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Dublin: 3 °C Saturday 14 December, 2019
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How hiring an Olympic sprint coach helped goalkeeper Rogers find the form of his life

David Sneyd spent time with the Dundalk veteran as he prepares to celebrate turning 38 with his fifth league title — and a new contract.

Lilywhites goalkeeper Gary Rogers.
Lilywhites goalkeeper Gary Rogers.
Image: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

THIS LAND BELONGS to the English.

Arrive into Bohermeen and take the turn off for Sean Newman Park  – home of St Ultan’s GAA. Another couple of hundred feet up the road and you will reach a plot in a corner of County Meath which at one point was home to three generations of a local family.

The house with the farm belonged to the late Tony and Mary Ann English.

Their daughter, Breege, married Dessie Rogers and they built their home adjacent.

Dessie and Breege started a family and now their son, Gary, lives with his wife, Linda, and two young daughters, Bonnie (five) and Layla (18 months) in the home they also built for themselves a punt away from where the Dundalk goalkeeper grew up.

“The week of the FAI Cup final in 2017 we were up here all week painting the place,” Rogers, the Dundalk goalkeeper, recalls.

Three homes, amid these rolling green fields, giant bales of hay and the tractors which still farm the land, that continue to tell part of one family’s story.

Oriel Park seems a long way away from this serenity.

Rogers’ travails as a League of Ireland footballer over the last 20 years, not to mention a brief period as a first-choice corner forward for one of Sean Boylan’s Meath teams before a red card and his progress with Drogheda United ushered him away from the panel, have provided plenty more tales.

This season has already been historic and is on the verge of further greatness. A draw at home to Shamrock Rovers at Oriel tonight will deliver the fifth league title of his career – four with Dundalk and the first coming with Sligo Rovers in 2012.

Incidentally, his jersey from that season with the Bit O’Red is the only one which hangs in the utility room after Linda got it framed as a Christmas present.

His success at Dundalk is not yet ready to be recognised with such mementos while there is still glory within reach, and as he weighs up a new contract offer he knows there could be even more good times ahead.

“You don’t want your career to peter out,” he begins. “No matter what club I would be at, I would have to do the same training because there is a drive to go that bit further and get that bit more out of yourself and your career. I could have two, three four years left, I could have one.

I feel it’s important to do as well as I can for as long as I can because I’ll know when my time is up. The last few years have been the best of my career and I’m hoping to continue that trend…

“You’ve got to keep going,” Rogers continues. “I don’t want to retire when we’re doing well. People say go out on top but who’s to say next year won’t be even better? Who’s to say we won’t make it to group stages in Europe, because that’s what we’re hoping for…

“You don’t want to miss out on success. Imagine the lads playing in the Europa League or Champions League group stages and thinking ‘I could have played in that’.”

Just a small insight into the mindset of a goalkeeper dedicated to his craft and determined to remain at the top.

Rogers, 38 on Wednesday, has kept 21 clean sheets in 2019 – the best tally of his career. He has 102 in 199 games for the Lilywhites and the latest came away to Waterford on Friday in a 1-0 win, a seventh straight shutout. Another this evening will mean Dundalk will have completed two-thirds of a potential domestic treble having already secured the EA Sports Cup.

He will reach a landmark 200th appearance for Dundalk tonight, making it a total of 560 in the league – third on the all-time list behind Owen Heary (565) and Al Finucane (634) while only Peter Hutton (537) has more Premier Division appearances than the 505 Rogers will earn against Rovers.

On the European front, Rogers this season overtook Ollie Cahill as the most experienced League of Ireland performer when he chalked up his 42nd appearance, adding a further three to take the tally to 45 before exiting the Europa League qualifiers to Slovan Bratislava at the third-round stage.

“Yeah, but if I’m not playing well the most worrying stat of all for me is my age and I’ll be shown the door if I’m not doing my job,” he deadpans. “I have to keep performing every week and maintain my position. You have to prove yourself every game, not just every season.”

Rogers family 1 The Rogers family -- Gary, Linda, Bonnie and Layla. Source: Twitter/Gary Rogers

So, with Bonnie in school, Layla conked out for her later morning nap – “she goes down like clockwork,” Rogers smiles – and Linda at work in Queens where she lectures in Planning Law, this seems like an ideal time to discover just how Rogers has found the form of his life at a stage where for some the body is creaking like never before.

He sits at the island in a gleaming kitchen – a framed picture presented to him by PFA Ireland recognising his 500 league appearances hang on a wall – and turns on the baby monitor to listen in upstairs.

All is quiet, for now.

The work of an Olympic sprint trainer has proved pivotal since last winter when Rogers got in contact with Derval O’Rourke’s former coach Sean Cahill. “To work on speed and to make sure I wasn’t slipping behind,” Rogers explains. “I was looking at short distance bursts. I wasn’t looking to run 100 metres but I was looking to be sharp over five to 10 to 20 metres. I worked with him in the off-season together with the club programme.

We trained specifically for goalkeeping in order to make the most out of my career and be in as good a shape as possible. It’s worked because I feel great, better than I did four years ago, and of course the environment around the club helps because everyone is so driven.”

Cahill phoned Rogers after a televised game early in the season to commend him on his technique, especially the knee lift, so the sessions on the local athletics track and astro turf pitch were clearly paying dividends. “I would have my times recorded and always try to improve in order to be quicker off the mark.

“Gym work to stay strong, explosive stuff with squat jumps that all play a part in improving because you just can’t stand still as a goalkeeper. You always have to learn and whatever gives you that edge you have to work at.”

derval-orourke-and-coach-sean-cahil Gary is working with Sean Cahill, a former coach of Derval O'Rourke. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Last season, the final one under Stephen Kenny before he became Ireland U21 manager and signed up for the succession plan to be senior boss from next summer, was a stunning one for Dundalk as they completed the Double of league and FAI Cup.

This year there were question marks as Kenny departed and his trusted No.2, Vinny Perth, took the top job with John Gill as first-team coach.

“It was massively important for the club to keep that continuity and for me Vinny was the perfect candidate,” Rogers feels. “He knew everybody inside out, probably as well as people know themselves. The job he’s done, to come in, it’s not an easy job. It’s a big squad to manage and to come in and take over from probably the best manager in history of the League of Ireland. Vinny deserves huge credit for the job he’s done and the position we’re in. It’s down to him.

“He’s not Stephen. He’s his own man and does things his way. The proof is on the table. Players are performing and it’s Vinny getting the performances from the players. He’s challenged players to be better and he’s been able to do it.

“Winning a league title is special no matter what year it is. It’s probably more special for Vinny, now that’s the manager and it could be his first title as manager. Hopefully it will be, we have to finish the job now but probably it will be more special for Vinny because in terms of being manager of the club and standing on his own two feet, it’s been his decisions that have brought us here, they are the big ones down whereas he was advising as an assistant, now he’s the one making the decisions when the consequences are off the back of them.

“If we get across finish line he will take pride in that first title. Not many managers have done that in their first season so it will be an incredible achievement. But it hasn’t been done yet. We’re closing in and hopefully of getting there.”

vinny-perth-and-gary-rogers Rogers having a word with Vinny Perth on a European trip to Baku. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Dundalk may be the ones on the verge of successive titles, but it is Rovers’ Jack Byrne who has stolen most of the headlines this season. Capped by Mick McCarthy for Ireland against Bulgaria earlier this month Rogers, who himself was around the international set-up under previous boss Martin O’Neill, feels the playmaker has set a standard other must aim for.

Winger Michael Duffy had conversations with O’Neill about being drafted in before he was sacked, and was in the process of finalising his paperwork for a switch having represented Northern Ireland at youth level, but it is the Dubliner who has made the greatest strides of all this term.

“I don’t buy that it was tokenism that he was in, and he showed he’s there on merit. He showed that the last day. It’s in him. He provided a great account of himself, his club, the league and like many of the lads in league I was delighted to see it.

That’s great for young players in our league, he’s a young man himself and a great representative from our league going into the squad and more than holding his own by affecting the game.

“It gives young players something to aspire to. There are lads in our dressing more that are more than capable of stepping up to international level, I’ve no doubt about that. I’m sure there are lads with aspirations all over the league about getting into the int team at some point. For everybody it’s good to see it’s been done.

“Graham Burke done it, Shane Supple, it’s something that is attainable. They just have to go out and perform as well as they can to impress.”

It is not just on pitch matters that Rogers must contend with. As chairman of the Professional Footballers’ Association of Ireland (PFAI) the representative body for players in the League of Ireland, he has to keep abreast of what is happening around the country.

gary-rogers Speaking at the PFAI Awards in his role as chairman. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

One of the most damning stories in recent times emerged with former Limerick player Sean Russell – registered as an amateur – needing to set up a fundraising page online because the club were not willing to pay an outstanding bill for surgery on his knee.

Another topic of discussion has been the proposed eight-team Premier Division, something Rogers admits would feel ‘repetitive’.

“Looking after the future for players is vital. Education, mental health and all the different issues there are when you look at players coming back from England, providing support for young players coming through in our league which is going to be more important in the future when you look at the underage leagues. We are looking to re-structure ourselves in order to look after that,” Rogers explains.

“The needs of players today are completely different. Mental health is a big thing. Players, and people in general, are more open to talking about it, whereas before it was buried under the carpet and people didn’t know how to do deal with it. Staff in the PFAI are equipped to deal with that initial calls that we get but we have people that we work with who specialise in that area who can work with players from there.”

And, even for an established professional, there are still concerns that

It’s the same thing every year because of the short-term contracts in this country. If you get an injury, in my own case, if I get an injury between now and the end of the season the club is not going to give me a contract so I’m going to have to get a real job.

“Why would they? My contract is up. If I got a cruciate knee ligament injury between now and the end of the season and hadn’t signed a new contract I wouldn’t expect the club to pay me and I don’t think any club would. Okay, I’ve prepared for life after football in terms of I’ve done a sports management degree and got my coaching badges but the reality is I will have to get a job. That’s just the way it is.”

The baby monitor crackles and it’s not long before Layla is back downstairs rubbing the sleep from her eyes in her father’s arms.

The safest pair of hands you will find.

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David Sneyd

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