Ryan Byrne/INPHO Roche in action against Slovakia earlier this month. She scored the only goal that day.
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'I’ve been around the Irish team a long time but don’t think I’ve reached my peak yet'

At 27, Sunderland striker Stephanie Roche feels her best football is still ahead of her.

WHEN I CHAT to Stephanie Roche earlier today, the draw for the Women’s World Cup qualifiers has just been made and she seems pleased with the outcome.

“There are no easy draws but it looks like we’ve done well to avoid the likes of Germany and Spain,” the Ireland striker says.

“We should be happy with the group because I believe we can win it if we go into the games mentally-prepared and knowing our jobs.

“I think Colin [Bell] will definitely have us set up in the right way and it’s something we can look forward to.”

Ireland will meet Norway, the Netherlands, Northern Ireland and Slovakia, with only the group winners assured of a place at the finals in France in two years’ time, although there are play-off spots for the four best runners-up.

It’s no easy feat — a point which is proved by the fact that the Girls in Green have never qualified before.

“They’re both very good teams,” she adds, when asked of her thoughts on Group C’s top two seeds. “The Netherlands have that proud football history, but Norway have come up and done really well in the last few years and they were good at the World Cup.

It’s difficult to pick one and they will probably be equally as difficult but I do feel they’re opponents that we can beat on our day.”

Norway also have 21-year-old Lyon star Ada Hegerberg in their ranks, who was voted Uefa Best Women’s Player in Europe last year.

“Yeah, I’ve seen her in the Champions League and she’s someone we’ll have to look after,” Roche admits, “but I reckon our defenders will be well able for her!”

Irish women’s football came to the fore of the national and international mainstream media last month after the squad took action in an attempt to improve the conditions they play in.

It worked, with the FAI agreeing a deal after a night of mediation talks, and Roche is keen to put the matter to bed and move on.

“I think it has come at a good time,” she explains. “We’re happy that it’s all over with and we’ve put pressure on ourselves now in what we asked for. It’s in the public eye and people know about us so it’s a great for it to happen with the qualifiers coming up.

“Hopefully it will generate some more interest and we’ll see a few more people at the games.”

Among the players’ concerns was the lack of access to individual strength and conditioning programmes as well as the need for gym memberships for the squad. New manager Colin Bell has said he feels there is room to work on the fitness of the group so these improvements are bound to help.

“I think that’s part of what we were asking for when we had the discussions with the FAI,” adds Roche. “We want supports in place, in particular for the home-based players who don’t have the best of facilities.

“That’s something that we need to improve and we all know that. Some of us are playing professionally and we know the fitness levels needed. It’s important that come September everybody is in tip-top shape.”

Stephanie Roche Hell and Back Stephanie is an ambassador for Hell & Back, which is sponsored by Londis.

At 27, Roche in the best form of her career in a green jersey. Since the beginning of 2016, she has been the team’s top scorer with eight goals.

“Last year was my best year for Ireland in terms of goalscoring,” she says. “I’ve settled in at Sunderland and I know my team-mates and my surroundings, which is always good.

I’ve been around the Irish team a long time but don’t think I’ve reached my peak yet and I still have a lot to give so hopefully this year will be another good one for me.”

After spells with Peamount United, French club ASPTT Albi and Houston Dash in the US, the Dubliner has spent the guts of two years in the English top flight — the FA Women’s Super League — with Sunderland.

“I love the area and I’ve got family coming over every second week almost so it’s nice to be that close to home,” she explains. “Football-wise, it’s been unbelievable to be able to train in such a professional environment at the Academy of Light. The facilities that we have are really good.

“It has improved me overall as a footballer and my fitness levels have gone up. I’m happy to keep plugging away and hopefully we’ll get a few more good seasons.”

PFA Awards 2017 - Grosvenor House Hotel EMPICS Sport Roche (right) at the PFA Awards last weekend. EMPICS Sport

Having been promoted from the second tier, the Black Cats claimed a fourth-place finish in Roche’s first season. However, last year proved more difficult and they had to settle for seventh.

Their opening league game of the 2017 campaign ended in a 0-0 draw with Birmingham City last Sunday, and she is optimistic for the short-term future.

“We had such a good season the first year I came and took the league by storm. Nobody expected anything from us and we did really well. Last year, we were a little bit stale at times and it didn’t take off for us.

“It was a bad season and we’ve lost players but brought others in, which I think will help freshen it up.”

Ireland international Stephanie Roche was on hand today to help Londis announce their sponsorship of Hell & Back for 2017. Hell & Back is Ireland’s toughest physical and mental endurance challenge, attracting more than 21,000 participants throughout a series of adventure events. See for further information and a 10% discount code.

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