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'I'm one of the lucky ones who stayed in the game and earned an okay living'

Fresh from his testimonial, Irish goalkeeper Barry Roche reflects on a career of over 500 games in England.

HIS NAME MAY not be familiar to many Irish football fans, but for the supporters of one club in England’s Football League, legends don’t come much greater than Wicklow’s Barry Roche.

Only one active Irish player — Coventry City’s Michael Doyle — has made more league appearances in English football than Roche, who played his 500th game as a professional last season.

Soccer - Sky Bet League Two - Morecambe v Cheltenham Town - Globe Arena Morecambe FC goalkeeper Barry Roche. Source: Dave Howarth

Having surpassed 10 years of service to Morecambe FC, the veteran goalkeeper’s testimonial took place last Sunday when a team of former players went up against a side comprising musicians and TV personalities, with a portion of the proceeds donated to charity.

This afternoon, much to Roche’s relief, the focus switches back to competitive action for Morecambe, whose form this season suggests that another battle to retain their Football League status could be in store.

Ahead of the meeting with fellow strugglers Macclesfield Town, Morecambe have won just once in their eight games in the 2018-19 League Two campaign. The Shrimps are fighting an uphill battle, but that’s something they’re accustomed to by now.

“I know it sounds horrible but I’m glad it’s all over,” says Roche in relation to his testimonial, for which several friends and family members made the journey across the Irish Sea to Morecambe’s Globe Arena.

“There was just so much stress involved in getting things sorted for the day. Don’t get me wrong, it was fantastic, but it’s good to have it behind me now. It was massively overwhelming.

“I’m not keen on being the centre of attention like that. It doesn’t sit particularly well with me and it’s not something I’m used to, so to have a whole day centred on me was quite difficult to adjust to, to be honest.”

This is Morecambe’s 12th consecutive season as a Football League club and Roche has been involved in 11 of them. According to the 36-year-old, consolidating their place in the fourth tier of the English game is an infinite bout of punching above their weight.

Their home ground can cater for 6,500 spectators, but having averaged attendances of fewer than 1,500 last season, tickets are seldom hard to come by. That’s perhaps unsurprising in a town similar in size to Bray, particularly when three of Europe’s biggest clubs — Liverpool, Manchester City and Manchester United — are each an hour’s drive away.

Yet for the devoted nucleus of Morecambe’s modest following, life revolves around their football club. And if another year in the trenches of a relegation battle is on the cards, they’ll once again turn to Barry Roche as their commander-in-chief.

Roche — the club’s record appearance holder in the Football League — is held in high esteem locally, and by no one more so than manager Jim Bentley, who appointed him captain in 2010.

As well as hailing Roche as the best goalkeeper in League Two over the past decade, Bentley recently praised his skipper’s contribution to the community and his levels of professionalism in acting as a role model for younger team-mates.

Morecambe v Coventry City - Emirates FA Cup - First Round - Globe Arena Roche is now in his 11th season at Morecambe. Source: Barrington Coombs

Roche says: “The tributes over the last week or so have been really lovely. I was slightly blown away by all the nice comments and the nice articles that people put up.

“This is not a big club or a so-called fashionable club, but it’s a club that’s very close to my heart. I’ve been here for over 10 years now and everyone here knows how much the club means to me.

“I’m settled in the area with my wife and kids. Even in the last few years I couldn’t see myself playing for any other club and I want to end my career here.”

Although Roche has been setting the standards for others to follow during his time at Morecambe, his approach to his profession wasn’t always exemplary. By his own admission, it probably cost him a new contract at Nottingham Forest.

After playing his schoolboy football with Leicester Celtic in Rathfarnham, Roche was signed by Leeds United as a teenager. In the summer of 2000 he followed academy director Paul Hart to Forest, where a first-team debut came sooner than expected.

In their fourth First Division game of the 2000-01 season, Forest were 3-2 up away to Crystal Palace in the final seconds when their veteran goalkeeper Dave Beasant was shown a red card.

Roche was sprung from the bench at the expense of Jack Lester, taking his place in a team that also included player-manager David Platt. With his first touch in professional football, the 18-year-old saved Julian Gray’s penalty to seal the three points for his new employers.

Barry Roche Roche represented Ireland up to U21 level. Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

“I can remember it like it was yesterday,” he says. “I knew Dave Beasant was going to get sent off but to me it looked like he fouled the guy outside the box, so I was expecting to be facing a free-kick… but then the ref pointed to the spot.

“The guy scored the penalty at first but the ref ordered a retake due to encroachment. I thought the guy looked nervous so I felt he’d change his mind about where to put the penalty. He did, and I managed to get a good hand on it to keep it out.

“That was pretty special. Then to make my full debut in front of about 20,000 at Hillsborough a week later was absolutely terrifying. But we ended up keeping a clean sheet and won 1-0, which was great. Those games are among the many fantastic memories I have.”

Unfortunately for Roche, his time at the club generally isn’t remembered by Nottingham Forest fans for his dream debut. He can laugh about it now, but it took a long time for him to see the funny side of a 4-2 defeat to Derby County at Pride Park in March 2004. 

“The coffee horror show for Forest’s keeper Barry Roche was Peschisolido’s gain and the Irish keeper’s nightmare for the second of Derby’s three goals in a 37-minute blitz,” was how the Daily Mirror’s Ian Edwards recorded the incident that saw Paul Peschisolido beat Roche to leave Nottingham Forest trailing 2-0.

As Roche steadied himself to deal with Wes Morgan’s back-pass, there was an untimely intervention from an empty coffee cup which had blown onto the pitch. The ball hit the cup and subsequently struck Roche’s shin instead of his right boot. The clearance fell kindly for Peschisolido, who capitalised to help Derby to a big win over their rivals.

At the centre of a costly mishap in front of 33,000 spectators in an East Midlands derby, Roche — just 21 at the time — endured a difficult aftermath. The more experienced Paul Gerrard, having recovered from an injury, was immediately restored to the team.

Soccer - Nationwide League Division One - Derby County v Nottingham Forest Roche looking dejected after the intervention of a coffee cup against Derby County. Source: Nigel French

“All the time,” Roche laughs, when asked if he’s still reminded of the incident 14 years later. “It actually took me a good while to get over that one. It was really awful.

“In saying that, to this day I maintain that I don’t think I could have done anything differently. If a shot goes through your legs — and that has happened too — then you can look at yourself for making an error. But looking back on that incident, there was nothing I could do. How do you legislate for the ball hitting a cup that has blown onto the pitch?

“What was really hard was that I had made a mistake in a game against Burnley on the Tuesday, which just sort of compounded everything. That made it a lot worse and I was left out of the team after that.

“I had played six or seven games in a row and things had gone okay until that point, but the coffee cup incident and the mistake against Burnley in the space of a few days changed things. If I’m honest, that signalled the end of my Forest career.”

Roche saw it coming when his five-year spell at the City Ground was brought to a conclusion in the summer of 2005. Experience and maturity have taught him that he was too young to appreciate the opportunity he had while at a club of Nottingham Forest’s stature. 

“I’m honest enough to recognise that I didn’t do enough when I was at Forest to earn another contract and a regular starting place,” says Roche, who was capped by the Republic of Ireland at U21 level in a team that featured John O’Shea, Andy Reid and the late Liam Miller.

“Looking back on it, I was a young lad away from home, in a city like Nottingham where there’s lots of temptation. I know now that I wasn’t as professional as I should have been. We went out on the sauce a little bit too much. You can’t do that if you’re expecting to make it at that level.”

Soccer - Nationwide League Division One - Nottingham Forest v Wigan Athletic Roche spent five years at Nottingham Forest. Source: EMPICS Sport

He adds: “You have to do things the right way. I changed a long time ago, but if I kept up that lifestyle of going out every weekend I wouldn’t still be in the game. You just won’t make it if you don’t have the right lifestyle.

“I’ve learned from experience and I’m happy to pass that experience on to younger players now when it’s needed and asked for. If I can help them out in any way, on and off the pitch, I will do.

“You have to make the sacrifices that are required to make it in this game. In the last 10 or 15 years, things have turned so much more professional and there will always be someone else who’s willing to make the sacrifices if you aren’t, whether it’s cutting off the social life, cars, girls or whatever.

“So many of the young lads coming through now get distracted by their fast cars and designer clothes, which leads them to feel that they’ve already made it when they really haven’t. Making sacrifices is essential, but so is being humble.”

Roche made 130 appearances — the majority of them in League One — during three years at Chesterfield. He then went on to fall in love with a small club on the Lancashire coast.

Media coverage of events in League Two is mostly confined to the locality of the clubs involved. However, for a couple of days in February 2016, Barry Roche was taking calls from the likes of Sky Sports News.

“That was absolutely fantastic,” he says of the dramatic 94th-minute equaliser he scored for Morecambe against Portsmouth. “We had been on a really bad run of form, not getting a point in about six or seven games. We were under real pressure, and then a massive club like Pompey came up. 

“It was a Tuesday night in February, a huge trek for them, but they still brought about 500 fans up so there was a really good atmosphere in the ground. I somehow managed to get my big head on the ball in the last few seconds to earn us a draw, which was brilliant. My world kind of went nuts for about 48 hours.”

Source: officialpfc/YouTube

Barry Roche will turn 37 before the end of this season, and while his career is undoubtedly in its twilight, he doesn’t feel ready to hang the gloves up just yet. Nevertheless, there are plans in place for the future. In addition to accumulating his coaching badges, he’s currently in the process of setting up a goalkeeping school in the Morecambe area.

“At this stage, playing is definitely a case of taking each year as it comes, but at the minute I feel good,” he says. “I believe I’ve got a bit left in the tank. I’ll keep going as long as my body tells me it’s right to do so.”

For now he’s still looking forward, although last weekend’s testimonial afforded him an opportunity to reflect. His career in England began with a top Premier League side and it looks set to end at the smallest club in League Two, so a cursory glance at his trajectory might suggest that things went drastically awry.

But Barry Roche has been in the game long enough to be capable of seeing the bigger picture. Not every decision he made was perfect in his formative years as a professional, but of the vast number of Irish teenagers who have attempted to carve out a football career in England, Roche is among the small minority who managed to do so.

“It’s incredibly difficult to make a career in the game here,” he says. “The numbers and statistics prove that. It’s a very cut-throat and ruthless game to make it in. I’m one of the lucky ones who stayed in the game and earned an okay living from it.

“I wouldn’t say I don’t have any regrets. I feel that if I had knuckled down and worked harder a lot earlier in my career I could have achieved better things. But that has happened and you can’t change the past.

“Overall I think I’ve done pretty well and it’s something I’m very proud of.”

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Paul Dollery

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