Wednesday 19 June 2019

Daniel McDonnell: Roche wanted to give professional football a try - now she knows what it's really like

Roy Keane famously described players as 'expensive pieces of meat'
Roy Keane famously described players as 'expensive pieces of meat'
'Stephanie Roche's unexpected ushering towards the Houston Dash exit door has introduced the Irish international to the harsh side of a desirable profession that specialises in disappointment'
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

When Stephanie Roche moved to America on more favourable terms than her previous existence in France, she spoke about the attraction of experiencing life as a full-time professional footballer.

In the US, Dthe female game is an industry standing on its own two feet, a place where it doesn't exist in the shadow of the men's equivalent.

Roche, the first Irish player to graduate to the NWSL, wanted to see how the other half lived. She's got a proper taste of it now.

Her unexpected ushering towards the Houston Dash exit door has introduced the Irish international to the harsh side of a desirable profession that specialises in disappointment. It's a brutal business with a short memory.

Jaap Stam's abrupt switch from Manchester United to Lazio - when he was deemed surplus to requirements by Alex Ferguson - is often the reference point when football's fickle nature is raised.

Roy Keane famously said that it emphasised that players are just "expensive pieces of meat", and he was duly given first-hand experience.

"When a club decide they want to sell, there is little you can do once the wheels are in motion," he said.

The circumstances of Roche's departure from Houston are different in the sense that quotas on overseas players and the rules of the league allow clubs to chop and change without seemingly having to worry too much about contractual complications.

Clearly, the 'American Dream' has small print in the terms and conditions. But the general principle is the same: when your face no longer fits then you're done.

Summer is the time of the year which really brings it home. News in brief sections over the past fortnight have been filled with lists of footballers that have been released by English clubs without very much fanfare - 18 from Millwall, 14 from Cheltenham, 11 from Sheffield Wednesday. The list goes on.

At least the "expensive pieces of meat" like Stam and Keane and their modern-day equivalents have other lucrative offers on the table when they are sacrificed.

The minority who operate at the higher end of the food chain experience a comparable level of stress; Raheem Sterling is unhappy with a £100,000-a-week offer because peers of similar ability are on better money, and there is a lot of sympathy out there for his stance.

For all the nonsense talk about bullying and his agent's theatrics, there will be an understanding among other players that he has to strike when his currency is high.

Sterling will already know players who have dropped out of the game completely, the youngsters who never get a second contract because they are just another entry on a long list of free agents with their spirit broken by rejection.

Roche moved her life to Texas and can now relate to the feelings of bitter disappointment. Yet she has built a profile from her Puskas Award exploits that leaves her in a preferable position.

In the midst of the campaign to support her wonder strike, she was happy to become an ambassador for the women's game in Ireland without seeking money for appearances. The employment of an agent was a necessary step as the commercial offers flooded in and she became a household name.

When Houston Dash completed her signature, they were happy to court the associated publicity that came with a topical signing and, in her own words, the Irish recruit became one of the 'bigger earners.'

The Houston press release that announced her capture finished with a line about season ticket sales and it generated widespread coverage in the US media outside their usual audience. They probably sold a few seats off the back of it.

A handful of sub appearances and three months later, coach Randy Waldrum was matter-of-fact about her release. "I just hope I don't grow to regret it but we had do it with somebody," he said.

Their show will move on as Roche picks up the pieces. Messages of support flooded in from well wishers who will always remember her name even if they've only seen one clip of her career.

On Twitter, the official account of the FIFA Women's World Cup sent a message which read: "Don't lose sight of what you've accomplished. You'll bounce back stronger. And millions know this." It's rare for a game's governing body to reach out to a pro that's down on their luck.

This unforgiving trade forgets people pretty quickly. Roche is coming to terms with a shock rejection but the fact that her plight is headline news suggests she will have a softer landing.

Compared to the kids who disappear out of sight and mind with nothing to fall back on, she's definitely one of the lucky ones

Irish Independent

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