League of Ireland
A quick word with Shamrock Rovers midfielder Stephen Rice
JOE caught up with Shamrock Rovers midfielder Stephen Rice to talk about last season’s success, financial trouble in the League of Ireland and managing the Hoops in the future.
By Niall Mooney
Despite a blip against Bray Wanderers last weekend, Shamrock Rovers are still sitting pretty on top of the Airtricity League table and are well on course to regain a title that was 16 years in the waiting.
Given the history of success in the club, it seemed odd that Rovers had to wait so long for domestic glory, but they say that absence makes the heart grow fonder and Rovers certainly celebrated the occasion fittingly on a night of high drama in Bray last season, when a single point was enough to land them their first title since 1994.
Stephen Rice, stand in captain on the night, got to lift the trophy and he still has vivid memories of a significant occasion in the club’s history.
“It was a crazy night”, Rice recalls.
“It was a massive night for the club, the fans and all of us players. It is something that we will never forget.”
It all could have been so different for Rice and Rovers had Bohemians capitalised on Rovers’ home defeat to Sporting Fingal towards the end of last season, a loss which threatened to swing the momentum in the Gypsies’ favour.
Although the reverse to Fingal proved ultimately insignificant in the title race, Rice is still haunted by that game and the manner of Rovers’ collapse, losing 2-1 after missing a penalty and conceding two goals in the last three minutes.
“That was undoubtedly the lowest point of my career,” he says.
“Especially the way it happened having missed a penalty and a host of opportunities.”
The league title under their belts, the Hoops had a chance to make it a domestic double when they took on Sligo Rovers in the FAI Ford Cup final, the first domestic final to be staged at the brand new Aviva Stadium.
Rice celebrates with Hoops supporters following last season's title triumph
In what was a forgettable game overall, the Bit O’Red triumphed after extra time thanks to the penalty saving heroics of Ciaran Kelly, who saved all four of Shamrock Rovers’ efforts from the spot.
Unlike the Fingal defeat, however, it is not something which bothers Rice five months on, as the talented midfielder would take the league over the cup any day of the week.
“People say ‘would you not prefer to win the cup and end the season on a high?” he says.
“For me it’s the league title all day long.”
This season, Rovers’ squad has been seriously strengthened, with the arrivals of the likes of Fingal duo Ronan Finn and Gary O’Neill, Ken Oman from rivals Bohemians and Conor McCormack, who joined from Italian Serie B side, Triestina.
As a result, the club’s player of the year last season has had to be content with a place on the bench in recent weeks, but Rice is only looking at the bigger picture and knows that while the new additions make it far harder to claim a regular place in the starting XI, it can only increase the chances of silverware in the long run.
“I think we’ve probably got the best squad in the league this year and as the season progresses I’m sure we’ll show our strength,” he says.
“To add such quality to an already strong squad can only help us achieve our goals.”
One of the reasons the Tallaght-based outfit have been able to vastly increase the strength in their squad is their financial security compared to the precarious predicament of many League of Ireland clubs. Like everything in the recession, the clubs, not to mention the players, have had to adapt to the realities of the economic situation in this country.
Bohemians games are always tough; when you’re up against any team Pat Fenlon puts out, you know you’re in for a game.
Rice has a lot of sympathy for players for whom football is the only source of income. On his personal situation and the plight of clubs overall he reflects: “Personally, I’ve been unlucky and lucky at the same time in the sense that I’ve never been on the big money, even in the boom, and therefore it hasn’t affected me in the same manner as other people.
“Shamrock Rovers is a prime example of how a League of Ireland club is run. This is easier said than done, as not many clubs have the facilities and more importantly, the following Rovers have.
“It’s very easy just to say ‘copy what Rovers have done’, but it just isn’t that simple and has taken a long time and a lot of hard work.”
Of more pressing concern to Rice is this weekend’s televised Dublin derby with Bohemians at Dalymount Park, a ground where Rovers have not won since 2007. On that day, Tadgh Purcell was on target for Rovers in a 2-0 win and Rice was on the bench for Bohemians. Tensions will once again be high when these two bitter rivals meet and it is the sort of occasion that Rice relishes.
“It’s a huge game for us along with the fans and one I always look forward to,” he says.
“Bohemians games are always tough; when you’re up against any team Pat Fenlon puts out, you know you’re in for a game”.
With Bohemians struggling financially during the close season, the Gypsies will struggle to mount their now customary title challenge.
Many have tipped Rovers to reclaim the league title after their recent signings added to an already formidable squad, but Rice doesn’t believe it will be that straightforward.
“I certainly see Sligo being involved in the mix, but hopefully last year was the start of a long run of league titles for us”.
As for the future, Rice, whose previous clubs include Coventry City, Shelbourne and Bohemians, can’t envisage himself anywhere but Rovers, where, amongst the current squad, he is now the club’s longest serving player. He can even see himself in the Rovers dugout some day, having already taken the first steps in a fledgling coaching career.
“I don’t see myself playing for anyone other than Rovers,” he says.
“I definitely want to do some coaching and I hope to complete my A license next year and hopefully one day come back and manage Rovers.”