With his very first touch in professional football, Barry Roche instantly became a match-winning hero.
The big 6ft 4in Dubliner – who is currently one of Morecambe’s longest-serving players – was just 18-years-old back in August, 2000, when he was summoned to replace Dave Beasant in the Nottingham Forest goal.
The former England international had been red-carded in the 89th minute as Forest led Crystal Palace 3-2 in a league clash at Selhurst Park.
Having led 3-0 at half-time, courtesy of goals from Andy Johnson, player-boss David Platt and an own goal from Hayden Mullins, the visitors had been rocked back on their heels after the break by a valiant Palace fightback.
Strikes by Tommy Black and Fan Zhiyi had reduced the deficit and Forest were scrapping for their lives when a melee in the box resulted in Beasant receiving his marching orders for serious foul play.
On the bench as the substitute keeper – having just signed his first pro contract a few months earlier – Roche’s first task was to fish the ball out of his net after Julian Gray had sent him the wrong way from the penalty spot.
But as Palace and their fans celebrated after seemingly rescuing a point, Roche was readying himself for a second bite at the cherry after the referee ordered a re-take for encroachment.
As the home supporters and players looked on incredulous at the official’s decision, Roche remained calm and composed.
He promptly saved Gray’s second attempt and secured all three points for his side.
“I made my debut away at Crystal Palace. I came on in the last minute and saved a penalty,” Roche said.
“Gray scored the first one but then the ref pulled it back for a re-take for encroachment.
“As I was coming on, Dave Beasant said, ‘Stand up and make sure you look him in the eye’.
“I could see after the first penalty he was nervous so that’s why I changed direction and managed to get a touch to turn it away.”
The toast of the Forest supporters on that particular occasion, Roche looked destined for a career at the highest level – especially as he kept a clean sheet on his full debut a couple of weeks later in a 1-0 win over Sheffield Wednesday at Hillsborough.
Unfortunately for Roche his career never kicked on at the City Ground and he made just a further 11 appearances for the club over the next five years.
He was sold to Chesterfield in 2005 and it with the Spireites that Roche began to forge a name as a dependable lower-league goalkeeper.
After nearly 150 appearances for Chesterfield, Roche was signed by previous Morecambe boss Sammy McIlroy in June 2008 for the club’s first season in the Football League.
Six-and-half years later and more than 300 appearances, Roche has become something of a cult hero among the Shrimps fans.
While he is thrilled at what he has been able to achieve in the game since crossing the Irish sea all those years ago, Roche admits he probably did not make the most of his opportunities as a young player at Forest.
“There were number of reasons why it didn’t work out for me at Nottingham Forest,” Roche said. “Some of them were my own fault and some weren’t.
“I think coming through, I was put straight into the first team squad at 18 and in hindsight, it would have probably been a lot more beneficial for me to go out on loan.
“But they needed me to be the No.2 which for me at the time was absolutely brilliant.
“From my point of view, I don’t think I worked hard enough off the pitch when I was younger, which did hold me back a little bit.
“There were times when the chance did come along for me but I wasn’t ready to take it.
“I will hold my hands up and say I should have worked harder.”
Asked why did he not work harder back then, Roche has a wry smile before replying: “I was away from home in a big city – there were lots of temptations.
“I can be honest and say now I know what the reasons are and it’s my fault.
“I should have worked harder and if I could do it all again, that is something I would change.”
Morecambe boss Jim Bentley has gone on record as saying Roche, who is currently on the long-term casualty list after suffering a hip injury, is one of the best – if not the best – keepers in League Two.
And Roche, now approaching veteran status at 32-years-old, believes he did have the ability to play in the higher echelons of the English game.
“I think that ship has sailed,” Roche said when asked if there was still time for him to feature in the Premier League.
“Coming over from Ireland, obviously the dream was to play a lot higher, but I think that dream died after I left Nottingham Forest.
“I do think I could have played at a higher level.
“If from sort of between the ages of 18 and 21, I could have been a bit more dedicated and committed, I feel like I could have played higher but it wasn’t to be.”
“But my career has really been a dream come true.
“To be honest, it’s taken my missus, especially when I first suffered the injury this season and I was feeling a little bit down, to pick me up a little bit.
“She would say, ‘Listen – look at what you have achieved. You have played more than 400 league games over your career’.
“And that is something I am very, very proud of.”
Roche’s longevity at Morecambe means that when he eventually does retire, he will certainly be named in the club’s hall of fame.
“I have been at the club nearly seven years now and I think everybody knows that I love it here,” the Irishman said.
“The club is home for me and it has been ever since the first day I stepped through the door.
“There have been so many highlights – been some fantastic games.
“Beating Blackpool away in the cup and Wolves at home stand out.
“Beating Crewe at Christie Park in 2010 was another game which stands out.
“We were 3-1 down with three minutes to go, down to 10 men, and we came back to win 4-3.
“Beating my old club Chesterfield last season at the Globe Arena 4-3 when we were 3-0 down at half-time, that is another games which stands out.”
Another highlight for Roche was when Morecambe reached the League Two play-offs in 2010 under McIlroy – although they ended up being one of his worst moments in the game.
With optimism high heading into the two-legged semi-final against Dagenham and Redbridge, Roche conceded six times in the first game, which all but ended any hopes the Shrimps had of earning promotion.
“Getting to the play-offs with Morecambe in 2010 was brilliant although the actual play-offs weren’t – they were a disaster,” he said.
“They were awful. There is no other word for it – but it’s all ancient history now.”
While all that is in the past, Roche is still very much looking forward to the future.
He is eager to get back fit after a niggling hip injury turned out to be more serious than he thought.
His last match this season was the 1-1 draw against York City in October and he is unlikely to figure again this season, although he is well on the road to recovery.
“The injury is getting there – it’s a long process,” he said.
“I have seen some real improvement in the last month or so since I came off the crutches.
“The movement is getting better and the strength is getting better.
“There is also a lot less pain, which is really nice.
“But I’ve written the season off.
“If I got back towards the end of the season I might play in a couple of reserve games.
“But in reality it’s the start of pre-season I’m looking at.
“My target is to go into the off season knowing I’m fit.
“That for me is very important but at the same time speaking with the physio Simon Farnworth here there’s no point in rushing the injury for the sake of one or two weeks at the end of the season.
“I’ve had a big operation, a serious injury and I need to make sure it’s right.
“If that means taking a little bit of extra time to do that then that’s what I’ll do.”
Roche’s recovery has been boosted by visits to St George’s Park – the FA’s national football centre.
“Two weeks after I came off the crutches, I went over there for a week’s of intensive rehab,” he said.
“The difference that has made has been brilliant.
“The facilities they have got there and the hands-on staff – they basically have one physio for every player, which is a lot different to club football where you have got one physio looking after 20-odd players.
“It was really beneficial to me.
“I am hoping to go back there in another couple of weeks for another week which will hopefully help me out.”
In his place, Bentley has used two goalkeepers in the shape of Scott Davies, who arrived on loan from Fleetwood Town, and former PNE stopper Andreas Arestidou.
Although, the Shrimps manager wanted to keep Davies, they were unable to agree terms with him and he has since signed for Accrington Stanley on a permanent basis.
However, Arestidou has taken his chance and Roche has always believed in his fellow’s goalkeeper’s ability.
Roche said: “It was a strange one. Scott came in because Stav (Arestidou) was injured at the same time as me.
“Scott did exceptionally well and it was all over the media how the gaffer wanted to keep him and there seemed to be a little bit of doom and gloom when Scott went.
“I just didn’t see that. I’ve worked with Stav for two years and I know how good he is.
“The fans haven’t seen how good he is but in my mind there was no doubt he would do the business because he’s a very good goalkeeper. I have told him not to get too comfortable though because I want the shirt back!”
The Irishman admits watching from the sidelines has been tough having rarely missed games down the years through injury.
He said: “It’s awful. I don’t watch football well when I’m not involved.
“I’ve found it very hard coming in every Saturday and watching the lads.
“You want to be out there kicking every ball and it’s frustrating.
“For the first month or so being stuck in the gym when the lads went to training was very difficult to deal with.
“I found that very, very hard.
“I’ve come to terms with that now after I’ve seen improvements in the hip.
“I’m purely focused on my rehab and know that the gym is the best place for me.”