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Tour de Force from Lee Grace

Interview with Lee Grace in Hoops Scene No. 10 2018, Shamrock Rovers match day programme v Dundalk (1 June 2018)

As we kick off June with the clash of Shamrock Rovers and Dundalk at Tallaght Stadium tonight, the front loaded League of Ireland schedule means that at the end of this evening’s match we are already a couple of games into the second half of the SSE Airtricity League season.

That is 20 league games completed in the first 16 weeks of the season with the remaining 16 matches due to take place over of the next 21 weeks. Only one Shamrock Rovers player so far this season has played every minute of every league game for the Hoops and it isn’t really a surprise that it is Lee Grace the man from Carrick-on-Suir.

A former member of the Irish defence forces, Grace hails from the town on the River Suir where they are made of hardy stuff. On the Tipperary and Waterford border, it is where Sean Kelly was reared. Kelly is a legendary cyclist who dominated the professional era in the 1980s. His palmares, which is listed on a plaque in Sean Kelly Square in the town, includes nine of the top monument one day classic races, seven Paris-Nice wins, four Tour de France green jerseys and one Tour of Spain overall win.

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The town is also home to Sam Bennett who recently became the first Irish rider to win three stages of a Grand Tour, something even Kelly didn’t manage. Bennett also went one better than Stephen Roche who won two stages en-route to winning 1987 Giro d’Italia. Bennett, whose father Michael managed Waterford in the League of Ireland, mixes it in the rough and tumble of the bunch sprints – something that Kelly did particularly early in his career.

When Grace was growing up he played hurling, soccer and did some cycling and has been following the progress of Sam Bennett closely.

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“I used to cycle as a kid with my uncle who is mad into the cycling,” said Lee Grace when he spoke to Hoops Scene earlier this week. “I was in school with Sam Bennett so I’ve been following his progress. He was a year ahead of me in school but my brother was in the same class.

“He has been doing unbelievable. He is flying. He is the first Irish man to win a stage of a grand tour in over 30 years. Fair play to him. He deserves it. I’ve never seen a man work as hard.”

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Last week, the Hoops went head-to-head with Bohemians in a keenly contested Dublin derby at Dalymount Park that ended in a 1-1 draw. The Bohs fans ahead of kick off displayed a banner ‘The North Side’. With Bohs based north of the Liffey and Rovers south, it isn’t too far off the sporting rivalry that Grace has seen in his home town, although the rivalry is mainly between the two clubs on the Tipp side of the county boundary.

“Carrick-on-Suir is right on the border with half of the town in Tipperary and the other half in Waterford. I’m from the Tipp side. There are two clubs on Tipperary side and one on the Waterford side.

“I played for the Waterford side when I was younger and then moved to the Tipp side. The two clubs in Tipp have a very big rivalry and it is intense in the town every time they play.”

It looked like the Hoops were going to have the Dublin derby bragging rights when captain Ronan Finn put Rovers 1-0 up with seven minutes remaining. However, it was to be another late derby goal for Bohs – this one two minutes from time – that saw the points shared.

“It was a tight game and a scrappy affair,” was Grace’s assessment of the match. “There wasn’t much ball played. There were patches where we tried to play. Those derby games are always like that.

“We caught them on the break. Greg (Bolger) tried five or six of those balls in the game and he said himself that none of them came off until that one for Ronan. He got in on goal and it was a great finish. We scored and I thought we would see it out as there were only six or so minutes to go.”

However the Hoops conceded a free kick high up the pitch, one that most Rovers fans felt was very soft. “A set piece did us in the end and so it was a disappointing result. Ethan (Boyle) said he barely touched him but any contact there and they are going to go down and from the referee’s view it is an easy free kick to give.”

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Last Friday Graham Burke and Shane Supple were rivals on the pitch but both then were part of the Ireland squad that flew to France last Saturday ahead of the friendly against France.

“It is great for the both of them to get into the Ireland squad and it is great for the league as well. It shines a great light on the league. I hope they do well. For Graham he really deserves it as he is such a hard worker but he will go out and enjoy himself.”

Over the years, there have been a couple of occasions when Grace has had to choose between different sports and even different clubs as he looked to progress as a footballer. “I’m a big hurling fan and I used to play but then had to give it up to concentrate on the soccer.”

A couple of years ago there was the option of continuing his career in the Irish Defence Forces with a deployment overseas or to give full time professional football a go with Galway United at the time – an option that he eventually went with.

Whether Stephen Bradley has deployed his men in league action with a flat back four or three centre halfs, Grace has been every present even with all the matches played so far this season.

“The midweek games are grand. You are none stop and there isn’t much time for preparation. Now we have a full week to prep for this Dundalk game and that is great. We can get a bit of freshness into the legs.”

“When we have three at the back we are obviously more stable defensively as we are a bit more compact and we weren’t conceding as many goals but at the other end we aren’t scoring as many. The other way we are a bit more open but we are scoring more. I’m happy in either formation.

“We went back to four against Pat’s and we scored three that night,” said Grace reflecting on the 3-0 win over the Saints in the last home game here at Tallaght Stadium.

“We brought a lot more energy and a lot more legs to the game in Tallaght. Even in Richmond Park, I think the 2-0 defeat to Pat’s wasn’t a fair reflection on the game. The sending off for us didn’t help but even with ten men I thought we were comfortable until a couple of mistakes cost us two goals. In Tallaght there was none of that and we fully deserved the win.”

It was Grace who opened the scoring with a header off a corner and another header by his centre-half partner Pico Lopes late in the game kept a Rovers clean sheet.

“We work on that a lot in training and those clipped balls to the front post are working for us. As defenders clean sheets are what we play for and I think that clearances off the line like that are as good as goals so fair play to Pico for getting back and clearing it with that great header.”

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