Two years after returning home to Ireland, Stephen McPhail’s career appears to have come full circle.
A Shamrock Rovers supporter as a boy, the 36-year-old has been handed the captain’s armband at the club for the 2016 season.
After spending the best part of two decades plying his trade in the United Kingdom, predominantly for Leeds United and Cardiff City, when McPhail was offered an opportunity to finish his playing career this side of the Irish Sea, he wasn’t going to turn it down.
“Someone told me last week I’ve been home two years to the day,” he said. “After being away for 20 years it did take a while to settle down. It’s probably only the last three or four months where I’ve felt like I’m settled back in.
“I’ve got my house together, it took me a while to find a house. All my gear was still in Cardiff. Little things like that. I feel now that I’m slowly getting to grips with everything. The kids love their school. Everything’s going fine.”
While life off the pitch is treating McPhail well, he tells of having to adjust to the football side of things back home.
Part of the famous Leeds United Youth Cup-winning side in 1997 alongside the likes of Alan Smith, Jonathan Woodgate and Harry Kewell, he feels that the level of professionalism is one of the major differences between football in Ireland and England and cites finances as a major reason for that.
However, he has noticed some changes since coming home.
“Over here it’s a different game; obviously the professionalism is not as high as it would be over there and that’s to do with finances,” he says.
“But over the last six months, our manager Pat Fenlon has really got the professionalism right up to where I’ve been used to and been comfortable with.
“Our young boys have come on a lot these last six months, they’ve trained well and looked after their bodies well. The professionalism has crept up for me which is a good sign.”
One young player that has particularly impressed McPhail is midfielder Brandon Miele who this week was included in the Ireland under-21 squad for the forthcoming clashes with Italy and Slovenia.
“I like Brandon loads. I think he can easily play in England, there’s no doubt about it. This year’s a big year for him and I think he knows that. In his first year there was no pressure but this year we’ll be looking to him to perform. That will be good for him because he’s a good lad, he’s strong-minded and he’s a very, very good footballer.”
Asked whether Miele can achieve full international honours in the future, McPhail, who was capped 10 times at senior level, was philosophical about the chances of League of Ireland players unless they move on to a higher level.
“I don’t know. We could speak about Brandon and the likes of Richie Towell being internationals but they won’t play for the international team playing in this league. For me that’s plain and simple. I don’t think they think that.
“Deep down the players who play in this league know that they’re not going to play for Ireland. I speak to Brandon quite a bit. He should just concentrate on the month ahead and crack on. He’ll be fine. I hope one day, I’d love to see it. He’ll deserve it, he works hard.”
Miele certainly added a few admirers to his ever-increasing fan club with a superb free-kick against Sligo Rovers in the opening game of the season last Saturday and McPhail feels that encouraging young players goes with the territory as captain.
“I’ve captained a few teams before. I just stick to what I do and try to train hard every day and try to set an example more than going around bawling and shouting at people. That’s not me.
“If something needs to be sorted I’ll try to sort it myself and not get the manager involved. I think the lads know that. As a captain, I like to keep everyone together and keep everything ticking along nicely.”
McPhail’s leadership style is clearly influenced by former Leeds team-mate Lucas Radebe, who led David O’Leary’s young side to the Champions League semi-final in 2001.
“I never heard him talk,” McPhail laughs. “But I just watched him and I was in awe of him. He was such a nice man. His teams played with smiles on their faces and that came from him. He was a pure warrior and you’d love to see him at the top of the line in the tunnel. We knew we were calm and ready for action. That’s what it’s all about.”
McPhail knows his career is winding down. A respected figure in the dressing room, he has been working with the Shamrock Rovers under-17 side and hopes to secure a future in the game after he finally hangs up his boots.
“Football’s all I know. I left school at 14 or 15 so I don’t know too much about anything else other than football. Coaching and managing is such an eye-opener when you get involved in it.
“I’ll try and experience as much as I can before making any decisions. I loved it last year with the under-17s. I’d love to stay in football but at what level and where I don’t know.”
While McPhail feels the time is right to begin pondering his future, there are more pressing matters to consider first. Chief among them, captaining his boyhood team to what would be their first League of Ireland title since 2011.
That task continues with a home game against newly-promoted Wexford Youths this Friday night. If McPhail’s measured demeanor is anything to go by, Shamrock Rovers’ young stars are in good hands.