Dundalk goalkeeper Gary Rogers will join a unique list of League of Ireland greats on Friday night should he takes his place, as expected, between the sticks for his side’s match against Waterford FC.
The game at Oriel Park will be the 500th league appearance of the 36-year-old’s career.
That’s enough to move him into the top 10 in the all-time league appearances list, putting him level with former Home Farm, Athlone Town, Bohemians and Drogheda Utd stalwart Jim Grace.
While it’s an amazing landmark for the veteran, for Rogers it’s just another milestone in a career which he feels has further landmarks ahead.
The current PFAI chairman might be one of the league’s elder statesmen but he has no intention of hanging up his gloves anytime soon.
Barring any fitness or form issues, the experienced netminder should move up to sixth in the list before the end of the season but while he will still remain some way off Al Finucane’s record of 634 league appearances, Rogers has not dismissed the idea of surpassing that figure after insisting he can go on into his 40s.
“Definitely not,” he said when asked was retirement on the cards any time soon.
“I’m looking at having a good season this year with Dundalk and hopefully staying there next year and the year after. My aim is to play as long as I can.
“I really think I’m at the top club in the country now and there’s a long way to go to get to the bottom club. I don’t intend on going that route but if I continue to play well, continue to enjoy my football and don’t pick up any injuries my intention is to play as long as I can and rack up as many appearances as possible.”
It’s a league where the goalkeepers considered the best at present are in their mid-to-late 30s. The reigning Goalkeeper of the Year, Mark McNulty, is more than a year older than Rogers while Derry City’s Ger Doherty, who featured in last season’s PFAI Team of the Year, is just a month his junior.
Rogers admits to being a big fan of Italian legend Gianluigi Buffon, who is still going strong for Juventus at the age of 40, and sees no reason why he can’t achieve similar.
“The lads you mentioned are all doing really well,” he said of McNulty and Doherty.
“I’d be a massive fan of Buffon. You look at the quality he has had throughout his career and he’s 40 now and yet he’s still playing at the top level. That shows it can be done so it’s just about maintaining your standards and doing things right on and off the pitch. Hopefully then the manager picks you.
“When you’re at my stage of your career, a bad injury could finish you. I’m well aware of that but my intention is to try and stay as fit as possible, enjoy my football and see where it takes me. Barring any serious injury I’ll be looking to continue my career for another two, three or four years possibly.
“When I made my first appearance I never thought I’d make as many as I have. When you make your first appearance you don’t even know if you’re good enough to play League of Ireland even, so it’s great to be still playing and enjoying it and doing well.”
While Rogers started out in the League of Ireland with Shelbourne in 1999, it wasn’t until October 2000 when he made his league debut in a 2-1 defeat away to Sligo Rovers after going on loan to St Francis.
The Meath man admitted that he came close to not even playing League of Ireland at all having been called into the Meath GAA senior panel as an 18-year-old back in 2000 by the legendary Sean Boylan. However, fate would intervene as a red card for his club St Ultan’s in a Leinster Club Championship match meant he was dropped from the panel.
“My GAA history is kind of mixed,” he said.
‘Around 1999/2000 I was on the Meath senior panel. Sean Boylan had brought me in after my local club had won the Junior Championship. I was half-forward or centre forward but I got sent off in a Leinster Club Championship game.
“I was giving the referee some friendly advice and he wasn’t really appreciative of it,” he laughed.
“Back then you got suspended for three months as opposed to one game and because of that I was basically released off the Meath senior squad because there was no point in being there when you couldn’t play for three months.
“I didn’t go back to it then until Dublin City went bust in 2006. Colm Coyle gave me a couple of starts at that stage in the National League and my club went and won another Junior Championship that year. I won a green star and got back on the Meath senior team.
“On a couple of occasions I nearly stepped away from football for the GAA but I’m glad with the decisions I made. Galway Utd came about in 2007 when I was still in with the Meath senior panel. Tony Cousins came to me wanting me to go to Galway. At the time I was unsure but it was an opportunity to play full-time football and I went to Galway as opposed to staying with the GAA.”
So had it not been for that red card would we be even talking right now?
“Yeah,” he said.
“It was kind of in the balance because I was doing the two at the time, training with Shelbourne’s first team and as a young keeper I knew I wasn’t going to get in any time soon. I suppose a combination of going on loan to St Francis and actually getting games and then the sending off with my local club probably played its part in the role I took.”
Rogers has family ties to Dundalk FC with his uncle Liam Devine playing a key part in the club’s double success of 1978/79 before going on to score goals in the respective European wins over Linfield and Hibernians of Malta the following season.
Sadly Liam’s career, which included a five season spell at Shelbourne prior to his arrival at Oriel, was ended by a cancer diagnosis at the age of 29 that would ultimately leading to his passing in September 1980.
Gary wasn’t born until the following September (1981) but the passing would have a huge role in him becoming a goalkeeper. The tragedy led to Liam’s son Lee spending more and more time in the Rogers household and it was him who decided his cousin should take up a role guarding goal.
“We would always have been out playing on the pitch beside my house. He was five or six years the goalkeeper older than me so I was for his shooting practice.
“That’s how I really got into it and I always really enjoyed it. I suppose he would have a big part to play in my interest in goalkeeping. I was able to mix the two because I played all my Gaelic outfield and all my soccer in goals barring a few exceptions.”
It also wasn’t his height that led to him being put in goals.
“Funnily enough I was one of the smallest of my age group,” said Rogers.
“When I was in secondary school I think there was only one fella smaller than me in the whole year and I didn’t really shoot up until I was 15 or 16.”
It might be a cliché but Rogers feels he has improved with experience, insisting it is vital when at a top club like Dundalk where you are not as busy as you might be at some of the clubs further down the table.
“I think experience helps with your decision making along the road. You make so many decisions throughout your career but even in training you’re always learning as a goalkeeper.
Everything you pick up along the way, you calculate as you go.
“If you’re playing in a team at the bottom of the table you might get beaten 2-0 or 3-0 but you could have had five or 10 saves and people think you’re great. If you’re playing at Dundalk you might not have a save to make or you might have one to make and if you make it or you don’t that determines whether you had a good or a bad game. I think that’s the challenge of playing with a top team, being able to make that one save or two saves in a game and for nobody to notice you.
“I always say if no one notices you then you’ve done all right,” he said.
Ironically the Meath man’s earliest memory of football related to a goalkeeper and he can still vividly recall Packie Bonner saving Daniel Timofte’s penalty in the Italia 90 World Cup.
He’s one of many influences Rogers has had over the years.
“Packie Bonner’s iconic penalty save against Romania is my first memory of football,” he said.
“I remember watching it in Navan swimming pool. I was doing a swimming lesson and the penalties came on and we went in to watch it in the lifeguard’s hut. That penalty save still sticks with me and I was a massive fan then of Packie growing up.
“There are loads of different keepers that you admire and you like and you take different bits and pieces of different keepers’ strengths and try to introduce that into your own game.
“I wouldn’t say you base your game on a particular goalkeeper because you kind of figure your own game out as you go along but I would have been a Liverpool supporter growing up and I was a fan of Bruce Grobbelaar. I would have been a big fan of (Gianluca) Pagliuca, the Italian keeper and certainly Buffon throughout his career.
“I have watched him closely and he’d probably be my favourite keeper.”
Rogers, who currently trains the Westmeath GAA goalkeepers, has also worked with some top coaches along the way himself. He recalls Steve Williams being a great influence to him when he started out at Shelbourne 19 years ago and is happy to be still working with the Welshman to this day.
“I would have really looked up to Steve when I was starting off,” he said of his current goalkeeping coach at Oriel.
“He was brilliant with me as a young keeper. He took me under his wing and was always great in training. He really looked after me as a young keeper. He was brilliant when I was starting out. That was my first experience of goalkeeping coaching.
“I’ve had some great team-mates too. Myself and Dan Connor had great battles at Drogheda and St Pat’s. He won one and I won one. Dan was really good opposition but I’ve had good quality opposition throughout my career be it at Sligo, Pat’s or here at Dundalk. That’s good because it doesn’t allow you to rest on your laurels. You have to put it in every week and produce performances to stay in the team.”
Pep Guardiola’s vision of a goalkeeper being almost like a sweeper might not have made its way to the League of Ireland just yet but Rogers insists the game here for keepers has definitely evolved over the years.
“There have been massive changes,” he said.
“When I started out it was just about kicking the ball long. It’s a bit like how Gaelic has evolved as well. Now it’s a different style of football.
“When I was starting out as a young goalkeeper you were able to pick the ball up from a back pass. That has changed the game. It has definitely moved on. Now you’re more focused on keeping the ball by hitting your men and hitting targets be it your full backs or wide man. We’ve a great target man at the moment in Pat (Hoban) who will battle hard for it and the lads then can pick up the pieces. There are different games where you’ll be able to do different things.”
There have been tough times along the way as well. While he earned praise from Stephen Kenny for his composure under pressure following Dundalk’s 1-0 win over Cork City last week, the last time the Lilywhites had beaten John Caulfield’s side Rogers was out of the side.
He has bounced back in some style since with five clean sheets in-a-row so far this season evidence of that. However, Rogers is well aware ahead of Friday’s match – which will also be his 125th competitive game for Dundalk in all competitions – that you’re only ever one mistake away from criticism as a goalkeeper.
“There are always tough times as a professional footballer in general but probably more so as a goalkeeper because it’s an isolated position. You kind of take it more to heart.
“Every time I concede a goal I think there are certain people who think I’m finished but that’s just the nature of the game. You have to be mentally tough and strong and above all believe in yourself to continue and come back and play well week in, week out.
“If you’re not mentally tough you’re not going to make it as a goalkeeper. You have to be able to deal with mistakes in high-profile games because they will happen and the pressure of playing in big games. It’s not always going to be a smooth ride but you just do your best to try and play as well as you can.”
Another target of Rogers in the years ahead is to either equal or surpass his PFAI colleague Ollie Cahill’s record of 41 appearances in Europe. He currently sits on 35, with a guaranteed two matches for Dundalk this season likely to see him surpass Stuart Byrne on 36 and move joint second with Dan Murray and Owen Heary on 37. Having got the bug for European adventures in recent years, Rogers would love nothing more than another journey this season.
“It’s certainly something I’d like to do as well,” he said when asked about Cahill’s record.
“Playing in Europe is the pinnacle for anybody in this league. We’ve had great times and great success in Europe over the last few years and we’ll be looking to continue that this year and hopefully I can add to that tally.
“You need to be fit and playing well when European football comes around but generally we do try to peak for Europe and that will be the same this year. Hopefully we’ll pick up a couple of wins because European football is great for the league. It captures the imagination of the wider public, not just League of Ireland supporters so it’s important that we do well in Europe. There’s nothing like getting a couple of wins in that.”
Having been around the league for the best part of two decades, Rogers is as good a judge as anyone to discuss the progress it has made. For all the highs he has experienced, winning titles at Sligo Rovers and Dundalk, there have been low points.
He was at Dublin City when they went bust, the club he made his debut at St Francis are no longer in the league, while former clubs such as Drogheda Utd, Galway Utd, Shelbourne and Bray have all at their struggles at various stages.
That said, Rogers believes the league is on a good footing right now.
“The standard is definitely better than when I started out,” he said.
“The fitness levels of players is something that has really come on. It’s one thing that’s really apparent now when you look at our own success in Europe and how we’re able to compete. That’s down to the players’ levels of commitment and the sacrifices that they make while maybe 20 years ago a European game was seen like a week’s holiday.
“It’s not like that anymore. We’re not just there to compete, we’re there to progress and do well. That has certainly be evident almost since the change in format to summer football. That has really allowed us to progress in Europe and the results have shown the benefit.
“Before that your biggest game of the season would come in pre-season. The odds were stacked you straight away then but summer football has helped changed how clubs have progressed in Europe.”
His contract might be up at the end of the season but after keeping his 51st clean sheet in the league for Dundalk in what was his 94th appearance against St Patrick’s Athletic on Monday, Rogers is hopeful of still being at Oriel Park for the foreseeable future.
Having stood behind a defence that has yet to be breached in five matches so far this campaign, he is showing no signs of decline.
“Dundalk is a great club to be at. It would be a local club to me along with with Drogheda and I have family ties with the club in terms of supporters and my uncle played with the club. It’s certainly my intention to stay.
“Obviously it will be down to the manager down the line but there’ll be no talk of that just yet. When I came to the club my intention was to play here as long as I could and hopefully maybe retire at the club down the line but we’ll wait and see what contracts come later in the year.”
Friday will be a landmark night for Rogers but that is just a sub-plot for him. His main goal is three points.
“I’m not one bit surprised how well Waterford are doing,” he said.
“I really thought they would come up and do well. They were a Premier Division side in the First Division and they’ve added more quality to it so it’s not surprising at all how well they’ve done. It will be a tough, tough challenge but we’ll be at home and we’re coming off the back of a really good home result so we’ll be looking to take all three points as we will in every game.
“I think if we can play to our potential then hopefully we’ll have enough about us to go and get the win but Waterford have done really well since they’ve come up and we know we’ll be in for a tough game.”
As he reflects back on his career to date, Rogers has plenty to be proud of.
“I’m lucky enough in that it really is hard to know what the highlight has been.
“I suppose my first league title win with Sligo was a brilliant moment because I had been in the league for a long time and hadn’t won the Premier Division. It was a massive achievement. That was a great side that Paul Cook assembled and Ian Baraclough managed. That was a brilliant moment to get over the line and eventually win a league. It probably set me up to have the confidence and belief to go on and win more.
“Probably the highlight though was the win over BATE Borisov. To go and do it in the manner that we did, winning 3-0, keeping a clean sheet and do go through comfortably while looking a really good side, that’s probably the highlight for me and probably for most of the lads here.”
Rogers has had some great days in the League of Ireland. On Friday he will play his 500th game in the hope that there are many more ahead.