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'You're always going to get begrudgers and people thinking ‘who does she think she is?'

After another whirlwind year on and off the pitch, Ireland’s Stephanie Roche talks about dealing with life after the Puskas Award.

Roche signed for Sunderland over the summer.
Roche signed for Sunderland over the summer.
Image: Twitter/SAFCLadies

A YEAR ON from an unforgettable night rubbing shoulders with the two greatest footballers of our generation, Stephanie Roche remains determined to prove there is more to her than just that goal.

The Dubliner shot to fame when her out-of-this-world finish for Peamount United was shortlisted for the 2014 Fifa Puskas Award, a first for Irish football, where it later claimed the runner-up prize behind Colombia and Real Madrid star James Rodriguez.

Roche received worldwide media coverage prior to attending the glamorous Ballon d’Or awards ceremony in Zurich alongside the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi.

As a result, the 26-year-old striker became a household name in Ireland and is now arguably the country’s best-known female footballer.

But while that fame has undoubtedly opened several doors, she has had mixed fortunes since moving abroad in order to further her playing career.

A switch to French outfit ASPTT Albi didn’t work out before Roche agreed to relocate to Texas and join Houston Dash.

That proved short-lived, however, as she was left “shocked” when her contract was terminated after just three months.

Stephanie Roche with Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi Roche with Ronaldo and Messi at the Ballon d'Or awards last January. Source: Valeriano Di Domenico/INPHO

Thankfully, there was plenty of interest from elsewhere and FA Women’s Super League (FAWSL) side Sunderland offered her a two-year deal back in June.

“It has been a bit of a strange year,” Roche tells The42. ”It feels like it has been the longest year ever, but then it also feels as if it went really quickly.

“Moving to Sunderland helped me get over the whole America experience because at that time it was a bit crazy and I didn’t know where my next step would be.

“I was really lucky there were a few clubs that got in touch. Once I went over to visit Sunderland, it was always going to be a ‘yes,’ as it is a big club with a great set-up.

“That has allowed me to rediscover a focus after everything that happened.”

With the support of boyfriend Dean Zambra, who put playing in SSE Airtricity League with Bray Wanderers on hold to join her (although he is considering a return next season), Roche has been getting used to life on Wearside and wants to move on from a difficult period by making an impact in England’s top flight.

“It is always going to be difficult settling into a new club, especially after how it ended unexpectedly at Houston,” she says.

I just wanted to prove to myself and the girls who are there that I am good enough to get into the team.

“The main thing was to get my football back on track more than anything else.

“One of my old coaches told me before I went away to France that when you travel and play in different countries, it builds your character and changes you as a person,” she adds.

“I definitely think that has been the case as there have been so many ups and downs in such a short space of time.

“I feel I’ve learned new things and improved not only as a footballer but as a person. I can handle myself better and deal with low blows.

“Any athlete will tell you that if you get knocked down it can be hard to get back up. I could’ve just come home and not gone for a professional contract but the move to Sunderland was a great opportunity.

“I’ve proved that I’m willing to work hard and even if things go wrong I’ll continue to do so until I get them right.

“I’m a firm believer that everything is meant to be so I’ll keep on chugging away and see what happens.”

Having made eight starting appearances and three more as a substitute, Roche believes she did “quite well” in her first season with the Black Cats, who finished fourth in the league.

However, she admits it was tough to come into a team midway through the campaign and says she’s looking forward to getting a full pre-season under her belt in 2016.

Next season I will have to show what I can do even more.

“This is where I have always aspired to be. Football in Ireland has a lot of very good players but the league I’m in is definitely a step up. It is more professional and that’s what I want.

“I’m really happy that I’ve been given the opportunity at Sunderland and it is only going to improve me as a player.”

Sue Ronan, Emma Byrne and Stephanie Roche Roche (right) with Ireland manager Sue Ronan (left) and goalkeeper Emma Byrne (centre). Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Like it or not, Roche’s raised profile in the game has also brought a certain amount of negativity from those who may feel she is ‘living off’ the Puskas nomination.

She accepts it is part-and-parcel of life but insists people have been really supportive for the most part.

“You are always going to get begrudgers and people thinking ‘who does she think she is?’. But I think I’ve proved myself everywhere I’ve gone.

“I’m not the type of person who comes in thinking I’m the business. I do my job and try to be as professional as I can as I love playing football.

You can’t let begrudgers hold you back and I’ve had so much good support that I don’t let it get to me and just get on with doing what I have to do.”

As part of an FAI initiative, over 2,000 school children were given free tickets for Ireland’s most recent Euro 2017 qualifier against Spain at Tallaght Stadium last month.

Manager Sue Ronan had named Roche on the bench but her introduction with ten minutes remaining received the biggest cheer of the afternoon.

While it was an odd experience, she believes that an increased familiarity between young fans and the squad is a step in the right direction.

“When I was warming up I had kids screaming at me so it has been a bit strange,” recalls Roche.

“It is brilliant for women’s football that kids are coming to the games and knowing who the players are and I’m not just saying that because it’s me but the having more of the younger generation at matches can only be good for the sport in Ireland.

“As I’d be in the public eye, a lot of the girls would know me but if they continue to come and are encouraged by parents and teachers, then it will generate more interest in the team and women’s football.”

Ireland’s ticket allocation for each of their Euro 2016 group games confirmed>

Shane Long’s magical goal against Germany voted Ireland’s sporting moment of 2015>

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About the author:

Ben Blake

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