INTERVIEW | Former Dundalk FC goalkeeper Alan O’Neill speaks about Gary Rogers, his time at Oriel Park and that iconic jersey!

Dubliner made 543 League of Ireland appearances

Gary Rogers made a landmark 500th League of Ireland appearance in Dundalk’s victory over Waterford at Oriel Park on Friday night.

The Meathman becomes just the 11th player to join the illustrious ‘500 Club’ and is the second goalkeeper with Dundalk ties to hit the milestone alongside the legendary Alan O’Neill.

O’Neill spent eight years at Oriel Park — playing 233 league games for the Lilywhites — and sits seven places ahead of Rogers in the table. With 543 games to his name, he is fourth on the all time list, behind Peter Hutton (545), Owen Heary (565) and Al Finucane (634) and is ideally placed to explain the magnitude of Rogers’ feat.

“It’s a magnificent achievement to play 500 games,” he told Dundalk Sport. “It means you have to be playing consistently and picked all of the time for 17 or 18 years.

“If you look at the last three clubs Gary has been at, Dundalk, Sligo Rovers and St Pat’s, he has won trophies at each of them and I’m sure he’ll be hoping to win another league and cup medal this year again.

“It’s all down to consistency,” he added. “As a goalkeeper, all you want to do is be called consistent. It’s about cutting down on errors and becoming reliable. That’s what you’re looking to be as a goalkeeper and I think Gary has shown that down through the years.”

They may have played in different eras, but there are plenty of similarities between O’Neill and Rogers, even if you put goalkeeping aside.

Turlough O’Connor gave O’Neill the unenviable role of replacing Richie Blackmore when he arrived from UCD in 1985. Likewise, Rogers took over from a fan favourite in the shape of Peter Cherrie when he made the switch from Sligo Rovers 30 years later.

“When you go to a club like Dundalk, where they are reared on success, and you replace somebody who helped the team to that success, then it can be very difficult,” said O’Neill.

“You have to win the fans over and the only way you can do that is with your performances on the pitch. There is added pressure but that’s what the game’s about and that’s why you go to clubs like Dundalk.

“Gary proved that when he succeeded Peter Cherrie. It was a big ask by Stephen Kenny but don’t forget that Gary was very successful at Sligo and he went to Dundalk and rose to the challenge.

“Something similar happened with me. Richie was one of the top goalkeepers in the League of Ireland for so long but you have to believe in yourself and produce the goods.”

O’Neill and Rogers did just that, going on to win a clean sweep of domestic honours with Dundalk. O’Neill was part of O’Connor’s double winning side in 1988 while Rogers also has his name enshrined in the club’s history books as a league and cup winner in 2015.

“When I joined Dundalk, Turlough O’Connor had put together a very good Dundalk squad of players but it took two seasons for it to work,” said O’Neill.

After winning the league title, the Lilywhites beat Jim McLaughlin’s Derry City in the 1988 FAI Cup final at Dalymount Park with O’Neill wearing one of the most iconic shirts in League of Ireland history — the blue Swedish goalkeeper’s jersey!

“Don’t worry, I still have it,” he laughed. “I wore it in an Olympic game for Ireland and that Adidas jersey was all the rage back then, all of the continental goalkeepers had it. I said, ‘I fancy this’, and wore it all season!

“What a day that was,” he added. “I don’t think anybody will ever forget bringing the cup home to Dundalk that night and the scenes coming over the Hill Street bridge.”

Rogers’ shutout against Waterford on Friday was his sixth on the trot, equalling a club record for clean sheets at the beginning of a season, set in another of Dundalk’s title winning campaigns back in 1981/82. Three more will see him tie level with Brendan Clarke who holds the League of Ireland record for nine clean sheets from back in 2011.

O’Neill is the current holder of the Dundalk record for successive shut outs, keeping eight on the bounce between February 14th and April 14th 1991. In all, he kept 23 clean sheets in 33 games during the 1990/91 season, a feat that helped propel Dundalk to a last day title win over Cork City.

“When I look back on that year, we had a magnificent back four that followed on from the double winning back four of 1979, Dermot Keely, Tommy Mac, God rest him, Paddy Dunning and Martin Lawlor. Legends of the game,” recalled O’Neill.

“Our back four was equally as good but in a different way. They were probably more unsung than the one in 1979 but Ronnie Murphy and James Coll was an incredible combination at centre-back. They read the game so well and then you obviously had Martin who had seen it all before.

“We conceded five in the first game against Shelbourne and Paul Newe, who left us to join them, scored four of the goals. I’d say everybody wanted us out of the place at that stage!

“But, for the next 32 games we conceded 11 goals and kept 23 clean sheets. I can remember going into games and thinking we just weren’t going to concede. We knew that if we’d score, we’d win the game. It was a great feeling.

“If you look back on that season, I don’t think we were ever top of the table until we went down and beat Cork on the final day,” he said. “We used to always slag the directors, the late Enda McGuill and Eamonn Hiney, that they never had to pay us a bonus for being top of the table,” he laughed.

O’Neill left Dundalk in 1993 and returned to Shamrock Rovers where he ended up winning another league title. In 1995 he racked up league appearance 500 in a game against Galway United although he remembers very little about it.

“It was only after it happened that somebody said to me it was my 500th league game. I didn’t know anything about it. I wasn’t really into stats like that, I was more into goals conceded and things like that.”

He retired two years later with his only regret being that he was never capped by his country. Again, like Rogers, he was named in Republic of Ireland on many occasions, but just didn’t get the nod.

“All I needed was two minutes,” he laughed, “two minutes to say I was an international! I sat on the bench about eight times under four different managers, Eoin Hand, Johnny Giles, Alan Kelly and Jack Charlton, but not one of them would give me two bleeding minutes!

“Ah no, I had a great career, and Gary has had a great career,” he concluded. “You set out to be the best you can be and to play at the highest level you can play at for as long as you can.

With that in mind, he wouldn’t be surprised to see Rogers overtake him on the list.

“I can see Gary playing on for years to come,” he said. “In your twenties, you are fitter and stronger but as you get older your positioning is better, your anticipation becomes better and you learn the game better.”

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