Months of pain, heartache and frustration could conceivably come to an end for Ambrose Rogers on Saturday night.
Just a week after Down turned in what was arguably their best display of last year in humiliating a strongly-fancied Kerry side (1-16 to 1-10) in the All-Ireland quarter-finals at Croke Park, Rogers suffered a cruciate ligament injury while playing for his club Longstone that not only kept him out of the All-Ireland semi-final and final but meant immediate surgery and a lengthy period of rehabilitation.
The 25-year-old coaching officer has not kicked a ball for Down since then — his second protracted absence from the side following the ruptured spleen he suffered in a Croke Park game against Wexford three years ago.
But the quiet-spoken, inherently modest Ambrose does not do superstition, recrimination or self-pity.
His late father Ambrose snr proved Down’s talisman for many years serving the side superbly both at midfield and full-forward, and now Ambrose himself yearns to lead his beloved county into Ulster Championship action.
While the prospect of starting Saturday night’s appropriately-billed ‘Clash of Giants’ with Armagh may not quite be on the agenda, the vision of a portion of game time has been more than sufficient incentive for Ambrose to push himself to the limit in what has been an extremely rigorous Down build-up.
His patient, measured return to full fitness, first at club level and then at county level, has served to rekindle his desire and ambition in the countdown to a match that has already captured the national spotlight.
A player who has consistently challenged himself in the past, Rogers is now squaring up to what he feels is his biggest test —helping to prove that Down are far from being one-season wonders.
“We did not do ourselves any harm in Croke Park last year but at the end of the day we played there four times, losing two fi
nals in the process, and this shows that we have a wee bit to go yet,” he observes with typical honesty.
“Yet we all saw what could happen when we began to string results together and that has to be an incentive to go one better this year.”
It was Down’s failure to beat Armagh in the Division Two National League final and their subsequent loss to Cork in the All-Ireland final at headquarters that prompted manager James McCartan to reflect that no silverware had been won despite a prodigious effort — a sentiment
that struck a distinct chord with Rogers.
He has been in the Down squad for several years now alongside several other seasoned warriors, but last year was their first real acquaintance with playing consistently against top sides in the championship.
“We got a taste of it and now we want more. In previous years we might have performed well on a one-off basis against a team like Tyrone, for instance, but that was that.
“We were never quite able to follow it up. Last year showed that we were able to get a sequence of results and that was greatly encouraging,” explains Rogers.
Although more than satisfied with his recovery process, he is quick to point out that the frenetic intensity of the Ulster Championship will be the ultimate testing ground for him.
“I am happy with the headway I have made but I want to prove myself on the Ulster stage if I can. That is my goal,” states the Longstone ace.
But he readily admits that Down will find the champi
onship an even more demanding arena this time round.
“While we are probably a more confident side now, I think that we will not really know exactly where we are until we play Armagh on Saturday.
“It’s going to be a lot tougher for us this summer, that’s for sure,” insists Rogers.
And he puts Down’s task firmly in context when he adds: “I have never played on a winning Down side against Armagh in the championship and that tells its own story.
“As a matter of fact, we have fallen apart against Armagh in recent years. It will take a lot of hard work and a bit of luck for us to get one over them this time.”
For the record, Down’s last championship win against the orchard county was in 1992 at a time when they were far and away the best team in the country having won the All-Ireland title in 1991 and then repeating the feat in 1994.
Little wonder then that Rogers is desperately keen to see a return to those glory days given the personal trauma he has endured and the major disappointments his county colleagues have suffered.
“We know that success has to be earned and we will be making a massive effort to get our hands on a trophy this summer,” he promises.