Echo Sport Replay: Rice recalls his part in truly historic period for Rovers

By Stephen Leonard

THE LONG and illustrious history of Shamrock Rovers is punctuated by many unforgettable and dramatic periods both on and off the pitch.

The years between 2006 and 2011 were among some of the most significant as the Hoops rose from the First Division to conquer the Premier in back-to-back seasons having finally secured a long-awaited move to Tallaght.

Shamrock Rovers Stephen RiceSRoversVShelbourne2 compressor

Crumlin man Stephen Rice played in what was a truly pivotal period for Shamrock Rovers as they recorded back-to-back league titles, broke new ground for Irish clubs in Europe and finally secured a much-anticipated move to Tallaght

On top of that, the team played host to the mighty Real Madrid in a friendly that attracted massive attention from worldwide media hankering for a first glimpse of Cristiano Ronaldo in action for Los Blancos.

And two years later, Michael O’Neill’s men became the very first Irish outfit to ever reach the group stages of the Europa League following a nailbiting two-leg triumph over Partizan Belgrade.

Midfielder Stephen Rice from Crumlin, played his part in much of that great period, captaining the Hoops to the 2010 league crown and hitting the back of the net at White Hart Lane in a 3-1 defeat at the hands of Tottenham Hotspur in the Europa League the following year.

The Echo caught up with the former Lourdes Celtic schoolboy player who recalled his memories of that great period in the Hoops jersey after having joined the club at the close of 2007 following spells with Coventry City and, later, Bohemians under then manager Stephen Kenny.

“Stephen was really good. He signed me as a young lad and gave me my debut in the League of Ireland and I'll always be grateful to him for that” said Rice

“I was there [at Bohemians] for about five years and then I left. I just felt that, having been brought up in Crumlin and having known a lot about the club [Rovers], I felt it was the right move for me at the time.

Ronaldo and Stephen Rice compressor

Stephen Rice up against Cristiano Ronaldo when Real Madrid paid a visit to Tallaght in 2009

“I was lucky enough that the club wanted to sign me, so I signed for the club under Pat Scully and it was one of the best moves I made in my career.

“I joined at the end of 2007, start of 2008 and [the prospect of playing in] Tallaght wasn't even a part of the negotiation, it wasn’t a selling point, because the whole thing had quietened down.

“We were in the height of the recession and everything that was going with that, so it wasn’t a negotiation tool because it had been murmured for so long, it was nearly the impossible dream.

“So I wasn't going there for the stadium, I was going there for the club, for the history of the club.

“But I was halfway through or three quarters of the way through my first season when they got the go-ahead to finish Tallaght and get into it for the 2009 season. So we had the last season in Tolka which was my first season.

Shamrock rovers Stephen Rice celebrates with Ciaran Kilduff 000647ed 642 compressor

Stephen Rice celebrates with Ciaran Kilduff

Rice was all too aware of the huge significance of Rovers’ move to Tallaght and fully appreciated the privilege of being part of that first team to play in the new stadium back in 2009, saying “To know the amount of people who have worked unbelievably hard for so many years, the people who have put their life into the club to try and make this dream happen.

“And with so many players who had passed through the club on the promise or the hope of this, managers, coaches, and to know that you were going to be part of that group, part of the first team that was going to move to Tallaght and to be at the club in that era was something very special.”

Success was not long in coming after the move as Rice explained “We actually went close [to the title] in 2009. I think we took Bohs down to the second last game, but there was momentum building. We got a second place in the league with probably a squad that didn't want second place.

“What Michael [O'Neill] created was a really structured team, hard-working and then in 2010, on the back of the momentum from Tallaght and what we achieved in 2009, the club backed him and we strengthened. He made some really good signings and then took us in to 2010.

“There were probably more moments [in that campaign] when I felt it wasn't going to be our year rather than it was.

“There were two contrasting moments. One was the Sporting Fingal game where we were 1-0 up with about ten minutes to go and Bohs were to play later that night.

Stephen Rice rovers 390x285 compressor

Stephen Rice

“Fingal scored two really late goals. Bohs went that night and won to overtake us for the first time in a couple of months and with two games to go.

“Then the following week we were playing against Drogheda in a dull enough game, Bohs were away to Galway.

“So we won 2-0 and I think Bohs were 2-2 in Galway which was live on the telly and then within the last five minutes, Galway scored a really late winner which just sent the place crazy.

“So there were completely contrasting emotions in one week. Seven days before we thought we lost it to now being back in the driving seat with one game to go, knowing that we had to go to Bray.

“That night in Bray was probably my favourite moment of all, it was a great night.

“Dan Murray was captain, but Murs', I think halfway through the season, got a bad injury and I was lucky enough to captain the team that night in Bray, captain the team throughout.

“So some great honours for me personally. To be on the pitch is one thing, but to be captain was unbelievable.

“I was standing in for Murs' but it was still a great honour.

stephen riceGMK 4876 compressor

Stephen Rice

“I think it was a significant moment. From winning games, fans come, a new generation of fans particularly in that 2010 season. We had a lot of kids at the games, families starting to come to games.

“You look at the crowd now, you see those generations becoming teenagers, becoming adults and really staying connected with the club.

“I think that 2010 team would have epitomised the club, a hard-working team, it was honest, it was passionate and it conveyed everything that the club was about.

“It [the 2011 season] was a different type of campaign. 2010 was just about catching Bohs and bridging the gap. Bohs were the powerhouse, they were the ones with the most money. I suppose Rovers were rebuilding after the relegation. We had just got to Tallaght and there was a sense of a new era.

“In 2011 then, we were the champions so everyone was out to get you. Everyone relished coming to Tallaght because it was such a good stadium. The expectation from the crowd went up.

“It's always harder to win the second one. To do back-to-back league titles is particularly hard when you have teams like Bohs at the time, Pat's were very good, Sligo were very good, so to do back-to-back league titles was unbelievable.”

While Rovers were enjoying a dominant period at home, they also began to break new ground for Irish soccer on the European stage and Rice certainly relished that adventure.

“It was a great time. It was an incredible journey to be a part of, travelling the world, playing in these unbelievable stadiums. It was an insight for us into the highest level. I loved it, I really enjoyed it and embraced it.

“It was a special time and Dundalk have obviously achieved that since, but I think being part of the first ever Irish team to break that glass ceiling is another thing I remember fondly.

“It was a great game [the qualifier against Partizan Belgrade]. In fairness, if we played it ten times again, we'd probably lose nine of them.

“Over here they were by far superior for probably 60 minutes and then Gary McCabe scored a great goal to bring us level, probably undeservedly.

“Over there, the first 20 minutes the game could have been dead and buried. Ryan Thompson had the best game of his life that night and kept us in it and then, I believe the greatest goal scored by an Irish player in Europe and potentially in the league ever was Pat Sullivan's goal. And it took that, something magic to lift us all and make us believe that we could go on and win it.

“It was a special night and the celebration and reaction of the Belgrade fans, who were so hostile towards us for 90 minutes, but when the whistle blew they stayed and 20, 30 thousand applauded us off.

“I think they obviously understood we were part time, we didn't have their huge budgets, and they appreciated what we had achieved even though it was against their club. It was another special memory.”

Later in the group stages of the competition, Rice recorded another memorable moment.

“Scoring against Spurs at White Hart Lane, there's no doubt it's up there with one of the highlights personally, but more importantly, at that point my grandmother was quite ill and it was quite a meaningful moment, both the night in Bray and particularly scoring against Spurs, to be able to dedicate that goal to her was so special.

Getting the opportunity to face some of the world’s top players when Real Madrid paid a visit to Tallaght in 2009 is something Rice will also cherish.

“The lead up to it [the Real Madrid match] was crazy. The world media was in Tallaght and it put Tallaght on the map, Ronaldo coming for his first ever game [for Madrid].

“The amount of media work we had to do as players at press conferences and training sessions was unbelievable.

“The game was a great memory. I think I was the only one in the end who played 90 minutes. To play against these players and to say you were on the same pitch as these lads and were able to mix it with them. We probably should have got a draw out of that game, we were disappointed not to be able to.”

Regard the parting of ways with Rovers in 2013, Rice stressed “I'll be clear in that I never wanted to leave. It wasn't my decision. Trevor Croly was taking over, we had a year together and he wanted to go a different way. That's football, that's the way it works.

“I expected probably to finish my career there. In my head that was what I would have liked to do.

“I went to Longford and I had a great couple of years there and we won the First Division title.

“I think we got Rovers in a cup game in the first year and I was able to come back to Tallaght. The fans had a bit of sign and stuff which was a nice touch from them.”

Rice has since been working his way up the coaching ladder, having held various posts in the FAI and Shamrock Rovers Academy.

“I just finished my Pro License” Rice told The Echo. “I love coaching and to be head coach of a first team, whether that's in Ireland or abroad, that’s my objective.”

By subscribing to The Echo you are supporting your local newspaper Click Here: Echo Online.

Prev Collinstown and SHFC hoping LSL can finish out 2019/20 season
Next Finn is hoping that Hoops can pick up where they left off

  • Tallaght father Mick Morrissey issues an important message after his son Alex tragically passed away
  • Sixteen of Ireland’s most iconic sports stars join forces
  • A message from Stephen Kenny
  • Happy Mother's Day - Sea of Change Choir
  • The Echo speaks to Trish Nolan manager of the South Dublin County Volunteer Centre

We use cookies to improve your experience on our site, personalise content, provide social media features, analyse our traffic, show you relevant advertising and to target and report on ads. By using the site, you consent to the use of cookies that may process personal data for these purposes.