Neil Loughran: Why Brendan Rogers boasts Allstar class - on and off the field
THERE wasn’t much room for manoeuvre on the way through the terrace moments after Derry’s dramatic defeat of Dublin.
Over 12,000 had made their way through the turnstiles at Celtic Park, a rare enough occurrence in the city come Championship time, never mind for a Division Two game in early March.
It’s always a game-changer when the Dubs come to town, but a crackle of expectation filled the night air as the Oak Leafs lined out for the biggest test of mettle that spring would bring.
Standing among the natives was Neil McManus. On a week’s break from Antrim’s own National League endeavours, he had taken a spin across from Cushendall to fill the adrenaline void. The Saffron stalwart wasn’t left disappointed.
And, as the dust started to settle, there was only one name on his – and everybody else’s – lips.
“What about Brendan Rogers?” he beamed, shaking his head, “holy f**k.”
Game recognising game, no more words required.
It summed up the feeling inside Celtic Park as the Slaughtneil ace, following a sluggish first half when the failure of Derry’s famed press allowed Brian Fenton to lord proceedings, responded with a tour de force after the break.
How fitting it was that, while his powerful running and athleticism helped stifle the blue wave, it was the twinkle toes of the decorated Irish dancer that won the day – Rogers identifying space when there was hardly any, then slowing time just enough to clip over the winner.
With Niall Scully, Brian Howard and Daire Newcombe in close proximity, and the whistle pressed to Sean Hurson’s lips, the easy option would have been to release the ball back into the safety of a team-mate’s hands and take the draw.
But therein lies the beauty of Brendan Rogers. There is a straightforward simplicity, a raw ambition to the way he plays - either with a hurl in hand or an O’Neills size five dropping at his boot - that makes him thrilling to watch.
Although Derry had already accounted for Limerick, Louth, Meath and Kildare before their date with Dessie’s boys, it was the first time Rogers’s liberation from his traditional full-back position into midfield had captured national attention.
The only shame is that, as his 30th birthday looms next April, it took Eoin McEvoy’s emergence as a ready-made number three to unleash Rogers’s awesome potential in county colours.
Throughout the summer, he was the standout performer around the middle. Sure James McCarthy was magnificent as Mayo were obliterated, while Fenton was back to the peak of his powers, making the game look so damn easy. Diarmuid O’Connor had his best year yet in green and gold.
But the energy Rogers gives to the Oak Leafs is unmatched anywhere else in Ireland. His nomination for an Allstar was a given, his shortlisting for Footballer of the Year no great surprise, his place on the final selection – barring an oversight of Brian Whelehan-esque proportions – assured.
What a difference a year makes.
Rogers was on the nomination list then too but, by the time it was released, the writing was already on the wall. That followed another supreme summer as Derry lifted the Anglo-Celt for the first time in 24 years, last rites served on Michael Murphy’s Donegal career on a sweltering day in Clones, before one bad game.
Not even in fact - a bad 15 minutes. Early on in Derry’s All-Ireland semi-final defeat to Galway, Rogers was unplayable, pushing forward as the Tribe retreated, surging forward and popping over two classy scores – Allstar in the bag.
But after losing Comer for a score, he then lost his footing, watching from the turf as the Galway forward sped into the square before half-time, lashing low past Odhran Lynch.
The Tribe’s second goal had little to do with Rogers, a Derry move breaking down up the field, Lynch caught in no man’s land as the Oak Leafs chased the game, Comer finishing to the net from miles out to seal their final spot.
It is in moments like these, though, that you get a little window into what makes Rogers a bit special, or certainly unique, after hours too.
Like waiting to go into a wake house, myself and Declan Bogue found ourselves hanging about outside the Derry dressing room while the team bus was filled up with bags.
Discreet enquiries were made to amiable logistics manager Hugh McGrath about the possibility of getting a word with a player. Expectations have seldom been lower.
“Aye houl on, I’ll grab Rog here…”
Ah Hugh, we wanted to scream, let that man be for God sake.
Sometimes you see these conversations taking place yards from where you’re stood, the player usually leaning in to his inquisitor before a subtle shake of the head, like the Roman Emperor Commodus – as depicted in Gladiator – delivering a thumbs down, condemning the loser to death.
But Rogers didn’t condemn us to death. Instead he dandered over, wearing the half smile that never seems to leave his face, whether in victory or defeat, before proceeding to pick over the bones of a hard day at the office.
Similarly, after the Dublin League game earlier this year, he was almost an hour out on the field, posing for pictures, signing autographs, eyes alive with a kind of wonder despite the biting cold, the sense of a man soaking in every second of magic moments he helped create.
It is the innocence of his abandon on the field, and the boyish bashfulness of his demeanour off it, that sets Brendan Rogers apart in a world where seriousness and solemnity have become so readily associated with what success means.
Individual awards may be small beer when the elusive handles of Sam stand within touching distance but, when the Allstars are handed out, none will be more deserved.