Regardless of what you think of the First Division, it's difficult to win - Stephen RiceSat, May 13 2017
In addition to once gracing the League of Ireland as a player and being a former PFAI Chairman, nowadays, Stephen Rice occupies himself as an underage coach for the FAI and Shamrock Rovers. Stephen recently took time out of his busy schedule to chat to ExtraTime.ie about his life in football.
After youth spells at Coventry City and Shelbourne, Stephen Kenny signed Rice for Bohemians in 2003, but then loaned the young midfielder to Monaghan United for three months of that season: “The move to Monaghan was a disaster … Just because I struggled at the time. I had no iron in my system and had no energy. When I came back, I got myself sorted from a health point of view and got my iron levels back up.”
The following year, Stephen broke into the Gypsies first team in an unfamiliar full-back role – a position he stayed in until 2006: “I would’ve rather to have played midfield, but when you’re a young player and an opportunity arises, you’ve got to take it whenever it comes. I took it at right-back, done really well and ended up staying there for a couple of years. I did too well initially, but you try to make an impact in the team and fortunately, I did. People then see you as a defender, but midfield’s my position.”
In early 2007, newly-appointed Bohemians manager Sean Connor signed two other right-backs (Owen Heary and Mark Rossiter), leaving Rice primarily in footballing limbo: “Sean tried to get rid of me when he came in, but the less said about that guy, the better. I wanted to go, but they got a couple of injuries, then he wanted to keep me ... I suppose he had to because there was nobody else. I came back in as a midfielder and played every game left that season.”
Stephen then penned a two-year deal with Pat Scully’s Shamrock Rovers, but in the summer of 2008 requested to be put on the transfer list: “There was a disagreement. Nothing to do with the club – it was the manager … That was my reason. I have a lot of connection with Rovers, but it was something I felt I had to do at the time for my career.”
Away from domestic duties, Rice represented Pat Fenlon’s Republic of Ireland U-23s in the International Challenge Trophy, where he scored the winner against Northern Ireland and the team finished as runners-up in Group B after conceding a very late goal to Belgium: “It was a good experience and a chance to be in international football … A chance I thought had gone and disappointed not to have won the tournament.”
While on Shamrock Rovers’ books, Stephen was appointed as PFAI Chairman in November 2009, but vacated the position almost exactly a year into his tenure: “It was a role that I’d spoken to the PFAI about. I was happy to help because they always looked after me throughout my career. The opportunity came up and it was a good learning experience on a few different fronts.”
2010 saw Rice captain the Hoops to a long-awaited Premier Division, while also picking up the club’s Player of the Year award: “Winning the league in the final game of the season at Bray … It was 16 years since Rovers had won the title. The club had waited so long and the fans would say similar, that it was an emotional night.”
The Tallaght outfit retained the title the next season, as well as capturing the Setanta Sports Cup. 2011 was also notable for the club qualifying for the Europa League group stages, during which, Stephen scored away to Tottenham Hotspur.
“It was an insight into what it was like to be a professional footballer: playing a league game on the weekend, then a European tie midweek, followed by another league fixture. They were all high-profile games and to be part of the club at that time was great. It’s the pinnacle for any player – especially in the League of Ireland.”
Rice’s final season with Shamrock Rovers coincided with the accumulation of the 2013 League of Ireland Cup and Leinster Senior Cup. Released by the club at season’s end, the Dubliner subsequently joined Longford Town and was central to the midlanders’ 2014 First Division title march.
“It was a different challenge. I didn’t want to go to a team that wouldn’t be competitive, like a lower Premier Division side, scrapping to avoid relegation. I met some wonderful people there and had a successful first year. Regardless of what you think of the First Division, it’s difficult to win.”
Despite contributing to Longford’s 6th place finish for the 2015 Premier Division campaign, Stephen wasn’t offered a new contract. He wound up his playing career with Glentoran the following spring, taking up a coaching role with the FAI after less than two months at the Oval.
“It was time to stop. Coaching became more to me and that was a sign. I’d made a lot of sacrifices while playing and was getting more excitement from coaching other footballers … It was getting harder to continue.”
Currently embracing underage coaching positions with the FAI and Shamrock Rovers, Rice outlines what he takes from nurturing teenagers’ progression: “The appeal is to develop young Irish players and to increase the standard in our country, so we have more success on an international and domestic level. I enjoy working with these players and love what I’m doing.”
Aside from football, Stephen has a Diploma in Journalism & Media Studies and doesn’t rule out pursuing a career down this path at some stage: “It is something that would interest me, but it’s just waiting for an opportunity to arise in that side of things. I’d especially consider it, with my background in the League of Ireland. It’s definitely an area that I’m attracted to and having studied journalism, I’d have a fair idea of what’s going on.”