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‘It was only after we scored, you’re 50 odd minutes in and thinking: we’re 1-0 up in White Hart Lane’

Stephen Rice on how he recovered from difficulties early in his career to enjoy a memorable time at Shamrock Rovers.

Shamrock Rovers players celebrate Stephen Rice's goal at White Hart Lane.
Shamrock Rovers players celebrate Stephen Rice's goal at White Hart Lane.

FOR STEPHEN RICE, lists and whiteboards have been recurring features of the past weeks.

He is determined to make the most of the lockdown, to develop, to learn, to get better.

It makes sense. On and off the field, he has never been one to lack motivation, ever since his childhood when his grandfather would take him to Sundrive Park to line out for Lourdes Celtic.

“I actually didn’t start playing until I was seven, whereas nowadays that’s probably really late, because the kids start so young,” he tells The42.

Rice spent eight years at Lourdes and was not the only notable name there, with fellow future League of Ireland players Stephen Bradley, Stephen Quigley and Conor Kenna also part of the side.

He had enough talent to play for representative teams and was good enough to earn trials across the water at “around six or seven” sides, but just one club, Coventry City, offered him a contract.

My mam, grandad and nan were very apprehensive, because I was so young. How did I feel about it? It probably only got real when I went. Up to that, I was trialling for a Premier League club. I played football for hours and hours every day to try to make that dream a reality. I was excited about it, but probably not thinking about the reality of it either.”

He was 15 when he moved, going over after his Junior Cert. Not doing the Leaving was “a big thing”. His education continued abroad, though it suffered regardless.

“I did do a couple of courses, but they were probably just sending you to tick a box in terms of the requirements for Premier League clubs. The courses weren’t really challenging as such. So I definitely missed out, and when I returned, it was something I was very conscious of. Going for jobs, I only had the Junior Cert.” 

There was a considerable Irish contingent at Coventry at the time. Daire Doyle and Barry Ferguson were leaving as Rice was arriving, but Lourdes team-mates Kenny and Quigley joined him there, while Kevin Thornton and Barry Quinn were also among the players on the books at the club.

“I hated it,” he says. “I stuck it out for two-and-a-half years. The football side of it, I loved. But it was very suffocating, you could never get away from it. 20 of us lived together on the training ground. It was two-to-three lads to a room, you’d no real privacy.

“One of my biggest strengths as a player was my energy and my ability to get around the pitch. And that was one of the main reasons they would have signed me. Me playing in the middle with Brads, doing a lot of his dirty work. He was the technician that did all the magic, which was fine.

“But when I went then, probably six months in, I couldn’t get around the pitch. I began to get a lot of stick from coaches. They saw me as being lazy and not looking after myself. But we were fed full time at the academy and it turned out that I was there for nearly a year and a half being anaemic basically with hardly any iron in my body. It led to me not being able to run.

“I couldn’t understand why it was happening, but you were just being labelled as a ‘lazy so and so,’ rather than people delving into why this was happening. It got so bad that I was at the back of runs.

“It took coming home to Bohs and Gino Brazil, who was U21 coach at the time, said: ‘This is not right, we need to get you to a hospital to get you checked out and get bloods.’ He said: ‘It doesn’t make sense. You’re training every day, yet you’re one of the unfittest.’ It didn’t add up.”

stephen-kenny Rice joined Stephen Kenny's Bohemians in 2003. Source: INPHO

Rice left Coventry without having made a first-team breakthrough. He signed briefly for Shelbourne, before joining Stephen Kenny’s side.

In 2003, the inexperienced youngster was sent on loan to Monaghan, who shared a training ground with Bohs at the time, and it was only during the loan spell that his iron deficiency was diagnosed.

“Bobby Browne was the manager and Gary Howlett was assistant [at Monaghan]. Gary played in the FA Cup final for Brighton and Bobby had a really good career as well in the game. We were doing a 12-minute run. Bear in mind, I was full-time and the lads were part-time. 

“Bobby, who was probably in his late 40s at the time or early 50s, he was about 300m ahead of me and I couldn’t catch him. I was absolutely last.

“After that, Gino rang me the next day and said: ‘What the hell is going on? We need to get you sorted.’ Even at Monaghan, I played probably half the games. I couldn’t get in the team because I couldn’t move.

“Once I started to get that addressed towards the end, I got more energy and I got in the team and really enjoyed it.

“It’s hard to believe that it wasn’t highlighted in a Premier League club, or it wasn’t looked into. The other side of it was we were being fed on site. They had control of everything I was eating. It wasn’t as if I was alone and my diet was [my sole responsibility]. You had a chef there and you ate what they were giving you.

“It was 20 years ago, but it was a hard couple of years, because you were constantly being told ‘you’re a lazy so and so,’ and you ‘don’t have the desire’. It couldn’t have been more opposite to my personality and what I was and what my career went on to be.”

He may have dreamed of playing in the Premier League as a kid, but not realising this ambition is not something Rice loses sleep over these days.

I also have so much admiration for lads that go there and do well. Glenn Whelan would have been our age all the way up to international — he’s had had an unbelievable career. Stephen Elliot, all these lads were underage internationals, and I’ve so much admiration for them, because I know how difficult it was.

“But I don’t look back and go ‘if only’. It was quite clear in my mind that I was going to return to Ireland and there was a living to be made here.

“You could have a good career in a good league in an environment where I could be with my family and friends. I just wanted to get back to enjoying football at that stage and getting myself right. I don’t look back now and ask: ‘What if Coventry had been a different set-up?’ I learnt a lot and it just wasn’t for me. Even young players going over now, there’s probably a stigma attached to returning. It’s like a ‘failure’. But it’s not for everybody.”

bobby-brown Rice worked under Bobby Browne at Monaghan. Source: INPHO

After returning from Monaghan, Rice soon began to establish himself in Bohs’ first team.

“I remember training one day in particular, we were doing runs. That pre-season, I was second only behind Mark Rutherford in the longer runs. You could see Stephen Kenny and everyone going: ‘What’s going on here?’ That gave me a lot of confidence that I had it back, that fitness and stamina on the basis of the tablets and stuff I was taking.”

Though customarily a midfielder, the 19-year-old was asked early on to slot in as a makeshift right-back and made his debut at the same time as future Ireland international Stephen Ward, who was regarded as a striker at the time.

“Wardy came in from Portmarnock. They’re a great club, but they wouldn’t be one of the powerhouses of the DDSL,” he remembers.

“It was evident very quickly that Wardy, his attitude, application, physical attributes, it doesn’t surprise me the career he’s had, although it surprises me that he’s had it at left-back more than anything and established himself there with 50-plus caps at international level.” 

Rice made over 100 appearances ultimately for Bohs between 2003 and 2007, receiving their Player-of-the-Year award in 2005, though ultimately leaving in acrimonious circumstances. 

“I was clear in my head that it wasn’t going to be long term under that manager [Sean Connor]. There was messing with contracts and a lot of messing with stuff behind the scenes. I just said: ‘It’s best to leave.’

The manager told me: ‘You don’t have to come in to training, you don’t have to do anything, you’re alright, we’ll keep paying you. But if anyone knows me, the way I am, I love being around the players and football. What I did was, every day, I’d come in as normal. When they got changed, I’d get changed. I’d set up my own practice.

“I’d start at the same time as them on the other pitch. I’d train on my own until their training was over. I’d maintain my own fitness for the Ireland 23s [games] coming up, but also because that’s who I am. That was a tough time, that two or three months.”

During this period, both Stockport County and Stephen Kenny’s Dunfermline offered Rice a chance to return to British football, but instead, the Crumlin native opted to sign with Shamrock Rovers.

The Hoops were not a major force in the league when Rice joined, with their last league triumph having occurred in 1994. That soon changed though, with the arrival of Michael O’Neill. Having finished seventh in 2008, the future Northern Ireland boss guided the team to second in his first season in charge, before overseeing back-to-back title triumphs.

Rice thrived during this period, as he was named the club’s Player of the Year in 2010, when they ended their 16-year league trophy drought.

“When I heard he got the job, I had to Google him. I’d heard the name as a player, but I wasn’t sure what his background was, as I’m sure [was the case for] lots of people in the league at the time.

“But [his talent] was very evident very early. He brought Trevor Croly in with him, which was very shrewd. Trevor knew the league, a really good coach. But when Michael spoke, he was very together, very calculated and very to the point.

“It was clear what he wanted. Once he started coaching and put across his knowledge tactically, you knew he was very good and we were in good hands.”

stephen-rice-celebrates-with-supporters Rice celebrates with supporters after the Bray game. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

Rice recently re-watched the game where he captained the side to their first title against Bray, after Rovers put it on their official Facebook page.

“I had never won a league and it was such a big deal for me and my family. That particular time I remember, because my nan, who reared me basically, was quite ill and it was a tough year in itself. That night in Bray was a combination of seven, eight years in the league, hard work, grafting, and then all the personal sacrifices that your family make, you make, coming into the moment where you actually achieve that. It was such an amazing night. It was a terrible game — but there was so much riding on it.” 

There were equally memorable nights in Europe. 2010 laid the foundation for the following year. A hard-fought 2-1 Europa League aggregate win over Israeli side Bnei Yehuda set up a glamour tie against Juventus. Pitting their wits against stars such as Alessandro Del Piero, Leonardo Bonucci, Giorgio Chiellini, Claudio Marchisio and David Trezeguet, the Hoops produced creditable displays in both legs, going down 3-0 on aggregate.

There was also the unforgettable sight of Cristiano Ronaldo lining out at Tallaght Stadium in a 2009 pre-season friendly, having just joined Real Madrid from Man United for a then-world-record fee of €94 million.

But remarkably, the best was yet to come. In 2011, after FC Copenhagen knocked them out of the Champions League in the qualifying round, a Pat Sullivan wonder goal helped the Hoops stun Partizan Belgrade and become the first-ever Irish side to qualify for the group stages of the Europa League.

“The TV weren’t even showing it up until a couple of hours before, they agreed a really cheap deal,” Rice recalls. “Setanta got it at a really low rate. I remember the lads talking about it. It showed the lack of expectation that we would do anything out there.

Sully’s strike will go down in history for the League of Ireland. I believe it’s the greatest goal ever scored in European football by an Irish player in the context of the game and what the goal meant. If Paul Scholes or Ronaldo did it, it would be played on repeat for years to come.

“Then to beat them in extra time and for their fans, who are so hostile and intimidating, to clap us off at the end was special.”

The feat was a testament to the great work performed by O’Neill and his coaching staff, creating a side with a good balance of guile and graft. Players such as Ronan Finn and Chris Turner boasted plenty of technical ability, while other such as Rice and Conor McCormack ensured the team always were hard to beat. In Gary Twigg, meanwhile, they possessed a striker who could get game-changing goals out of nothing and in Enda Stevens, they had a future Premier League star.

The apex of the journey surely came in the second group game of their Europa League campaign, and it was Rice, not known for his goalscoring exploits, who was suddenly front and centre.

With more than 34,000 fans in attendance, Rovers faced a Tottenham side that featured Kyle Walker, Roman Pavlyuchenko, Jermain Defoe, Giovani dos Santos and Harry Kane, who was introduced as a late substitute. 

Source: eir Sport/YouTube

“You probably think the day of playing in the Premier League is over and you’re never going to play in front of 30-40,000 at White Hart Lane, or these types of stadiums. You’ve probably accepted: ‘I’m never going to get that opportunity.’ So for it to come around the way it did and to draw the teams that we drew [was incredible].

“That night, the whole build-up to the game, thousands of Rovers fans in London, we were getting word back in our hotel that Covent Garden was green and white.

“It took on an element of it being like an Irish game, the way Irish fans would follow the Republic around. Even driving to the stadium, there were crowds outside. Getting in then, the whole element of being on that stadium and that surface, it was unbelievable.

In the game itself, we were lucky to be still 0-0 at half-time. We got stuck in then and the goal came just after. Sully had a strike, he still gives me a bit of stick about it today, he reckons it was going in, I don’t think it was. I just turned my back and it was Carlo Cudicini [in goal], I was right in his eyeline, because I just turned from looking at him.

“I knew as the ball was coming at me, and with the slightest little touch, he wouldn’t be able to react to it. I tried to change the direction of the ball and when it hit the net, it was just like it was meant to be. And the corner where the Rovers fans were, I didn’t know what to do, because I generally didn’t score goals. It was probably an element of shock that I went that way. The 5,000 or so Rovers fans in that corner, it was just an unbelievable feeling to see it hit the net, people were climbing and falling over each other.

“It was a special moment for my family, who were watching back home, and those five seconds between scoring and running to the crowd, you’ll never forget that feeling.”

Source: aDraftSoulja/YouTube

Unfortunately for the visitors, Spurs equalised 10 minutes later and two more quick-fire goals for the hosts ended the match as a contest.

“My biggest regret in that game is we didn’t manage it well enough from the players’ perspective. We scored and not long after, they’ve equalised. 

“In fairness, when we scored, they went up in gears. It was only after we scored, you’re 50 odd minutes in and thinking: we’re 1-0 up in White Hart Lane.”

That night in North London was as big as it got for that Rovers side. They would lose their next four Europa League matches, but could take solace in the knowledge that they had pulled off a landmark feat, which only one League of Ireland side, Dundalk, has matched since.

A month after their trip to White Hart Lane, they would secure a second successive league title. The success came at a cost though, with O’Neill leaving to take the Northern Ireland job.

A coach of similar renown, Stephen Kenny, arrived the following season, but his stint proved short-lived, as he struggled to meet the high expectations set by his predecessor.

“Why it didn’t work out, I don’t know,” Rice says. “It just didn’t happen for the players. We under-performed that year.

“Was it a hangover from the previous success? There was loads of different ways you could look into it. I certainly couldn’t pinpoint one reason why.”

The next season under Trevor Croly proved similarly underwhelming, resulting in Rice and the club parting ways.

It was a hard one to take, because I didn’t want to leave, if I’m being honest. I envisaged me ending my career there. But that’s football. I understand you make decisions on this, that and the other. And certainly, there are no hard feelings about it.”

Rice still managed to finish with a flourish, joining Tony Cousins’ Longford side and helping them get promoted from the First Division, in addition to earning a place in the FAI Cup semi-finals and securing a respectable sixth-place finish amid their first season back in the top flight.

He played briefly for Alan Kernaghan’s Glentoran side too, but by then, Rice’s burgeoning coaching responsibilities were beginning to outweigh his playing ambitions.

“I was working part-time with the FAI [in the Emerging Talent programme]. I was working with Kennedy Cup, DDSL and representative squads. I was really committing to coaching at that point.

“I remember we had a league game clashing with the DDSL Kennedy Cup squad that I was coaching at the time. In my heart, I didn’t want to miss the DDSL game, and that was the final nail — I wanted to be helping the younger lads rather than being on the pitch myself at that time.”

stephen-rice-and-pat-flynn-celebrate-with-the-first-division-trophy Longford's Stephen Rice and Pat Flynn celebrate with the First Division trophy. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Rice has spent the last few years coaching various underage Rovers teams, though left his role at the club in January, and was in the process of weighing up various opportunities when the coronavirus pandemic put everything on hold.

Nevertheless, the Dubliner remains as busy as he invariably was on the pitch. He is on the verge of completing his pro licence and has also just finished the first year of a coaching and science master’s degree in UCD.

“I’m 35 now, it was playing on my mind that I did lose out on that [education] side of it. I was very driven to go through the process again. I didn’t go back and do the Leaving Cert, so I took up different college courses that were interesting to me and started building up enough points to be able to then pursue the master’s.”

And if his experience as a player has taught him anything, it’s not to be too quick to write off young players who are under-performing.

There could be something going on in their home life, school, study, issues with girlfriends, they could be not eating right. There are so many aspects that are bigger than the coaching aspect. 

“I’ve worked with so many really good young underage footballers — Troy Parrott, Jason Knight, Nathan Collins, all these players who are coming through.

“[It's about] having the attitude to want to work hard and be there all the time, having the application, to sacrifice things and maybe not do what your friends are doing. The technical side, the tactical side, that will all come. But I’ve seen so many top players with a million times more ability than me not have a career in the game, because they lack the attitude and application.

“How you approach training, coaching and always wanting to get better is a huge part of making a career in the game.”

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Paul Fennessy

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