IN FOCUS: Ethan Rafferty – the evolution of the fly goalkeeper

Two former net-minders examine Ethan Rafferty’s role as Armagh’s fly-goalkeeper. Shaun Casey writes…

THE role of the goalkeeper is constantly evolving and in the modern game of tactical innovation, systems and patterns of play, Ethan Rafferty has taken the netminder’s job to another level.

The sharpshooter turned shot stopper has been a huge asset for Armagh in the last twelve months since making the transition to sweeper ‘keeper. Rafferty regularly assists scores, catches opposition kickouts and has even got on the scoresheet himself a number of times.

Two former Armagh goalkeepers Benny Tierney and Paddy Morrison believe that Kieran McGeeney’s brave tactical decision has been a roaring success and signals how important the goalkeeping position is in the modern game.

“The goalkeeping dynamic has changed immeasurably from my playing days,” said Tierney, Armagh’s All-Ireland winning goalkeeper in 2002. “I would have loved to have been a modern-day goalkeeper because I would have fancied myself as an outfield player anyway.

“You were so far down the food chain many years ago but now a good goalkeeper is pivotal for any team that wants success. Ethan along with the rest, Niall Morgan, (Rory) Beggan, (Shaun) Patton, all these guys can play a bit of football out the field, they’re all valuable.

“But you still have to have the goalkeeping aspect of the position as well, it’s trying to get that balance between the outfield player and the goalkeeping aspects, but I think Ethan is doing a really good job for Armagh at the minute.”

“He’s really brought an extra edge to Armagh’s attack,” added Morrison. “I’d written an article about it last July; the goalkeeping position has become more of a spectrum rather than a position.

“You have your three clear markers, you have your orthodox goalkeeper who is your old-style, stay in goal, kick the ball out, make saves. Then we had the sweeper ‘keeper who would come out and help the defence.

“Now what Ethan is doing, we have the fly goalie who you’ll see regularly at the other end of the field, even contributing with scores and pressing on the opposition kickouts. He’s made it his own, there’s not many other keepers that do what Ethan does.

“He’s pushed it that wee bit further where he comes out every time and joins the attack and isn’t afraid to go right to the far end of the field. It’s a role that’s constantly evolving and there’s more and more ‘keepers doing it.”

For his exploits in last year’s championship, Tierney thought Rafferty had done enough to secure the number one spot on the All-Star team, but Kerry goalkeeper Shane Ryan nabbed the gong.

“I would definitely have fancied him for the All-Star,” said the Mullaghbawn native. “But I suppose if we’d have beaten Galway, he’d have been a shoo-in for it, but it comes down to politics then and I know that from past experiences.

“I know Ethan and his dad Peter and they won’t be too worried about All-Stars. They’re good, humble people who just want to win and represent Armagh in the county jersey.”

Putting Rafferty between the sticks wasn’t the first time that Kieran McGeeney handed an outfielder the goalkeeper shirt. In 2016, Paddy Morrison picked up a nasty back injury that kept him on the medics table in the build up to the Ulster Championship clash with Cavan.

Morrison made it back in time to take the reserve ‘keeper role, but McGeeney still needed a number one. He decided to play Ballyhegan midfielder Paul Courtney in nets and the plan backfired. McGeeney took a lot of heat following Armagh’s 2-16 to 0-14 defeat, in a game where Ethan Rafferty hit 0-4 from midfield.

“Courtney was very similar at that time,” recalled Morrison. “There were very few other goalkeepers doing it, maybe Graham Brody from Laois was probably the only other one.

“I remember Geezer took an awful lot of stick for it and Courtney playing with no gloves added fuel to the fire. But look at it now, everyone has got a goalkeeper that will come out to at least halfway.

“When Courtney went forward, we still had a goalkeeper. Brendy (Donaghy) was at full back, and he would drop into goals until Courtney got back so we weren’t left without a goalkeeper.

“Look at Antrim against Down last week, they didn’t have anyone covering the goal and I know when I was coaching the Armagh minors, once a fortnight tje full-back line did half an hour’s goalkeeping training so that if they had to drop into goals, at least they had a wee bit of training. So that’ll be the next stage.”

Morrison believes that there has to be an acceptance that it may go wrong sometimes, and that Rafferty’s forays forward could eventually lead to the concession of a goal at the other end.

“Ethan has scored a couple of points in the games that he’s came out. Yes, you have to accept there is risk and reward, maybe the risks seem higher, but they happen less often.

“Of all the goalkeepers that have come out in the last five years, it’s only really Odhran Lynch (vs Galway in last years All-Ireland semi-final) and Rory Beggan (last year vs Kerry in the league) that have got caught. It gets hung around the goalkeeper’s neck but quite often it’s the outfield players that lose the ball.

“We haven’t seen an actual goalkeeper get caught in possession and concede a goal from it, where play has broken down and the goalkeeper hasn’t got back quick enough.”

Both Tierney and Morrison believe that there is an Ulster title in this Armagh team, and 2023 could be the year they finally end their long wait for an Anglo Celt.

“When you played for Armagh during a golden era, you always wanted to get that feeling of excitement, the buzz,” said Tierney. “Last year, just getting everyone into the car and heading down to Croke Park and going to these games to Clones, it was brilliant.

“During the Galway match, I don’t think I’ve ever felt anything like that in a sporting arena and I follow a lot of sports, so I loved every minute of it.

“I then got a sense of what it was like when we were playing and the excitement and the enthusiasm from the supporters. I would love if we went again, and I think we’re capable. We’re up there now, we’re punching, and I think Geezer has us in a good place.

“We’ve won Ulster Championships with poorer sides, and I think it would be justification for all the hard work Geezer has done and the way he has the panel at the minute. It’s an easy thing to say, it’s the hardest province to win.”

Morrison, currently the Down goalkeeper coach, echoed Tierney’s thoughts. “There’s definitely an Ulster Championship (in Armagh).

“The progression they’ve made under Kieran is immense from when he started. We were in Division Three and now they’ve cemented their place in Division One.

“This year they’ve started the league really well to cement their position early so then they can turn their focus on championship.

“They’re more than capable of winning an Ulster Championship, they’re just as good if not better than any of the teams in Ulster at the minute.

“They shouldn’t fear anybody and if they keep their focus, there’s nothing to stop them only themselves. Once you get to that stage it’s all on the day and it’s how you turn up.”

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