When Down captain Ambrose Rogers last found himself immersed in All Ireland Championship action at Croke Park he little thought that it might well have culminated in a premature end to his career.
The then 23-year-old Mourne county ace was exhibiting his customary skill and commitment against Wexford in a fourth round qualifier two years ago when he suddenly collapsed to the ground, clearly in agony.
Down team doctor Eddie Harney, realising that something was seriously amiss, sprang into action and Rogers was whisked off to hospital where a matter of hours later he underwent emergency surgery for a ruptured spleen.
And, in an ironic twist to what was a frightening episode for all connected with Down, the operation was carried out by Dr Gerry McEntee, a double All Ireland winner with Meath in the late 80s, who had played against the late Ambrose Rogers senior when he was initially a midfield Down strongman before becoming a prolific full-forward.
Today, his son is not only happily enjoying excellent health but is strongly focused on leading Down to victory over Kerry in the All Ireland quarter-finals.
This will be the team’s first Championship visit to Headquarters since that loss to Wexford and the traumatic injury sustained by their current skipper.
Yet they have just recently been provided with a further spur to come good today.
In the National League Division Two final at Croke Park in April, Armagh got the better of Down — a defeat that still rankles within the Mourne county.
And no-one is more determined to see the side flourish this time round than the inspirational Rogers whose midfield partnership with 20-year-old Championship rookie Kalum King has had much to do with Down’s progress to date.
“While it’s great to have had three qualifier wins on the trot, going in against Kerry is an awesome challenge. They may be without some of their big names but a glance at their line-up will confirm that they are vastly experienced with a great tradition and an enviable track record at Croke Park on their side,” points out Rogers, a GAA coaching officer.
With the physically imposing Seamus Scanlon and Michael Quirke forming the Kerry midfield, Rogers and King are set for their biggest test so far this year in the knowledge that a forward line containing the finishing skills of Brendan Coulter, Daniel Hughes and Martin Clarke is almost totally dependant on their ability to win primary possession in the central area of the park.
If Down’s last Championship outing at Headquarters represents a poignant chapter in the sporting career of Rogers, it has
certainly left no residue on either his commitment or resolve.
“We are ready physically and mentally for Kerry. Our manager James McCartan has obviously plenty of Croke Park experience and we know what is expected from us. If we can get off to an encouraging start and maybe enjoy a few breaks we have the ability and the mentality, I feel, to give a good account of ourselves,” says Rogers.
Longford, Offaly and Sligo have all fallen victims to Down’s dynamic, adventurous style in recent weeks but both Rogers and manager McCartan agree that it will take a performance from a higher plateau to terminate the Kingdom’s interest in the destination of the All Ireland title.
“Kerry are past masters at winning All Ireland titles. They have taken the direct route into the quarter-finals this year and although they have not been in action for a few weeks I don’t think there will be any signs of rustiness tomorrow. Kerry are Kerry — especially in Croke Park,” warns McCartan.
Dan Gordon v Kieran Donaghy
In another life Dan Gordon was a quality midfielder but now as Down full back he has the onerous task of coping with arguably the game’s outstanding number 14. On his day Donaghy can be good for a goal and three or four points.
He can be equally devastating when winning ball and lay it off both Cooper and O’Sullivan.
Damien Rafferty v Colm Cooper
Cooper on his day and especially in Croke Park can be unmarkable.
Damien will have his hands full and will need his defensive colleagues offering support.
Ideally the best option for curbing the Kerry dangerman is to deny him possession before he gets into his stride.
Kevin McKernan v Declan O’Sullivan
On his game O’Sullivan is just poetry in motion, a delight to watch provided you don’t have to mark him. Down’s best chance of beating Kerry rests on O’Sullivan having an off day and he doesn’t have too many of those especially in Croke Park which could be ominous. Again the most effective way of curbing the Kerryman is to deny him possession.