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Ex-Leeds man McPhail happy to be home

McPhail holds aloft his new Shamrock Rovers jersey at Tallaght Stadium (Photo courtesy of Stephen McPhail)

McPhail holds aloft his new Shamrock Rovers jersey at Tallaght Stadium (Photo courtesy of Stephen McPhail)

Embarking on a new journey in life is never easy, especially if that journey has lasted for more than half your life, but for Stephen McPhail “the time was right to come home and leave England behind”.

The Dubliner, who is a former Irish international, has just signed for Shamrock Rovers after spending the last 19 years of his life living in Britain.

Dubbed by George Graham as “the next Liam Brady”, McPhail concedes that football is no longer the main priority in his life, and instead intends on enjoying the simpler things in life. “It’s time for me to be a full time dad and see the kids every day. The last year has been very hard with Michelle (his wife) and the kids living in Dublin, and I’m over in Sheffield, so it was the right thing to do.”

Having been offered a more lucrative offer to remain with Sheffield Wednesday, McPhail’s heart was always wanting out, so when he heard of the Shamrock Rovers’ interest he jumped at the chance. “They [Sheffield Wednesday] understood how I felt and they were great with it, so when the opportunity to be home with the family came, I took it. Rovers were the only team I would have signed for, so I was delighted.”

As a child, McPhail often attended Rovers’ games with his grandfather, therefore it was something that definitely appealed to him. “Coming back to play League of Ireland was always something that was in the back of my mind, so it’s great to come here again and go to the grounds where I went to as a young lad.”

The 34-year-old was won over by the Hoops’ young manager Trevor Croly, and is optimistic for the season ahead. McPhail says: “When I spoke with Trevor just after Christmas, I asked him ‘do you have a chance of winning the league?’ and his response was ’yes’, and that was enough to convince me.”

When asked about the standard of football the Airtricity League has to offer, McPhail admits he is still not quite sure what to expect. “It’s still early to know what it will be like. The standard in the English Championship is obviously very high so I can’t judge yet. Maybe in three months’ time I’ll know the answer to that question.”

The former Leeds and Cardiff captain feels it will take him time to settle back into Irish life after all those years away, as for the last 19 years it has been more or less the same routine every day. “Things will definitely take a while to get used to, but it should be fine. Going from the same thing every day, to training in afternoons at different times will take time to adapt to.”

Injuries hampered McPhail from really announcing himself on the big stage during his mid-twenties, which in footballing terms is considered to be one’s prime, but the midfielder believes he was in his prime in 2009 when he was nearing 30.  However, it was in this calendar year that McPhail’s life was to be turned upside down forever.

As he sat at home in the Welsh capital, he was coming to terms with the fading light of his professional career after being told earlier that afternoon that he should consider retiring.

It was by this stage that McPhail was coming to terms with being diagnosed with cancer of the lymphoma.

It all came about as he was constantly tired and was receiving pains in the throat, and after going for tests, he had a seven-day wait before the results came back.

“I won’t pretend it wasn’t a bombshell, because those seven days waiting for the results were, by far, the worst,” he recalls. “But having overcome all that, I am now a stronger person. I appreciate so much more now because of that.”

McPhail admits to feeling close to rock-bottom on occasions, but thanks to the help of people around him, in particular his family, friends and Tony McCarthy – the current Rovers physio who helped him come back from the illness – McPhail is now enjoying life on and off the pitch.

Looking back on the past two decades, spread across four different clubs, McPhail holds no regrets. “Football wise, I wouldn’t change a thing. If you had said to me when I was 15 leaving Rush to sign for Leeds that I would have had the career that I did have, I would have snapped your hand off. I’ve experienced things people can only dream of, so I’ve been blessed.”

As for the future, McPhail, being the true professional that he is, is solely focused on Monday night when he makes his Rovers debut against Glentoran in the Setanta Cup. But into the distant future, he is keeping his options open and intends to enjoy the family life once again after a year away. “After I retire, I’ll look to get into coaching, and you never know, I may end up back in England someday, but we’ll see what happens,” he said.

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