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Living the dream – Stephen McPhail at Rovers

Interview from Hoops Scene 2014 Issue 15 (Shamrock Rovers FC Official Matchday Programme)

Living the dream

The dream of leading your team out in an FA Cup final in Wembley, representing your country and even pulling on the jersey and playing for the team you supported as a boy, is one that many footballers have but few can live out. Stephen McPhail has lived that dream during his career. With the support of his family, supporters and even some help from a superstar sportswoman, he has also had to overcome the nightmare of serious health concerns that at times looked like might end his playing career and much more.

Shamrock Rovers was the club McPhail supported as a child. The young boy from Rush got an inside look into the club through his grandfather Paddy Doran. He was one of the members of Ray Treacy’s backroom team during Rovers’ tenure in the RDS. Between those days of watching the Hoops in Dublin’s horse show arena in the 1990’s and pulling on the green and white hooped jersey here in Tallaght, McPhail has a packed a huge amount into his playing career in the upper echelons of British football. With all that and the recent departure of Trevor Croly from Rovers, there was a lot for Hoops Scene to discuss when we caught up with the 34 year-old midfielder prior to Monday’s 2-0 EA Sports Cup semi-final win away to Bohemians.

“I supported the club back in the RDS when I was seven or eight,” recalled McPhail. “I started to go every week travelling all over the country supporting the club so I know what Rovers means to the fans as I was one of them for years. With my Granddad involved with the club that gave me a great insight into Rovers.”

McPhail made his debut for Leeds United in 1999 at just 18 years of age and soon became a regular starter during an exciting time at the club as they battled with the best in English and European football, reaching UEFA Cup and Champions League semi-finals in back-to-back seasons. His most enjoyable time in his career to date though was at Cardiff City where McPhail had the honour of captaining team in the 2008 FA Cup final in Wembley.

“As soon as I joined, the Cardiff fans took to me. The way I played I think they enjoyed watching me. I probably played there when I was in my prime and they saw the best of me. I loved every minute of it there. The seven years went too quick. I had such a good time. It was a special place. I have a lot of good friends there.

“You dream about it and I was lucky enough to do that,” said McPhail about having the captain’s armband on FA Cup final day. “I will never forget standing in the tunnel ready to lead the team out in the cup final. It was an unbelievable feeling. That game was huge with the build-up to it, the atmosphere during the week, and the pressure of the game. You have to make the most of those big days. To lead out a team as a captain on a big stage, and perform at your best, was something I’d always dreamt of.”

Towards the end of the following year, football became a very minor concern for McPhail as he faced the nightmare of a major health crisis. “I found a small lump under my chin. I said it to the club doctor and he looked at it a couple of times and it wasn’t going away so he sent me to see a couple of specialists. They thought it was okay, maybe an infection in the glands, but we would see how it goes. When there was an international break and I’d a week off, the doctor said go and see one more specialist. When the results came back a couple of weeks later it was a lymphoma.

“I was flying fit, feeling great and in top form and for that to happen it was a big of a shock. Anyone that has been through that, it is a life changer. It is something that you think isn’t going to happen to you and it did. The doctors and the club were amazing. The fans were unbelievable. I got thousands and thousands of letters and Facebook posts, and that support from them and my family got me through.

“I had time out for three or four months and I came back to Dublin to get treatment. I spent Christmas at home. I went through five weeks of radiotherapy. I didn’t feel too great. I couldn’t eat for a couple of weeks as my throat was blistered and I didn’t get any Christmas dinner that year! I spent time with my family and got my head down and tried to get through the treatment as quickly as possible. Looking back, it was a time for reflection and consideration. It makes you wonder what it is all about.

“I wanted to show people that I was strong enough to get back on the pitch. Speaking to the doctors at one stage they said it mightn’t be great to go back but it was just about looking after myself as much as I could, stay fit and train through the treatment. I trained every day that I could. Tony McCarthy, the physio with Ireland and now at Shamrock Rovers, was amazing through that time. I did six weeks with him doing rehab and fitness work. That kept me going and luckily enough I got back on the pitch quickly within four months.”

While his lymphoma was successfully treated, McPhail was then diagnosed with Sjogren’s syndrome. He requires on-going periodic treatment in Los Angeles with a doctor recommended to McPhail personally by nine-time tennis Grand Slam title winner Venus Williams.

“It is an autoimmune disease that a lot of people have but might not know. I wasn’t feeling great and I wasn’t getting through training. The club doctor was looking to find out if any other athlete had it, as they wanted to pick their brains on how they manage. Venus seems to be the only one who had said publically they had the same issue and I was able to get in contact with her.

“One day she phoned the house in Cardiff. We had a great chat for an hour about how she deals with it and how she was able to perform at the highest level in tennis. She knew exactly how I was feeling and she told me her routine. She was great, down to earth and she helped me a lot. She sent me to see a specialist in LA who leads my treatment now so I owe a lot to her. That doctor is a world expert and the treatment he gave me seems to be working.

“It is something I keep an eye on. I had to change my diet and I look after myself health wise. I need treatment every six months and if I get a flare up I know what to do to keep it under control. The one thing through my experiences I’d say is don’t take a chance with these things. Get them checked out.”

McPhail had always envisaged coming back to play football at home. With his family returning to live in Ireland last year, McPhail made the switch from Championship football with Sheffield Wednesday to League of Ireland football with Shamrock Rovers at the start of 2014.



“I hoped at one stage to play for Rovers in my career, for my Granddad and for me having been a supporter of the club. I always kept an eye out on the results when I was over in England. It was something I wanted to do and I was delighted when the chance came about. I’m looking forward to finishing the season strong.

“Before joining Rovers I was travelling back and forward to see my family. It was quite stressful and that meant I couldn’t put everything into my football. I was traveling here, there and everywhere. Coming home was something I wanted to do so I could be around my kids growing up.”

McPhail lined out 10 times for Ireland, making his first international start back in 2000. “I made my debut against Scotland and it was probably the proudest day playing for my country. It was incredible to play in front of a full house. My family and all of Rush were there in the crowd! It was a special special day and one that I will never forget.”

His enthusiasm for the game is undiminished and McPhail is happy to share his experiences with the younger players at the club. His career path was one that had him travelling to England from a very early age and Rovers at present are looking to provide a different path than the one McPhail had to travel.

“I started going on trials to clubs when I was 12. When I turned 15 I made my mind up to go to Leeds. I was quite young, leaving school and my family. I wanted to be a footballer growing up so it was a big step and decision to leave home. Players go over at 16 or 17 these days. It is a lot harder to get over and make it but I was lucky enough to play over there.

“I made my debut at 18 and it was daunting at that very young age going into the Premier League and playing against players who you were used to watching on TV like Roy Keane and Patrick Viera. It was an amazing experience. I loved the atmosphere of playing in those big games. It is what you grow up looking to do.

“When you get older you have to wise up and look after yourself. I watched certain players over the years who I looked up to, like Gary Kelly; players who had long careers in England. I saw how they trained and looked after themselves. I like to be first in and last to leave training and that is how I will continue as long as I’m playing.

“The First Division team here at Rovers is a great idea. Working on the youth set up in Ireland is something that should have happened a long time ago. We need to start producing better players through our system and give them an opportunity to play at a better level. I’m happy to pass on any experience I have to Luke Byrne, Rob Cornwall and some of the other young lads. They can ask me questions, how things should be done and I can give them my honest opinion. Hopefully they take on board things to help them have long careers.”


It was Trevor Croly who signed McPhail for Rovers and last Saturday saw the departure of the manager from the club. “It has been a difficult couple of weeks. We were in a great position when we beat Pat’s. We played Dundalk and we were three points off top of the league but in the space of a couple of weeks, two or three performances have turned the place upside down. The confidence has seemed to have been drained out of the lads.

“I think it was probably the right thing for a change. I think if you don’t have the support of everyone then going forward it is not going to happen. I think Trevor understood that. He is a great man. He is an unbelievable coach; one of the best I’ve worked and I owe him a lot. It is a sad time but that is something that happens in football. I’m sure he will be back in a job as soon as possible.”

It was 15 years ago that McPhail first played European football and as the season in Ireland enters its final third he is focused on the goal of playing once again in Europe. “We want to finish as high as possible. We are in a couple of cups that we still want to do well in. There is plenty to play for. We haven’t qualified for Europe in the last few years so that is something we want to do and we are still in the hunt for that. We are concentrating on that so we can finish in the top three.”


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