrath and Rio Ferdinand, eulogised over Roche's goal.

"It was crazy. It went viral, Matt Le Tissier and Gary Lineker were tweeting about it. There were two million hits on YouTube. That's what put it in the spotlight and that helped me to be put in contention for this Puskas Award, for which I'm really grateful."

More than a year passed between the goal and its shortlisting for the award. In the intervening period Roche put it to the back of her mind and in July signed for the professional French side ASPTT Albi to play against some of the world's best female talent in France's Division 1 Feminine. But it was the announcement, in November, that Roche had made FIFA's top 10 goals of the year that brought the attention flooding back. The vote to create a shortlist of three was opened to the public and last month it was revealed that Roche was the first woman to make the final, alongside Robin van Persie and James Rodriguez.

To be listed with the Dutchman is particularly special for Roche, a lifelong Manchester United fan who regularly travels to Old Trafford with her family, and boyfriend, Bray Wanderers defender Dean Zambra, to watch him play. "If I wasn't up against [Van Persie] I'd be voting for him. I watched those games live, and I specifically remember Robin van Persie's goal. I remember saying, 'Jeez, that's some goal'. To think that my goal is now alongside his for an award is unbelievable. I've had a few people tweeting [Van Persie and Rodriguez] and asking them to vote for my goal and I'm like they're not going to do that, they want to win this as much as I do."

In the week of the announcement for the final three the world's media went crazy. David Luiz, Ian Wright and One Direction's Niall Horan, among others, rushed to pledge their support. Roche spent days doing interviews with journalists flying from around the globe to meet her, even recreating her goal for the French TV channel Canal Plus.

Last week reports claimed that Roche is cutting short her contract and leaving the south of France, with the Albi manager, David Welferinger, citing offers from "richer clubs". If so, it is understandable that Roche might want a move. Though Albi is a professional club, compared with Peamount where players pay to play, Roche reportedly earns £650 a month plus living expenses despite training full-time. "It's the same for most female footballers," she says, shrugging. "We put a lot of effort in and I wouldn't say that any of us would be able to retire any time soon on the money we earn."

Asked whether the nomination had changed her life money-wise, Roche was surprised. "I haven't had any sort of financial gain. It would be nice to make something out of it if I could, but I'm just really focused on trying to win the award. Something like that would be life-changing for me - and I don't mean financially - just as a footballer to say I've won the Puskas Award, it would be something I'd treasure forever. I really do hope people continue to vote for my goal and give me a chance of winning."

With a story as romantic as Roche's, it is inevitable that some will assume she is in contention solely because she is the underdog or that scoring against Wexford Youths is nothing compared with the pressure of scoring in a World Cup. Roche responds that last year's winner, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, scored his goal in a friendly against England and that did not seem to put anyone off voting for him.

Her supporters urge people to vote for her because, they argued, hers is the best goal, not because she is female. "It's something I've been saying a lot," says the striker who is pleased that so many people have commented on the technical skill she displayed. "I'm very proud as a woman to be the first woman in the top three, but I'd rather my goal be seen as a great footballing goal rather than a female goal. A lot of female footballers would say the same thing, we just want to be recognised as footballers and athletes rather to be labelled as: 'That's a great goal for a woman'. I just hope I can go and win the Puskas, it would be unbelievable for me."

For anyone still doubting whether Roche's goal deserves to win on merit, have a look at the former Celtic striker, John Hartson, analysing the three shortlisted goals for the BBC. When Roche's strike is shown, a little smile of wonder comes over his face as he observes her three balletic touches, awe-struck. "If Wayne Rooney or Ronaldo did that you'd be talking about it for years and years and years," he says.

Roche's goal deserves to be talked about for years to come. If she can make history and win an award too, it might just sway a few hearts and minds about the potential of women's football to shine on even the biggest stage. And it would make a humble footballer very, very happy.

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