From the young age of 7, Stephen Rice knew he wanted to be a footballer. 8 years later, Stephen was picked by football scouts to move to England and play with Coventry City.
Before being picked by Coventry, when he was aged 12 and 13, Stephen was on trial with several other clubs - going over to the club for a week, coming home, then going back on trial again.
It was a hard decision for my parents, for my Mam, my Grandad and my Nan, because I was 15. In hindsight, realistically, it’s very, very young to go, but then it was my dream, so I think my parents were caught between a rock and a hard place. If they don’t let me go do I hold it against them and also if the opportunity didn’t arise again. So I went. It wasn’t a difficult decision for me - all I wanted to do was play football. It was effectively a dream come true, being offered pay to play football for a premiership club.
Stephen went to Coventry on a five year contract, but after two years with the club, he cancelled his contract. Although he learned a lot from his time there and there were opportunities to move to other English clubs, he felt that returning home to Dublin was the right thing to do.
A lot of young kids come back disillusioned with the game, out of focus, it hasn’t worked out and they’ve been released. I wasn’t disillusioned with the game. I knew what I wanted to do. I just wanted to do it here in Ireland and I came back with that focus.
While it was a dream come true and a huge opportunity for any aspiring footballer, it doesn’t come without sacrifices. You miss out on everything from your Junior Cert results night to the Leaving Certs and debs to weddings, christenings and birthdays. You can’t go out with your friends because you have training the next day and a strict diet to follow. You’ve got to eat, sleep and drink the right amount.
Do I regret it? No, I don’t think I do because if I hadn’t gone would I be on this pathway - probably not.
When Stephen returned from England, he signed with Bohemians and stayed there for five years. This was during the Celtic Tiger when they played full-time, training every morning. After five years, he moved across the Liffey to Shamrock Rovers, where he stayed for six years.
Playing for two of the biggest clubs was brilliant. I got a ridiculous amount of stick because obviously, Shamrock Rovers would be a very southside club and a lot of the guys and the fans would have been in my class. But it’s great, and you need that. You want to play with abuse because it adds to the atmosphere. Those games are huge, the biggest in the country.
At the time, Shamrock Rovers had just become part-time and Stephen began to look at his options outside of the pitch. It was a tough transition from full-time to part-time as part-time players only get paid 42 weeks of the year, so Stephen looked into re-educating himself and getting more involved in the FAI.
Working with the FAI
Stephen began working with the FAI and now coaches with the elite players and the emerging talent program which has the best underage players in the country. He’s currently coaching the under 15 international team, trying to develop the next team for Ireland.
All these boys are starting to go through what I went through. They’re all starting to move abroad and go to trials. So I have a lot to relate to them at that age.
Stephen also works with the FAI on coach education delivering talks and qualifications; he delivers the first three licences on behalf of the FAI in the Lucan / South Dublin area.
I also work with kids with disabilities and kids who wouldn’t have the same opportunities. We just give them the chance to play football. We want to ensure that football is accessible to everybody regardless of ability or any disability they have. We also work with prisoners so they’ll have something when they go back out into the community.
And if all of that isn’t enough to keep him busy, he also coaches elderly people playing walking football (Father Ted style) to keep them active, works with 3 year olds on basic movement skills and works on child safeguarding.
As the chairman of the Professional Footballers Association of Ireland (PFAI), a players’ union through SIPTU, Stephen became very familiar with the endless opportunities to upskill and re-educate.
When the Dual Career Development course came up, it just stood out to me as something quite unique, it was different. I had been out of education since I was 15, doing bits of courses and re-educating myself. It looked very relevant to what I could use now. When I began the course I was still playing and the course content was unusual and struck a chord with me. I could use it then and it could open doors for me in areas I’d like to go in the future.
Griffith College offers the Certiﬁcate in Dual Career Development for Sport to specifically address the needs of current and former high performance or professional athletes to prepare them for changes in their career. Stephen, after balancing football, his job with the FAI and personal life, recently got a First Class Honours in the course and took with him an education that wasn’t just from the books.
You’re working with your peers and people from other sports who are at the top of their game. You’re learning from all of them, not just from the course and tutors. You’re learning from boxers and jockeys about how they train, how they prepare.
Contract law has proven to be an extremely popular subject on the course, which is no surprise to Stephen, especially as the League of Ireland contracts have to be negotiated every year.
It defines your money so contracts with players is everything. The younger boys would have agents who would do your negotiations but I always negotiated my own contract and a lot of the players do. So it’s important to have that understanding of your worth. There were three footballers [on the course] and we were looking at each other saying “I never knew that”. It opened our eyes.
After seeing the possibility of other areas to branch into and the possibilities education has to offer, Stephen is looking at doing more courses and even dipping his toes into lecturing.