One of Dundalk’s greatest ever goalkeepers will return to Oriel Park for this Friday’s match against Derry City to pay tribute to the club’s current number one.
With 543 league appearances over 22 seasons stretching from his debut for Shamrock Rovers in December 1975 to his final appearance for Sligo Rovers in 1997, Alan O’Neill is currently the most experienced goalkeeper to have ever played in the League of Ireland.
Gary Rogers will equal that record should be take his place between the sticks, as expected, for the visit of Declan Devine’s side.
O’Neill – who won two league titles, an FAI Cup and two League Cups in 327 appearances for the Lilywhites – said he wanted to be present to congratulate a man he first encountered when he called him into the Republic of Ireland U-21 squad many years ago.
“I always had it in my mind to be there when he equalled it,” said the now 61-year-old.
“Gary has been phenomenal down through the years. His level of consistency has been very good. He’s been very lucky with injuries but he looks after himself and that helps as well.”
O’Neill – who made 233 of his 543 appearances at Dundalk – said he had no complaints about losing his status as the goalkeeper with the most League of Ireland appearances.
“When I started out some of the leagues had 22 games in a season. It’s 36 now so there’s no way you can compete with that.
“After next Friday Gary will have the record of having the most league appearances as a goalkeeper. There’s a little sadness to lose that title but it’s a great recognition of Gary and his achievements and that’s all that counts.
“I had my day and loved every bit of it. I’m still up there in the top five so I’ll settle for that.
“I won’t say it’s easier now but there’s a better opportunity now to play more games but you’ve got to take the opportunities and that requires ability and consistency and Gary has done that so it’s a magnificent achievement.”
Indeed, O’Neill – who played until six weeks shy of 40th birthday – believes the 37-year-old has a chance of eventually surpassing Al Finucane’s record of 634 appearances with only the Limerick legend and Owen Heary and Peter Hutton now ahead of him.
“He has a chance,” said Alan.
“I was looking at the stats. He’s 38 this year and you’re coming into an age where you can pick up injuries because the body is getting old but he’s a very fit man and he’d be training a lot more than I would have been at his age.
“He definitely has a chance though because it’s less than 100 games.
“If he plays non-stop for three years he can do it. He’d probably be 40 then so it’s a huge ask but it’s there for him if he wants it. By the end of this season he could be in second spot but he just needs to stay injury free.”
O’Neill said the hardest part as you got older was retaining your desire but he said he didn’t think that would be a problem for the Meath man.
“There has to be a desire. As soon as you have a bad game when you’re into your 30s people think you’re finished. It’s down to having a desire and a belief and I suppose a pride in your own performance.
“I always played to be the best I could possibly be. That was my drive. As a goalkeeper you’re different from the rest of the team. If you’re performing well you know you’re helping the team.
“As the years go on it does get harder and then you start picking up injuries that you don’t recover as quickly from. I know for myself, I was 39 and finishing out my last season at Sligo. I picked up an injury and I remember during the week I got injured and got treatment and did a bit of light training. I went up to Sligo on the Saturday night and had a fitness test before the game and said ‘no, it’s not right’. I still remember driving home that night and thinking five or six years ago I’d have played but tonight I said no so I said at the end of the season that’s it.
“That drive does go when you can’t meet the standards that you’ve set. For me, I couldn’t meet those standards. Other lads played for the love of playing football but I played to be the best I could be. When I finished that was it, I wasn’t interested in playing AUL or Leinster Senior League because I couldn’t be the best I could be.
“I was very fortunate though to play for the two most successful clubs in Ireland, Rovers and Dundalk. I probably played more for Rovers because that’s where I started off but my most successful years were at Dundalk. Those were the best years of my career. I was at the peak of my powers at Dundalk.”
Indeed, there are plenty of similarities between O’Neill and Rogers.
“I think Gary has more honours than me. I think he has four leagues and four cups and I’ve three leagues and three cups but we’re very similar in that we’ve played for the top teams and got into the national squad.
“It’s harder to play for the top teams because you’re not involved as much. You’re rarely called upon but when you are you have to be on your game.
“Gary had a rocky patch a few years ago but he came through it. That shows character. At that stage he was 35 or 36 and that could have finished him but he drove himself on to the next level again.
“As a goalkeeper you have to admit you’re going to make a mistake. You have to accept that before you start. A really good season is that only four or five goals are down to you. When you do you’ve got to say that’s one but you park it and look at what you can do better. Gary went through a rocky time in 2016 but how did he react? He pushed on, trained harder and got his place back.”
While Rogers will take one record from O’Neill on Friday, the man famous for wearing a Swedish jersey, still has one up on the pretender to his throne as he still holds the record for the most clean sheets in a season from the 1990/91 campaign.
“Gary was going close at one stage to my record of 23 clean sheets in 33 games. I think Gary had 21 in 36 but I was watching it closely.
“The records still count and I was able to rib him at the Soccer Writers about it this year,” he laughed.
“For me that’s all I have now are my memories and I can be proud of it. Records are always nice.
“We conceded five in the first game that season and then 11 in the next 32. Sixteen goals conceded and 23 clean sheets. That back four was Dave Mackey, Ronnie Murphy, James Coll and Martin Lawlor. I don’t think we conceded more than one goal in any game after the Shels game on the opening day when they whipped us. Paul Newe, who had just left us, scored four.
“That was a phenomenal back four but when you play with the top teams you play with the best players and the top defenders and that definitely helps.”
O’Neill said he is looking forward to a rare return to Oriel Park.
“People don’t forget you and that’s nice. It’s nice to be remembered. People appreciate what you did but likewise as a player I appreciated the support I got.
“I consider myself very fortunate when I look back on my career. I wouldn’t change a thing. The only thing I would maybe change was the one cap for Ireland. I was on the bench for eight games and I thought I’d get on. There was a run of three matches at one point and I was involved in the first squad and the third squad and in the second game the sub keeper got on but I wasn’t involved in that one.
“It was magnificent to be involved in the Irish squad though. That was all while I was at Dundalk because like I say those were my best years,” he said.