Sport Soccer

Friday 14 December 2018

YouTube sensation sees women's game basking in limelight

In one moment of magic, Stephanie Roche has enhanced her sport's profile, writes John O'Brien

John O'Brien

'Tekkerz", they chimed in appreciative harmony as the glorious symphony of the move unfolded before them. "Qua tuyet," came the verdict from Vietnam. Too good. Mostly, given the universal language of the game, no translation was required. "Il gol dell'anno," rang out in Italy. "El espectacular golazo," went the chorus in Peru. Had Alex Ferguson taken time out from his hectic promotional schedule to offer his take, no doubt he'd have spoken for the entire English-speaking constituency. "Football, bloody hell."

It was that kind of week. Before Ferguson and his former captain went at it like a pair of old rutting stags, remembering past glories, the limelight was held by a 24-year-old from Shankill, Co Dublin, whose strike for her club, Peamount United – two flicks followed by a clinical 20-yard volley – seemed the perfect football expression of Stravinsky's Symphony in Three Movements, a virtuoso piece of skill that had to be seen to be believed. And, as it happened, millions did.

When it came, two weeks ago in Wexford Youths' Ferrycarrig Park, Stephanie Roche had no idea of the fuss that would follow. She just knew she'd ended the mini-drought that was tormenting her. Six games Peamount had played this season and, still, she'd yet to open her account. Like any striker in any league in any continent, her barren patch irked her. She desperately wanted to score. How the goal came – a scrappy two-yard tap-in, an inadvertent nudge off her knee – didn't unduly bother her.

But it came the way it did and the story took off. On a basic level, of course, it was a simple tale about social media. Ten years ago, you imagine, "il gol dell'anno" would have been confined to the 50 or so hardy souls there to witness it, its greatness growing through each retelling, a word-of-mouth wonder made obsolete by the YouTube planet we've come to inhabit.

For Eileen Gleeson, Peamount manager, grappling with the intricacies of YouTube was the beginning. Not that she too had much idea where such grappling might lead. When Wexford Youths' manager, John Flood, graciously sent on the match video, she thought to post Roche's goal onto the club's Facebook page, because one or two of the squad had been away that day and would be curious to see it. There was no higher calling than that.

Then somebody suggested she should upload it onto Twitter and her first thought was, "Woah, hang on a minute". Gleeson is better at football coaching than computers and meddling with USB sticks and compressed files took time. Finally, last Saturday, the goal made it to YouTube and, almost instantly, the hits began to accumulate. In less than hour, it had already passed 300 views. "Hello," Gleeson thought. "What's going on here?"

"It went a bit wild," she says now laughing. "We were playing Galway that Sunday and when I spoke to my assistant manager at eight that morning she said did you know that 10,000 people have already seen the video. Can you believe that? I thought, jaysus, this is getting kind of crazy. When I got home that night, it was still snowballing. It had already gone out of the realm of my imagination."

On Monday, when the sky seemed to be raining spectacular goals, things exploded. The waves from Arsenal's delightful tiki-taka goal against Norwich on Saturday were still rippling when two Fulham wonder-strikes against Crystal Palace raised the stakes. When Roche's goal was shown as a kind of trump card, it truly didn't matter to her whether her strike surpassed the others, just that she, a 24-year-old amateur footballer from Dublin, was being boxed among some illustrious company: Jack Wilshere, Patjim Kasami, Steve Sidwell, Stephanie Roche.

It's Thursday when we catch up and the madness hasn't abated. Her life has been so charged these past few days that she hasn't got around to watching the Sky Sports segment attributed to her or even begun to take in the Twitter exchanges she's had with the likes of Matt Le Tissier and David Meyler, not to mention her favourite comedian, Dara O Briain. "To be honest I'm wrecked," she smiles. "But it's a nice feeling too."

And the strangest thing. On Tuesday, she was walking along O'Connell Street, on her way to catch the bus that would take her to Blanchardstown where she's a coaching intern on an FAI futsal project. From the distance she could hear a voice summoning her. "Stephanie," a man called. "Hey Stephanie." She looked around trying to identify the source, but figured it wasn't anybody she knew.

"It was one of the guys working on the newspaper stand," she says. "He said, 'hey is that you in the paper today?' Then I got onto the bus and the driver asks were you the girl I saw on the telly last night? People recognising you is a bit weird when it's not something you're used to. Even just walking into work, people saying hello and smiling at you. It's all a bit strange."

You ask her where she learned how to play and the reply is instant. "On the streets," she says. Just like Robbie Keane a few miles to the west a decade before her. Just like Johnny Giles in Ormond Square 40 years before that. The practice, maybe, isn't as dead as we imagine. Football was the soundtrack to her childhood. The gable wall around the corner from her home in Shanganagh Cliffs on which they painted the outline of a goal and pelted balls at it from all angles.

On her estate she was the only girl who played football, but that was no impediment to her dreams. The guys she kicked around with were good enough to play for Joey's, the big southside nursery. One of them, Alan Judge, is now a professional at Blackburn. She went frequently to Ireland games and dreamed of one day emulating her hero, Olivia O'Toole.

She played against boys as long as the rules permitted it and brushed off the odd salty comment from the sidelines. "It wasn't particularly bad," she says, "but you'd hear the odd comment. People saying she's a girl ha ha, that kind of stuff. I remember playing against one team for Valeview-Shankill and getting a bit of stick. I scored one goal and set another up. That shut them up pretty quick."

She was 14 and playing for Cabinteely when Noel King, then senior women's manager, approached her and told her she'd play for her country. She remembers how much that meant. Football was already her life. She wants to play for her country again and dreams yet of making it as a professional. If not, she thinks, then it will be okay to see the women's game make strides here.

It's the passion of people like Roche and Gleeson, rather than the goal, that is the real story here. Roche remembers how proud she felt when the Irish rugby team created a few waves earlier this year.

One of them, Jenny Murphy, had once been a Peamount player. If her enhanced profile can bring even a fraction of that goodwill, then women's football here will be the better for it.

"It's like I've been saying all week," she says. "If people come to games, they'd want to come back, I really believe that. They'd see it's actually a decent standard. There's still a bit of that mentality, ah it's girls football, it can't be any good. But a lot of the games are of a really high standard. I think people would come back and hopefully bring others along with them."

Ultimately, perhaps, it wasn't the goal itself that mattered as much as the mentality that made it possible. The lack of fear she showed in going for it, the foresight of her coach in encouraging her to nurture the adventurous streak in her game, in resisting the slavish prejudice so many harbour against risk-taking, preferring the safe, humdrum existence of playing the percentages.

Stephanie Roche showed there could be a better way. Over 1.9 million viewers and counting is testament to that.

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