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Where Eagles Dare? On tour with Stephen Grant

In 2005, Stephen Grant’s career was at a real cross road. It wasn’t simply a choice of whether the striker would stay with Shamrock Rovers or go to another League of Ireland club. He also had the chance to change careers from being a professional footballer to being a professional golfer and it was the set of golf clubs rather than a new football club that he went for. It was a brave move for the Birr native but his daring decision over the last number of years has led him to a place on the European Challenge Tour starting next month.

Last weekend Hoops Scene caught up with Grant, who is based in Florida most of the year, on a rare visit to Ireland. Grant had just returned from playing in Morocco. On Sunday, he was flying out for a couple of weeks practice in Portugal before his next tournament in France in May. Despite all this jet setting, Grant still retains a strong affinity for Shamrock Rovers. He not only follows the games on SRTV and Twitter (where is twitter handle is the apt @soccer2golf) but he is also a Shamrock Rovers club member.

“Ever since I was a kid, even down in Offaly, Shamrock Rovers was a big deal,” said Grant. “I played for Rovers on two occasions and that was a big part of my soccer life. I saw the opportunity with the 400 club to help give something back to the club. I felt that the club paid my wages and gave me good times and so I wanted to give back so I became a member. I always wanted to play for them and I was always really proud to play for them. It was amazing what the fans did taking over the club but the Rovers fans are hard-core. They love the club. It is a special club and we all know that.”

Grant was part of a special Rovers team that were the first League of Ireland team to win home and away in Europe in over twenty years. “It was a big night for the fans, the players and a big night for the club,” said Grant of the night he scored one of Rovers’ goals in the 2-1 away win over Odra Wodzislaw in 2003. This was during Grant’s second spell at Rovers following his return from Stockport where he had finished eighth in the Championship. “I really enjoyed my last couple of seasons at Rovers. I was playing really well and enjoying it. I scored against Bohs in a few big games too!”

Looking back though, Grant feels that those years were a missed opportunity for the club. “It was a team that probably unachieved,” admitted the former Ireland under 21 international footballer. “That was a really good side. We had a lot of good players. I always look back on that and I can’t believe we didn’t win anything. We got to the cup final but it was amazing to think that Rovers team didn’t win anything.”

“The season I retired was the season before they got relegated. I could see the writing on the wall at the club. I couldn’t see us doing anything at Rovers the way the investment was. I was out of contract and I was offered a new one. My choice was to stay on for another season of soccer but the way things were going I had a good opportunity to make a go at the golf as I was starting to get good.”

“Damien Richardson was manager at Cork City and they were in Europe and one of the best teams. He offered me a two-year contract with Cork City. I didn’t want to play for anyone else in the League of Ireland. I thought I’m going to play for Rovers or nothing. The golf was a big opportunity and that is why I retired from soccer.”

These days Stephen Grant, who works with the coaching team of Butch Harmon and his son, regularly tees it up at his new home club in Florida with top US PGA players like Major winner Keegan Bradley or Ryder Cup player Ricky Fowler. So do the golf professionals know he used to be a professional soccer player? “They do. They buzz off it too. They think it is great. The club I’m a member in over in Florida has a lot of top players who are members like Ricky Flower and Steve Marino. You get to play with them and see how you are and it is real good for your game.”

Grant has yet to see a game in Tallaght but, as he is based in Europe this summer, he hopes to get to a match here or maybe even link up with Rovers for a Champions League away game in Europe. “That would be sweet! I haven’t been to a game yet in Tallaght. In the last two years, I’ve been in Ireland maybe 22 days. When I finally get time at home, I will go to a game in the new stadium. When I first signed for Shamrock Rovers, Pat Byrne’s selling point for me as manager then was that we would be in the stadium next season!” That was in 1997!

Up until recently Grant was, like other former Shamrock Rovers players Karl Sheppard and Shane Robinson, watching Rovers games online through SRTV and he is disappointed that the FAI have asked for games not to be streamed online. “I was able to watch games online in Florida but I’ve been told now they are not allowed anymore. What is the idea of them not watching us to watch it?” questioned Grant.

It is clear that Grant is up to speed on all things Rovers and how the season is progressing under Stephen Kenny, a manager who tried to sign Grant when Kenny was at Longford Town. Grant was all praise for the man that plays in his old position at Rovers. “Twigg is a ridiculous goalscorer! He is like Tony Cousins who was an unbelievable. When you have an instinct like this guy, he is worth his weight in gold.”

It is Grant’s golfing instincts that will be put to the test over the next few months as he begins playing on the Challenge Tour, the second tier of professional golf in Europe. Grant missed out on the final qualifying school tournament for a card on the main European Tour by two shots last year but is hoping that a good performance on the Challenge Tour will avoid the requirement of going to Q school later on in the year. “The top 25 on the order of merit at the end of the season gets their full European card. I’ve got a tournament on the challenge tour on the 10 May in France. That is my first real big tournament of the season. The season starts from here for me.”

Published in Hoops Scene Issue 6 2012 (Shamrock Rovers v Derry City, 27 April 2012)

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