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Ricer of the Rovers

September 10, 2017 Leave a comment

The scoreboard ticked to 90 minutes and no more; it read Shamrock Rovers 3 Longford Town 0. Soon after referee Neil Doyle blew his whistle and the Hoops had got by First Division opposition in Longford to go through to the quarter-final of the 2014 FAI Cup. Rovers fans were thinking that maybe, just maybe, it might be the year for the 25th time to collect that trophy.

 

But before the fans could get too carried away with themselves, there was one of their own to acknowledge. The SRFC Ultras in Block M of the East Stand deployed their banner for a player who always carried the tag of a fan favourite. Former Hoop and then Longford Town player Stephen Rice came over and gave two thumbs up in front of the ‘Thanks for everything Ricer’ banner.

 

‘Ricer’ joined Shamrock Rovers back in 2008 when the completion of Tallaght Stadium was still a season away. Over a six year period he would go on to captain Rovers, win the club’s player of the year award and be part of a squad led by manager Michael O’Neill who brought trophies to the club in quantities not seen since the heady days of Milltown – winning two league titles, two Setanta Cups and a league cup before his departure from Tallaght at the end of 2013.

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Rovers fans – Rovers family

“It was amazing that night when I came back with Longford when the fans held up that banner; it meant a lot to me and my family,” said Rice when he spoke to Hoops Scene ahead of Rovers’ latest first steps in claiming a long overdue 25th FAI Cup.

 

“My family all became Shamrock Rovers fans because of what they saw when I was at the club,” said Rice who is now back at Rovers as the manager of the u17 team. “You don’t just play for the club, you become a fan of the club and part of the club. It is that type of club.

 

“I always had a fantastic relationship with the fans,” said the 32-year-old Rice. “They knew I was never going to cut open a team but they appreciated the work rate. They could see when you played, you gave absolutely everything for the club and they responded to that. They want people who work hard, if they see that they will always be on your side. The relationship from very early was excellent with the fans.

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“When I first came to Rovers we were still in Tolka Park and to go from there to all of sudden playing to full houses in Tallaght, lifting those trophies and playing teams like Juventus within the space of a couple of years, it was an amazing time. So many nights that you would never forget.”

 

In 2011 those nights included putting the Hoops 1-0 against Spurs at the ‘old’ White Hart Lane in the Europa League and that famous night in Serbia when Rovers beat Partizan to became the first Irish side to make the group stages of a major European club competition.

 

 

Belgrade

“That was an amazing night. It was just meant to be when you think about some of the chances that were missed by Belgrade. It was just phenomenal to beat a club of that stature out there.

 

“Nobody gave us a chance going out there. We rode our luck early on but once Sully got that goal – when you get a goal like that – they were rattled and we knew we had them.

 

“It is a night that I will never forgot playing in what was like 35 degrees. We got the penalty late on (in extratime) to win and the whole experience with the excitement the next morning of the draw, it was surreal.”

 

Rice began his career with Coventry before returning to the League of Ireland with Bohemians. He noted that “after coming back from England, you think that you are never going to get the chance to play in the big arenas and on those stages.

 

“For that to come along, it was such an opportunity. Players are realising that now there are fantastic opportunities here in Ireland that aren’t available in League One or League Two in England – you aren’t going to get a chance to play on those stages.”

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Roadstone

Rice combines his coaching role at the Rovers Academy in Roadstone with working as an FAI development officer in the Lucan area and is very appreciative of the facilities now available to all the Hoops players – both in the senior team and across the Rovders academy.

 

“When I played with Rovers we trained everywhere; we trained in the AUL, Johnstown House and even Stannaway Park when I came to the club. What has been built here at Roadstone gives us a home, a base and an identity with our youth development setup.

 

“It gives the club a real platform to attract the best young players but also for them to be developed and improved in the Shamrock Rovers way. As a coach it is fantastic to have those facilities.

 

“Every single training session we carry out is video recorded so the players can watch and analyse their own performance. Every single game is uploaded, whether that is in Roadstone or in Tallaght, and from that we develop analytical clips so the players can sit at home and watch their performance so they can improve.

 

“Self-analysis is such a big part of their development. There is nothing more powerful that seeing yourself do something and we use it as a training tool.”

 

Coventry

It is all very different from the early days in Rice’s career over in England. “The landscape has changed. It is more about learning and developing rather than being told what to do and if you didn’t do it you’d be hammered! That was the old way when I went as a young boy.

 

“I went on a number of trials from age 12 right up until I moved over to Coventry at 15. I found the first week very difficult and once I settled in it became easier but to be honest I never really enjoyed the experience. I never settled for many reasons.

 

“I did really well in the first year over there when I was playing two years above my age with the u17s but I wasn’t really happy and once it started to affect my performance and my mental state, that was the sign to get out of there. I was waking up dreading going to training. I went up to the academy manager and said I was out of there and I had my bags packed.”

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Academy Coaches

That experience and varied experience of the rest of Rovers’ extensive coaching staff is available to help influence the young players at Rovers. “Looking at our u17 coaching team, I went at 15 to England, Pat Flynn also went at 15 and Keith O’Halloran stayed and went at 18.

 

“Flynny went to Wolves, left there and progressed up through lower level clubs and played a bit, whereas I made a decision to come home, while Keith went later and ended up playing in the Premiership with Middlesbrough. So we can talk to our lads about our different experiences and pass that on.

 

“In the u19s we have Aidan Price who had a fantastic League of Ireland career, John Martin who played in the league and then there is Damien Duff. He is an amazing person to have in charge of the new 15s squad and it is great for the kids to be around him.

 

“We have Stephen Bradley, Stephen McPhail and Shane Robinson. It is an open environment we have in Roadstone. The coaches generally meet every week from the first team coach down, u19s, our team at 17s. It is really important to know what is going on, who is doing well and what areas we need to improve on.

 

“Ultimately we are in the charge of teams but we are looking to develop individuals and for them to progress. We have to give them the structures within the teams for them to fulfil that potential – that could mean moving them to the u19s team or up into the first team. That is the real goal.

 

“I’m on the Elite Youth A licence course at the moment along with Shane Robinson. It is the first time it has been run in this country and it is technically the pro licence for coaches working with elite youth players.”

 

u17

The Hoops u17 team are currently second in the Southern Elite Division table. “We are in a good place. The key objective of the team now is to develop these boys in the Shamrock Rovers way so they are capable of progressing – into the u19s and progressing as young adults as well as footballers. That is what we are trying to instill in the boys.

 

“We get them together on Monday, Wednesday and Friday with a match at the weekend. They also come in early on the training nights to do some strength and conditioning work. Plus some of the more local lads would be in for a gym session on a Tuesday night with Pat Deans – that is solely strength and conditioning.

 

“At Rovers, we are looking to develop players for our first team. That is the ultimate goal. If you look down through the coaching staff that we have right through to the younger ages, there is a real passion for the club and the aim to develop players and get back to winning trophies. Our main objective is for players to come here and we will improve and develop them.”

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Development squad

For a number of seasons the FAI have put together a Future Developers Squad and Rice has taken charge of the squad at the Kennedy cup in recent years. The squad, that plays at u15 level, is selected by FAI Emerging Talent Programme coaches, compiled of players who are technically excellent but are lack the physicality to compete in their age group.

 

“The idea is that over the years too many players get lost in the game in our country because of physicality and the emphasis at times on all about winning. Players can be the most technical and intelligent player that the teams have but physically they can be overrun in games so then they can be left out.

 

“Ultimately we would have lost a lot of players who were late developers. If we can keep them in the game, then develop that strength and power to go with their technical ability and the game intelligence and all of a sudden we have a player on our hands.

 

“The FAI have looked to make sure we keep these boys in the game and focussed and that the international team – although they aren’t quite physically there for them – it is not a million miles away. We don’t go on size but players who are technically astute as that suits how we want to play.”

 

Published in Hoops Scene 16/2017 Shamrock Rovers v Glenville (FAI Cup First Round)