Ricer raising the flag

Interview with Stephen Rice in ‘Hoops Scene’ (Shamrock Rovers v Dundalk – 4 March 2011)

Tonight the League of Ireland Champions flag will be raised for the first time here at Tallaght Stadium. Of course Shamrock Rovers have won a record 16 league titles during the club’s illustrious history but has there been one as hard fought as the 2010 title? In an incredible season, the Hoops secured the title but it went right to the wire, with the final league night in Bray continuing to provide drama. When Rovers secured the crucial draw required to win the title, the man to receive and lift the league trophy, along with Dan Murray, was Stephen Rice. It wasn’t to be the only silverware the midfielder would win that weekend as the very next evening he received the Shamrock Rovers Player of the Year award at the Rovers Awards Dinner in the Burlington Hotel. It was a memorable season for ‘Ricer’ who took the chance to look back with ‘Hoops Scene’ on that amazing league title winning season and to look forward to the 2011 season to come.

(Photo:George Kelly)
“It was crazy stuff”, says Rice of the night the Hoops won the league. “It was a massive night for the club and all of us players. It is something that we will never forget. It was incredible that some of the young fans out in Bray that night weren’t even alive when we won the last title.”

That night in Bray was a culmination of a long league season that must have left the players tired both physically and emotionally. This was especially the case after conceding those late goals against Sporting Fingal in the penultimate home game of the league campaign which seemed to hand the title to Bohemians. “I have never been as low in football after that Fingal game,” says Rice. “That was very strange game. It was a long season but it was enjoyable even though it was tough. The season goes a lot quicker when you are winning and enjoying it like we did. When we finally got over the line, I think we deserved it over the whole season even though we did stumble towards the end. Bohs stumbled as well but that was more in the middle of the season and that is not as highlighted. We stumbled towards the end but over the whole season the league table doesn’t lie. If we had of romped home and won it by 10 points and beaten Bohs in Dalymount that night maybe we wouldn’t have learned as much through the ups and down about ourselves as individuals and as a team.”

The Hoops went into that last game of the season knowing that realistically a draw was all that was required to win the title. However heading towards halftime they were still a goal down. Gary Twigg then latched on to the ball taking it around the goalkeeper. He was then the calmest man in the Carlisle Grounds as he took another touch, steadied himself and proceeded to slot the ball calmly using the outside of his left foot between the legs of the defender on the line. “It shows the character of the squad to go 1-0 down and then to come back into the game but as I say the way we won it we will learn a lot. With that goal other strikers may have snatched at it but Twiggy showed why he is the best striker in the league.”

During the close season, Rice and the other players were able to take some time away from the game but not for too long. “We took three to four weeks off to do nothing which is important. I got away for a couple of weekends. Then in early December Trevor [Crolly] and the Gaffer [Michael O’Neill] sent us out a fitness programme. This programme was for the weeks leading up to coming back for pre-season. It was gym work and some running for strengthening and building back up a base for pre-season. Pre-season has been very good. We have had lots of games and training as always has been really good so we are looking strong. Everything we do generally is with the ball. You get your touch back and the fitness comes, with next step being the match fitness. Last week we had a fitness test and nearly all the lads scored really well and that gives a guide of where you are at. The fitness scores were up from the start of preseason.”

The Shamrock Rovers squad has been bolstered for the 2011 season with new signings who have joined before and during pre-season. They have been made feel welcome by the squad which as usual involves a bit of banter. The latest editions to the squad include Conor McCormick, who joined from Italian Serie B side Triestina, and Ronan Finn who signed following Sporting Fingal’s collapse. “Conor has been in for most of pre-season with Ronan joining after Fingal closed down. All the new lads have been great even if a few of them have dodgy clobber,” jokes Rice. It seems no one escapes the banter, be it the new lads, certain players accused of being on the sunbeds or Rice himself. “It is my FAI gear I usually get stick about but no matter what you wear, you are going to get hammered. That is the way it goes in the dressing room!”

Even at the age of 26, Stephen Rice is one of the most senior members at Shamrock Rovers which has quite a young squad. “When you are younger, you never think you will be 25 or 26 but it comes around. But with the age profile of the squad we are very young. From the outside looking in, I am probably one of the senior members of the squad but I don’t feel like it. But when you see some of the lads’ date of births in 1990s and then I think maybe I am getting bleedin’ old! The gaffer has signed some established players from the League and also young players that have a lot of potential. They will do really well for Rovers and may go on to play at a higher level. Being with the gaffer and Trev can only help getting the players to develop further.”

Along with the new signings, Rovers welcome back Pat Sullivan to the team. Sullivan got a season ending injury at the very beginning of the 2010 season. “It is great to have Sully back. He has looked really sharp in training and in the matches. It is great to have him back both in the dressing room and on the pitch. It is like another new singing.”

The pre-season began with a trip to Kerry, the county of Rovers’ winger Billy Dennehy, before moving on to Cork. The team played Killarney Celtic, winning 6-1, and followed that by beating Cork City 2-1. This match was in the unusual surrounding of Musgrave Park with the temporary football goals placed in front of the rugby posts. “The trip was really good. We had double training sessions and got a lot out of it including getting to know the new lads. We played on Tuesday in Killarney. A lot of the guys played 45 minutes that night. Billy Dennehy was like a God down there when we played! I played the second half in Cork. I skyed one over the bar and got a flashback to when I was playing GAA for Synge Street when you’d stick it over the bar. That’s my excuse anyway!”

Next up on the road was a trip to Belfast to play Cliftonville. An impressive performance saw the Hoops beat the side currently third in the Irish League by five goals to two. Rovers are debuting in the Setanta Cup this season and with the prospect of taking on other Irish League sides on the horizon it proved a useful exercise. “They are a decent side and it could have been more. It is a pre-season friendly so you don’t know the tempo they were at. We made a lot of changes at half time. It was a good victory up in their own place and especially to do it so comprehensibly. We had a few goals disallowed. It was all very positive and a good performance. I know a lot of the lads haven’t played against Northern teams, I know I certainly haven’t so it was nice to go up there and get a feel for what they are about and how they play. It was positive like the whole of preseason.”

The pre-season ends tonight and the Hoops get down to the real business of defending their hard fought league title. Hoops fans would certainly like to see a repeat of last year that would see Stephen Rice lifting the trophy aloft again at the end of the 2011 Airtricity League of Ireland season.

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