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Slaughtneil now have the biggest prize in their sights

By Declan Bogue

In recognition of Slaughtneil's feat of reaching Tuesday's All-Ireland club final against Corofin of Galway, Derry county PRO Dermot McPeake embarked upon an ambitious, ESPN-style online feature on how the first team to reach the county football final - in 1969 - have sired many of the players on today's team.

McPeake's piece also included a claim of how hurling originated in the club: "Denis Cassidy returned from the All-Ireland in 1968 with a hurl," explains Kevin Kelly.

"We copied it, sawed down ash trees and cut them into shape, 26 times. We won the county title the following year."

That kind of 'have-a-go' attitude was fine and dandy in the swinging '60s, but is not so prevalent in today's win-at-all-costs era. Or so you might think.

In Slaughtneil, they don't just merely participate in the GAA, it is part of them.

That's why they are the current senior hurling and football champions of Derry. They make it work. When pressed for an explanation in McPeake's article, 1969 player Kevin Kelly - father of current senior Padrig - answers: "Common sense and co-operation."

Common sense, they say, is not all that common. But because they have it at the foot of Carntogher Mountain, it means young men like Brendan Rogers can pursue his sporting ambitions in both codes and he doesn't have to put up with petty begrudgery.

He is only 20, though his club trophy hauls read: 1 Ulster senior club football championship, 1 Derry football championship, 1 Derry senior football league, 1 Derry under-21 football championship, 2 Derry senior hurling championships, 4 Derry under-21 hurling championships, 3 Derry minor hurling championships.

Yet when he arrives for an interview, the final year Geography student in Queen's looks the height of bashfulness.

There used to be a saying that former county PRO Gerry Donnelly coined for comedic effect: "Slaughtneil. 1,500 people. Five surnames. How does that happen?"

If you were to pick the five surnames, Rogers wouldn't be one of them in fairness.

"We would be about the only family where there would be no real tradition," he concedes.

"My Granda lived up my road and he was the only Rogers male in his family and the rest all left, sort of left towards Portglenone direction. He was the only one that came to Slaughtneil. A couple of my uncles went to Kilrea and live over there.

"And then there's Therese, she is married to Mark Lowry who coaches the hurling up here."

The Robert Emmets are glad to have him. In the All-Ireland club semi-final, Chrissy McKaigue was drowning in his marking job against Kerry captain and Austin Stacks' most famous player, Kieran Donaghy. He conceded two converted penalties for fouls that on another day might have earned him a black card.

The Slaughtneil management went to Plan B.

At 6'2" and 13 stone, Rogers is no waif. But he is willowy when put against all-round man-mountain Donaghy (6'5", 16 stone).

Nevertheless, he went onto his duties and laid down the law. A few eagle-eyed photographers captured a little verbal exchange and some tongue-wagging that, try as you might, you can't reconcile with this gentleman in front of you.

Against Corofin, things will be different. While Donaghy is one of the hardest forwards in the game to mark, he is like a Circus Strongman act.

If Rogers is to reprise his role at full-back, he will meet Michael Lundy, who is more like the Circus Magician.

"He had a cracking game against St Vincent's. They don't have a Donaghy-esque player, but I think some of their forwards are six foot plus," says Rogers.

They also have won this tournament before, in 1998.

In Rogers' mind, that makes them favourites, although: "If you believe in your team, you can get over the line. You can cancel out that element of experience to drive on and win.

"You can't take Corofin lightly. I watched them a good wean of years back and remember thinking they were a quality outfit."

When the knock on the Slaughtneil dressing room door comes and they bounce onto that turf, this Derry club will have arrived among the biggest and the greatest.

And that's what makes St Patrick's Day in Croke Park so, so special.

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