Derry star Brendan Rogers has swapped the number three jersey and has been revelling in a new midfield role. Michael McMullan spoke to some of the men who coached and played with him
CLOSE to an hour after kicking the winner in Derry’s win over Dublin, Brendan Rogers is still smiling. Still signing autographs. Celtic Park is selfie central.
It’s a damp March night and he hasn’t reached the solace of the dressing room.
This is what Derry’s renaissance had been hurtling towards. A cut at the big boys.
After taking a half to get to grips with Brian Fenton, Rogers turned the tables with another tour de force performance now seen as a gimme.
With the sides level, Derry’s flooded attack tactic stretched the 14 sky blue jerseys across the width of the pitch. Enough to create gaps.
With many of the Dubs keeping an extra eye on Shane McGuigan, it bought Rogers – by his own admission – an extra yard and he fired on the turbo boost.
Former Derry manager Damian Barton’s early memory of Rogers was his “torso forward” style of running.
It was the last play and a draw would’ve been creditable given their six-point deficit on the shoulder of half time. But Rogers wanted more. This moment was why Rory Gallagher permanently moved him to midfield. A cutting edge closer to the scoring honeypot.
Rogers surveyed the scene before opening up the legs, tapping into his years as a champion Irish dancer, ducking left and jinking right.
“It keeps you nimble on your feet,” offers Carlus McWilliams, a former Derry teammate who also danced with the Allen School.
“People would always call you twinkle toes and you can probably see that from Brendan. He can change direction and before you even blink, he is away the other way.”
Rogers has an All-Ireland Céilí Dancing medal with Glen and the potency as an attacking assassin on the hurling field helped too.
After cutting through the Dublin defence, his point nosed Derry to victory and shot their redemption project from Division Four to a new level.
Pat ‘Tad’ Cassidy coached Rogers at underage. In the early days, shooting wasn’t his forte. The end product was often a rushed effort without composure.
“It looks like he has worked a lot at his shooting over the last few years,” Cassidy said.
Every game brings another application of polish to make Rogers a player who’ll again be in the conversation for an All-Star.
But then, sport is in bloodline. His mother Bernie was part of the Swatragh team to win their ground-breaking first Derry camogie title. His aunt Sarah Ann played in a staggering 18 of winning teams during a golden era. His cousins Mairead and Gráinne have been mainstays in the Derry camogie team.
His fiancée Bríd McGourty – sister of Down ‘keeper Catherine – is a camog from Ballycran and recently transferred to Sleacht Néill after work took her to a new base in Derry.
In the minutes after the win over Dublin, Sean Rogers has his son’s Man of the Match memento tucked under his arm. One glance and it’s apparent where Brendan’s wiriness comes from. An evening in Maghera Leisure Centre’s circuit class and you’ll see Sean at full pelt. A machine. Not a pick on him, with barely a bead of sweat. Fresh as paint.
“Brendan, this man was down to watch you in Newbridge last week,” Sean said, making sure his son would make time for one of the paltry travelling Oakleaf faithful from six days earlier.
“I know, I was talking to him after it,” Brendan laughs as he signs one of the last jerseys.
Derry are on their way back to Division One and Brendan Rogers is the last player to step off the Celtic Park sod.
And it’s not always about making time when you win. Thirteen months earlier, almost to the day, Ballygunner had just ended Sleacht Néill’s latest tilt at All-Ireland glory.
Rogers came out of the Parnell Park dressing room. Gear bag slung over the shoulder. Despondent? Yes. But when Irish News reporter Neil Loughran sheepishly asked for a few quick words of reaction in defeat, he duly obliged.
Win or lose, nothing changes. Ever the gent.
When Pat ‘Tad’ Cassidy led another tranche of Sleacht Néill underage football coaching around the early noughties, Rogers was part of a “special group” that would go on to bolster their trailblazing senior team.
With the caman, he never lost a championship game in Derry across his entire career. In football, persistence was the word in the shadow of an all-conquering Glen side.
At Glenview Primary School, he was part of their winning team playing alongside a handful of the Glen team who went all the way to this year’s All-Ireland final.
“The first time I coached Brendan was at u-12,” Cassidy said. “You just knew by him; he was athletic and determined at everything he tried to do. He would’ve run all day and he was naturally gifted.
“At one point, he was put in goals at u-10, as a one off, just to keep him from soloing with the ball up the field,” Cassidy added with a hearty laugh.
“No matter what you asked, he did it in the best way that he could and he’d never ask why.
“He was very laid back and never panicked about anything. He would be playing a championship final the same way he’d be kicking about in the back garden.”
Was there a standout game or moment? Cassidy pauses before drawing a blank. In a way, it’s a compliment to Rogers’ consistency.
“He was always one of the main men,” Cassidy said. “You always knew what you were going to get and I can never remember him having a bad game.”
‘Tad’ feels the days of Rogers in the number three jersey are gone. His full-back credentials were a mix of a physical presence and the hand eye coordination needed to repel any danger. Having arms seemingly longer than the average human being helps.
The 60-yard dashes from full-back have been replaced with stories like last year’s Ulster final when his GPS unit spat out a staggering reading of 17 kilometres, with much of it high-tempo running that eventually broke Donegal.
“He probably could’ve been a runner,” Cassidy adds. “In that extra-time (against Donegal last year), he was unbelievable.
“To keep making those runs after over 90 minutes and having the composure to kick points…it was phenomenal.”
Rogers made his club senior debut when Cathal Corey threw him in as a substitute in a 2013 extra-time defeat at the hands of Glenullin before new manager Mickey Moran installed him at full-back the following season, picking up Benny Heron in a win over Ballinascreen as the Emmet’s embarked on their glory trail.
“Even at a young age, Brendan had a big presence at full-back,” said Sleacht Néill goalkeeper Antóin McMullan.
“He had a big frame physically which suited the position in terms of aerial battles but it was his confidence at such a young age that made him stand out and make teammates feel at ease.”
McMullan refers to the landscape when Rogers was breaking into an established senior team. Full-back was a critical position. Moran’s new find ticked a lot of boxes others didn’t, making him the obvious choice.
“This has probably masked his potential for other roles as we are seeing from his latest performances with Derry.”
McMullan picks out their 2016 Ulster final win over Kilcoo as Rogers’ greatest club football hour. Two points, two assists from full back, with his direct opponent hauled ashore in the final quarter. The performance 12 months later against Cavan Gaels is up there too.
Playing in the last line, McMullan can gauge the temperature of the championship pressure cooker in front of him. Some players are uptight, while others don’t flinch.
“’Roge’ is definitely the latter,” he adds “Regardless of the stage or a big name he is up against, you can be sure his pulse will never get too raised.
“He was as composed playing against Kieran Donaghy as a young lad as he was going up against (Brian) Fenton earlier this year.”
When asked in a post-game interview what it was like to mark Donaghy, Brendan – with tongue in cheek – turned the line of questioning by suggesting the interviewer hadn’t met his skyscraper brother Patrick, a future Ulster boxing champion.
Sleacht Néill hurling manager Michael McShane remembers his first dealing with the young Rogers that would spearhead his attack.
It’s 2015 and a league game against Lavey. With minutes to throw-in, McShane beckons Rogers, Gerald Bradley and Sé McGuigan for an attacking tactical briefing in the shower area.
“He was standing smiling at me, as he does,” McShane laughs, of how he began shaping the team’s inside trio.
He recalls chastising Rogers for not appearing to tune into their team messages with the seriousness they deserved.
“I was asking him what he was laughing at…was he finding something funny. But he wasn’t, that’s just his nature,” McShane said.
It’s a manner Rogers carries into games. No banging of tables. Just any nugget to help newcomers in the team. Then, on the pitch, the extra focus on his attacking prowess by defences frees up space for others. McShane insists the rest of the Emmet’s attack has thrived off what Rogers has brought.
“He is such a leader and has an exemplary temperament. No matter what is happening, he is always in control of his emotions,” McShane adds.
Despite being targeted with some roughhouse treatment as the potent forward, Rogers just keeps on trucking. Power, pace and strength are the foundation stones. And he knows how to look after himself.
“As a coach or a manager, Brendan is an absolute dream,” McShane adds. “He is a very modest lad despite everything he has achieved.
“He could play on any team in Ireland and I mean that…any hurling team,” McShane said, labelling him as an exceptional hurler.
“He would grace that Limerick team at the moment. He is such a dangerous forward, so difficult to stop and so lethal in front of goals…just a dream to work with.”
A few years ago, Rogers lined out at wing forward in a championship against Swatragh. On the periphery. Then, bang, he’d three goals scored in a matter of minutes.
“When Brendan is running at defences, it doesn’t matter who it is,” said McShane, hailing the goal he scored against Ballyhale Shamrocks.
“He got a ball at centre half-forward, turned and went straight at the heart of their defence and rifled it up into the top corner,” McShane said.
“It was in my eyeline at the time. He had nothing else in his head only going for goal and we needed a goal.”
“I thought it was a brilliant move for Derry footballers to take him out of full-back,” McShane added. “Even back there, he would’ve been marauding up the field. I think they are getting the best of Brendan at both ends of the pitch now that he is positioned in the middle.”
Brian McIver handed Brendan Rogers his Derry senior debut in an Ulster Championship victory over Down in 2015. He held Mark Poland scoreless, despite not having league or McKenna Cup football to break him in.
He didn’t even make the county minor panel in his final year. The early years of inter-county action came with the hurlers before his full-back performances for Sleacht Néill put him in the shop window.
When Damian Barton took over at the start of 2016, he played Rogers at midfield in a McKenna Cup semi-final but a Tiernan McCann tackle and subsequent facial injury in the opening seconds of the final left him on the sidelines.
His first league game was at midfield against Galway later that year, a game he notched the first point of his 1-17 career tally with all but two points coming in the last two seasons.
Humility is the first word Barton uses when asked to sum up Brendan Rogers, stressing how it comes from his family.
“They are lovely people,” Barton said. “The ethic of hard work on the pitch and off it, they normally mirror each other. You can see from a football perspective he is playing at the top of his game.”
“I think he has been fantastic and one of the players of the year so far,” said Barton, highlighting his penetrating runs against Dublin and a formidable 1-2 tally in the recent Ulster final.
“I think he has matured into the complete player and he has proven that. His leadership, in terms of his driving through the middle has been a big thing in terms of Derry’s success to date.”
Brendan Rogers’ best moment? Barton thinks, but opts for a generalisation.
“You know what you are going to get,” he said. “He’ll pick up a ball and commit a defender. If he doesn’t go past him, he’ll certainly bring somebody else into a more advanced position.”
Saturday’s visit of Monaghan will be a 70th senior game for Derry. But he never forgets his roots. The Wednesday after the Ulster final, he was in the dressing room of Kevin Lynch Park offering advice and encouragement for the young Sleacht Néill hurlers in a league game. The players he’ll be in the trenches with later in the year when ship Derry is docked.
The size of the ball changes. The colour of the jersey changes. But not Brendan Rogers. Win or lose, he always makes time.