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The Write Stuff – a decade of Hoops Scene contributions

October 23, 2017 Leave a comment

Published in Hoops Scene 19/2017 (October 2017)

On the bookshelves, there they all are. Neatly packaged away in a programme folder for each year is every copy of Hoops Scene from the last ten years. On my computer, there they all are. Neatly packaged away in an electronic folder for each year, are all my contributions to Hoops Scene over the last decade.

 

As we come towards the end of the 2017 season, I realise that it is my testimonial year as contributor to the Shamrock Rovers programme. Don’t worry, I’m not looking for a programme testimonial dinner in the 1899 Suite, with Con Murphy asking me my thoughts on my favourite programme article but maybe indulge me and let me give you some thoughts on penning articles for the programme.

 

A quick flick through my computer and I reckon that this article is number 255 that I’ve written for the Shamrock Rovers match programme. It remains to be seen if this will even be published but more of that later.

 

 

 

My programme contributions began in in 2007 and I hoped to provided Hoops Scene with a bit of colour writing. They began with tales from Tolka Park as the club went into the final season of renting off rivals – Tallaght was on the near horizon for the Hoops.

 

Flicking through the programmes, I see stories on football fashion, football literature and football groundhopping adventures. My very first article was a look at the switch to summer football and how it was faring five years on from the move.

 

In 2010, the then editor asked me would I help out in doing the player interview for each programme. I was a bit unsure but did a bit of homework to develop some questions to run by the editor ahead of doing the first interview. I felt they were deemed to be okay when she said ‘there was some stalker level of detail’ about a couple of the questions!

 

The player interview is the staple of the traditional match programme in Ireland and the UK and so I do view it a privilege to get the access to the players and tell their story to the readers. The aim has always been to make it interesting for Rovers fans but also the away fans who pick up a programme when they visit Tallaght. On each match night, a programme is left for each player in both the home and away dressingroom but I’m unsure if any Rovers quotes have been pinned to the opposition wall as inspiration.

 

As the interviews are for the Rovers match programme, the players are usually fairly talkative, sometimes even too forthcoming. When one former player in a colourful interview described the chairman at his previous club as telling “more lies and more lies” during a particularly different season, the editor suggested maybe it wouldn’t be such a good idea to potentially libel the chairman and the quote didn’t make the final cut.

 

When I interviewed one player after a defeat one particular season, he didn’t hold back on the performance. About an hour after I spoke to him, he rang me back and asked actually maybe it wouldn’t be such a good idea for those criticisms to be in the programme for all to read. Best left in the dressingroom and so it was.

 

I usually conduct the interview over the phone which sometimes for me means popping into a meeting room in work and making a call from there while recording on phone.

 

When a colleague came into a meeting room recently to quickly grab a jacket they had left behind, they must of wondered who the hell I was talking to that was describing a game in front of “a full house in a concrete bowl open air stadium with army everywhere. There must nearly have been 20,000 soldiers!” It was John Coady discussing a Rovers game behind the Iron Curtain in the 1980s!

 

It can sometimes be difficult to track down players. A missed call from me is sometimes returned and if I’ve rung from the landline in work, I’ll get a call from reception saying something like “I’ve Gary Twigg on the line for you Macdara…” That’s something nice to hear!

 

With a Sunday night deadline for the 1,250 word interview, there isn’t much time to turnaround a programme interview if the Hoops have played on the previous Friday but the players are very good about making themselves available.

 

Some stories stand out, like when I asked Billy Dennehy who he swapped his jersey with after playing Juventus in 2010. “I decided to hold on to my own and give it to my Dad,” said Dennehy. “He will be happier than any player to have that. None of the Juventus players will know who I am, so it will be nice for my Mum and Dad to have.”

 

Stories like Stephen McPhail having his phone ring in Cardiff and have Venus Williams on the other end looking to chat with him on dealing with Sjogren’s syndrome, an autoimmune issue that McPhail and the tennis star both have to deal with.

 

Or talking to Pat Sullivan a few days after his goal in Belgrade helped the Hoops qualify for the Europa League. “(After the final whistle) I stood on the pitch for 15 minutes trying to soak it up with the few Rovers fans that were there. It was phenomenal. I’m still in a bit of shock.”

 

This year the editor asked me to also help with the ‘manager’ notes, another staple of the standard programme. There was nothing standard about Damien Richardson’s manager notes and in the past manager notes might be cobbled together with little input from the gaffer.

 

We have gone with an interview format with quotes specifically sourced for the programme from Stephen Bradley. The Hoops Head Coach takes a phonecall every Monday lunchtime ahead of each home game for a five minute chat with the copy to be with the editor by late night Monday.

 

 

Every fan wants a home draw in the cup. For programme editors and contributors, it does mean another match programme to add to the workload. However, an away draw in later rounds means a potential requirement for a quick turnaround match programme. With that in mind, that is why you are reading this piece today.

 

I’m sitting here on Saturday evening having attended a very positive club AGM in Tallaght earlier in the day. It is the eve of the FAI Cup semi-final up in Oriel Park between Dundalk and Shamrock Rovers. If you are reading these words, then it means the match in Oriel ended in a draw. A win or loss means you will never get to read this – and my Hoops Scene contribution goes back to 254.

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View from the Sporting Director’s chair

October 18, 2017 Leave a comment

Stephen McPhail isn’t the first former Ireland international who made his name at Leeds United and has looked to shape a new future at Shamrock Rovers. Back in 1977 John Giles was appointed the manager at Glenmalure Park. In ‘The Hoops – A History of Shamrock Rovers’ by Paul Doolan and Robert Goggins, the authors summarise the Giles era by noting that “he believed that he could apply professional logic with which he was familiar in England to the League of Ireland. However he was handicapped by the fact that no other club attempted to complement his ideal and as a result he was always going to be fighting an uphill battle.”

So it was interesting to hear from Stephen McPhail when Hoops Scene caught up the Shamrock Rovers Sporting Director this week, that amongst the people he spoke to around appointment was the one time Ireland and Shamrock Rovers manager.

“When I got this job I actually rang Johnny Giles and I asked to spend some time with him,” said McPhail. “We met up for three or four hours and his story was very similar to how I want to do things even though I know it was a long time ago.

“I was able to pick his brain, what he thought went wrong and what he thinks I should do and how I should go about my job. I was lucky I was able to take some ideas from that.”

Rovers’ ambitious plans for the academy at Roadstone are well underway, with a long term strategy at the club for players development. Unlike in the 1970s, other clubs around the League of Ireland are also looking to match those ambitions and McPhail, like Giles before him, thinks that is what is required.

“A lot of clubs will hopefully look at us and look to do similar. That is what we need with other clubs jumping on board to make the facilities in the country better as we are lacking that.

“What both Stephen Kenny has in Dundalk and John Caulfield in Cork is ambition to do similar to ourselves. Limerick have invested in their academy too. You hope that it catches on as there needs to be a change in this country.”

The FAI have brought national underage structures in gradually from top down with u19, u17 and now u15 national leagues in place, with an u13 league to follow – all with the aim of fostering a clear player pathway to the first team within each club.

Last week Rovers secured €180,000 financial support from the FAI to finish phase one and move forward with phase two works at Roadstone. The club hope to get final grant of planning permission shortly to construct four new dressing rooms, a coaching room and gym.

“The Junior academy (kids aged 4 to 7) moved to Roadstone a couple of weeks ago and that is the whole club in the one venue now. It was something we had spoken about with the board when I was a player, to have that feel of everyone under the one roof where we all know one another, all help one another and all look out for one another.

“We are really grateful for the funding from the FAI to help finish these top facilities where our young boys and our first team can work out of.

“For the young kids to see lads like Aidan Price (u19 manager), Stephen Rice (u17 manager), Damien Duff (Under 15 manager) and to be around them on a daily basis is great. Then there is the manager who never goes home – he lives in the place!”

So what is a typical day for the Hoops Sporting Director? “Giving you my daily routine would be mad as it really does vary. Typically, myself and the manager open up in the morning at 8 o’clock. We make sure everything is ready for the lads coming in. We have a staff meeting at 9 o’clock to prepare training and the coaches go through how the session is going to be.

“Some days I’ll be around till the academy come in at 4 o’clock. Most days are quite long but enjoyable. It is a bit of everything. I try and take the pressure a little bit off the manager in picking up some things so he doesn’t need to do them and he can concentrate on setting up his team and the coaching sessions.

“I am really enjoying it. We have a great back room staff from the head coach, first team coaches Glenn Cronin and Damien Duff, Darren Dillon (Strength & Conditioning coach), Tony McCarthy (Physio), Jose Ferrer Montagud (goalkeeping coach) and the kit men Mal (Slattery) and Gerry (Byrne).

“All of us are a really tight knit group. They work their socks off and are always looking to get better. I’m someone who they can lean on and they can pick my brains and I can point out little things that can be better. I try and knit it all together, along with the academy under Shane Robinson.

“Shane has a massive role with the academy from the u8s to the u19s. I’m around Shane on a daily basis. We see quite a bit of each other and we are always on the phone to each other – picking each other’s brain.

“He works really hard. He is really devoted to the academy and has a done a great job so far. Glenn (Cronin) has come into a coaching role in the academy and he has made a big difference.”

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Last week Robinson was with three of Rovers’ teams (u9, u10 and u11) at Premier League club Southampton. “Shane has that connection with Southampton for quite a while. They are a great club. I was over there with him and our team for an u18 game a couple months ago so we have a good relationship with them.

“Me and Shane have been to maybe six or eight clubs over the last ten months and we’ve kept in contact with them. We spent a couple of days at those clubs including the likes of Leeds where I played at. We were at Celtic and we’ve been over in Belgium too. We’ve got all sorts of help in that regard. We try and see if there is anything that we can take back and improve on here.

“Those clubs are really interested when we sit down and speak to them and tell them what we are doing; it is interesting for them to hear about our academy and us having such a young first team. I think they feel we are trying to do things right with the professionalism at the club.”

While McPhail retired from the game last year but the former Cardiff City captain still gets involved on the training pitch along with former Ireland internationals Damien Duff and Robbie Keane (who is still training with Rovers ahead of a move to India next month). Gary Shaw’s tweeted last week saying A goal was scored today in training…it started with McPhail, who played out wide to Duff who in turn crossed for Keane to finish’.

“I love getting my boots on but the body has had enough and is shouting stop!” joked the 37-year-old. When the Gaffer has been short of numbers in training I’ve jumped in.

“We had a five a side competition last week and the staff had a team in it. We won it so there was a bit of stick going around but we probably haven’t walked properly since then so we know our time is done!”

No Christmas in July – Postcard from the Arctic Circle

With the official home of Santa Claus just a few miles from the venue for the RoPs v Shamrock Rovers match, it was no surprise to hear an old ‘winter football’ Rovers tune being sung by the Hoops fans in Finland.

 

“Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells, Jingle all the way. Oh what fun it is to see Rovers win away!”

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For some of the Europa League First Qualifying Round second leg in Rovaniemi, it seemed that Rovers might get that precious away win in Lapland but ultimately it was an early ‘Finnish’ to the Hoops European adventures for 2016.

 

It was quite an experience for everyone involved at the club – traveling to the edge of the Arctic Circle where the sun doesn’t set during the summer months, trailing 2-0 in the tie with a new boss in charge. The departure of Pat Fenlon from the manager’s role after the disappointing first leg defeat, meant it was Stephen Bradley who was the new man in charge.

 

I was lucky enough to be one of the dozen or so club members who got a place on the club charter for the trip. So membership not only gets you a parking space in the Tallaght Stadium Car Park but also gives you the chance of spot on the club charter! The managerial change also meant one fan essentially got the seat on the flight that was freed up because of Fenlon’s departure from the managerial hotseat!

The Rovers squad and ‘entorage’ checked in early on Wednesday morning beside some Welsh fans who were making their way to France via Dublin and Switzerland for their Euro 2016 semi-final later that evening. The lady at airport security said she would light a candle for a 3-0 Rovers win. All help was required for the Hoops as they looked to do what no League of Ireland club had done before and progress in a European tie after losing the first leg at home.

 

With the Rovaniemi runway close for repairs, it was a three hour flight in our 48 seater plane to Kemi. From there it was a further 90 minute bus ride through the Finnish countryside with a vista of trees, water and a few Moose munching grass at the roadside. The players were well fed themselves en-route, on the flight and coach trip; the benefit of having a caterer amongst the Rovers support who was able to provide his services on the trip – with some spare meals making their way to supporters too!

Rumours that the team was staying in the Hotel Santa Claus were true but rumours of the match venue being snowbound proved a work of fiction! Many of the travelling supporters took the chance to sample the local cuisine on Wednesday evening – I can recommend the Fell Highland Reindeer at Restaurant Nili!  RoPS also hosted their pre-match meal with the Rovers Directors and Finnish FA Officials in the same venue, so you knew the food was going to be good!

 

Afterwards most ‘retired’ to Oliver’s Bar to watch the Euro 2016 semi. That match ended close to midnight with Portugal defeating Wales. Midnight came and went with no sunset. We truly were in the land of the midnight sun being so far north.

For Stephen McPhail the Rovers club captain and now player-coach under Stephen Bradley, he knew what to expect. “I’ve been to Iceland and Norway for preseason at this time of year so I knew what was coming. It is still strange though going to bed and it is still bright as a button outside! It was a bit of work to get those curtains to stretch all the way across in the room but got a goodnight’s sleep.”

The next morning quite a few supporters made the 8km trip further north from Rovaniemi to the Arctic Circle. There were plenty of photos taken standing either side of the line at 66 degrees north, 32’ 33’’. The location is surrounded by plenty of shops, with Santa Claus also available to meet visitors, so it didn’t exactly feel we’d travelled north of the wall Games of Thrones style!

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On match night the Rovers support from the charter flight was boosted by about 20 or so fans who had travelled independently to the game. The away section was at one end of the bottom tier of the very impressive steep two tiered 2,000 seater stand built in recent years. The floodlights were on for the 7pm local kick off time, not that they would be needed here at the Arctic Circle!

 

Gary McCabe had the captain’s armband for the game and his first half goal halved the deficit in the tie. His penalty, the third goal he has scored in Europe, moved him to joint third in the all-time list of Rovers European goalscorers.

 

An unfortunate Hoops error though handed RoPS an equaliser and Rovers couldn’t make any additional breakthroughs themselves in the second half despite the impetus brought about by Bradley’s introduction of youth off the bench. Sean Boyd, Trevor Clarke and Aaron Dobbs came on, with the teenagers gaining some valuable European game time, but a couple of late goals couldn’t be conjured up.

McPhail was an unused substitute on the night so was able to give me his assessment from the vantage point of the bench. “When we played over in Finland, the most pleasing thing if I put my coaches hat on was that the lads responded to what we wanted them to do. They gave it everything.

 

“We went 1-0 up and I was confident we would score more. We conceded a goal off an error but these things happen. We didn’t get the rub of the green. Their ‘keeper made an unbelievable save with about 20 minutes to go. It could have been different. Performance wise the boys were spot on.”

 

Everyone at Shamrock Rovers was made feel very welcome on our visit, with the hospitality extended to the away fans after the game with food and coffee supplied by the RoPS American goalkeeper from their women’s team.

 

Following Rovers’ elimination from Europe, inevitably it was a quiet bus ride from Roveniemi. The small airport in Kemi was kept open for our departure midnight departure and it was still daylight when we boarded our flight to Dublin. The end of European football for Rovers for another season but a short memorable adventure all the same.

 

 

An abridged version of this article was first published in the Shamrock Rovers match programme – Hoops Scene 11 (Shamrock Rovers v Bohemians/Leeds United July 2016)IMG_2456

Leading the Way – Stephen McPhail

December 14, 2015 Leave a comment

 Interview with Stephen McPhail in Hoops Scene 17 (Shamrock Rovers v Dundalk – 9 October 2015)

 

With 10 minutes remaining in Shamrock Rovers’ last home outing and the Hoops 2-0 up against Galway United, Pat Fenlon decided to bring on some fresh legs. You had to feel sorry for the United defenders though when they saw who was coming on, as lining up on the half-way line to enter the pitch were Stephen McPhail and Damien Duff. Rovers left back Luke Byrne, sitting in the stand due to injury, tweeted out a picture of the substitutes saying “Two young lads coming on here!!”

 

Stephen McPhail appreciated the tweet when Hoops Scene mentioned it when we spoke this week. “Myself and Damo are moving on so we aren’t exactly young lads but it is great to have Damien at Rovers! I grew up with him playing schoolboy football and international football. He is a great lad and it is great to have him around with the experience he has from his career. All the lads have taken to him and he is looking to help the young lads along the way.”

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McPhail is also helping the younger lads at the club and not just in the first team squad. The former Cardiff City captain is also part of the coaching staff with Rovers’ under 17 team which is managed by Aidan Price. Currently taking his UEFA A coaching licence, McPhail has been putting some of what he is learning on the course to use with the team playing in the new underage national league.

 

“I’m really enjoying it and they are a great bunch of lads. It is obviously a new league and it is going to be great in a year or two as we develop the players and then hopefully bring some through into our first team.”

 

The focus is obviously on player development at that age but six wins and a draw from their first seven games is extremely positive as the under 17 team face a trip to Sligo next weekend.

 

“They have started well. We are trying to help them with their performances. That is the most important thing so that they understand their role in the team and formations and at that age you are just trying to give them as much information as possible.

 

“Results wise, we don’t look too much into it but it is great to build confidence when they see themselves at the top of the table. But they are at a big club so they should expect to be up around there all the time. We have had to dig in a few times in places like Galway and Longford so it is an eye-opener for them.

 

“They are playing in those stadiums which is great for them. Coming from schoolboy football, they are now playing in Tallaght Stadium and they will get to play in Inchicore in a few weeks time. You can see the buzz in their eyes before they go out for the warm up, so you have to kind of calm them down and get them to concentrate on their performance.”

 

Last Friday night, McPhail and Damien Duff lined out with three members of Rovers’ under 19 squad when the Hoops took on Bohemians in the Leinster Senior Cup semi-final. Jamie Whelan, Trevor Clark and James Doona all started the game and helped the Hoops to a place in the final. The 4-2 penalty shoot-out win in Dalymount Park, after a scoreless 0-0 draw over 120 minutes, means the Hoops will take on Dundalk one more time in this season’s Leinster Senior Cup Final.

 

As part of the FAI Licensing requirements, all youth coaches must have a UEFA B badge for teams with players of 16 years and above, with an A licence required to be an assistant manager of a first team squad or to be a First Division manager – a pro-licence is required to be first team manager.

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McPhail is part of a current A licence course being run by the FAI which also includes another former Irish international Mark Kinsella (in charge of Drogheda United until the end of the season), Carlo Cudicini (coaching with the Ireland under 21 team) and Rovers first team coach Gareth Cronin.

 

“I’m grateful to Pat (Fenlon) who encouraged me to go on the course when I spoke to him last year. It is set up by the FAI so that you can fit it in around playing. They want you to do so many hours a week coaching at an elite level so the under 17s all ties in with what I’m doing.

 

“There is a lot of work involved. I haven’t found myself before being in front of the computer for days like I have over the last few months! It is not easy. It takes its toll at times as you have long nights.

 

“The three day seminars are really interesting but they are long gruelling days so I’m glad when I’m coming home after. You have to do it as you are trying to learn. Hopefully at the end of it, I will get the badge and push on with my coaching.”

 

He isn’t about to hang up his boots just yet and prior to injury curtailing his season, McPhail had been involved in 15 of Rovers’ first 21 games of the year. His midfield play was central to much that the Hoops had to offer and so it was so disappointing for the player to pick up a hamstring injury in the final league game before Rovers’ European matches.

 

“I’m concentrating on playing as long as I can. I’m only 35 years of age. I feel quite fit and that I can give something to the team. Last year there was a bit of settling in back home with my family. My football wasn’t as good then as I wanted it to be. Until I got injured this year, I felt I was comfortable where I was in terms of my performance and fitness.

 

“It was a massive disappointment,” said McPhail about the injury picked up in the 2-1 win over Galway at the end of June. “I felt I was doing well and in great form coming into Europe. That was a big blow for me and I knew then I was going to be out for a while. It was very frustrating having to watch the games and not being involved.

 

“Fitness wise I’m okay now but match fitness is a bit different but I’m slowly getting there, even though there are only a few games left to go in the season. It has been a bit of a catch up.”

 

With European football secured for next season, thanks to the teams above Rovers qualifying for the FAI Cup final where Dundalk will play Cork City, the Hoops are looking to finish as high up as they can in the table. A runners up spot is well in the reach of Rovers but tonight the aim is to prevent Dundalk from winning the title in Tallaght.

 

“It is in our mind already that we don’t want that to happen!” said McPhail when he was asked about the prospect of Dundalk celebrating winning the league on the Hoops’ home turf. “Hats off to them though, they have had a great season again. They’ve been relentless and have ground out results when they have had to. They are coming to Tallaght and I’m sure they know it will be tough but we want to get one over on them.

 

“Cork are in our sights. There are only a couple of points between us. I’m sure it will go down to the wire but we need to concentrate on ourselves and can’t take our eyes off that. Second spot is definitely up for grabs.”

 

No doubt in Tallaght tonight there will be a few German football fans who will have stayed on in Dublin after last night’s game in the Aviva. It is a big task that awaits Ireland in Poland on Sunday no matter what last night’s result. McPhail doesn’t expect Ireland to have gained anything out of last night’s match but thinks that the game in Warsaw is our best chance of picking up points to at least earn a play-off.

 

“It will tough as they are two massive games this week. I’ve been to the last couple of games in the Aviva. We haven’t really played particularly well through the campaign. I’m sure that most would agree with that. Performance-wise we haven’t really been at the level where we need to be in the qualifiers.

 

“To say we are in with a shout is great but I can’t see us getting too much from Germany. You are just hoping that it will come down to the Poland game and looking at them I don’t think there is too much to fear really. It will be a tough place to go in terms of atmosphere and they have good players. But as a squad we shouldn’t really fear them and should get something from the game.”

 

The current Ireland squad contains a good handful who have played in the League of Ireland and it is that player development that is McPhail’s focus when he saw the recent review of the league from Declan Conroy.

 

“The structure of the league should be better and so should the facilities. We can all see that. We are going about it the right way, looking at the youth and schoolboy system. Making the under 17s and 19s league is all good for me as I can see that producing players and making the league stronger.

 

“We need to produce more players so that they can go on into the international team. That is the aim. Our standard in the FIFA ranking isn’t great. We need to get back to where we were, rather than being between 50 to 60. Teams can do it. Look at Wales who are a similar size to ourselves or countries like Iceland and even Belgium who have worked hard on their set up. They have formidable schoolboy teams at underage and then develop them into the first team.”

Living the dream – Stephen McPhail at Rovers

December 22, 2014 Leave a comment

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.

 

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“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.”

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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.”