Rafferty’s road to guarding the goal

Shaun Casey talks to Ethan Rafferty about his recent injury news and how he ended up as the starting goalkeeper on the Armagh senior intercounty team.

ETHAN Rafferty’s career has taken many different directions with plenty of bumps along the way, but the biggest turning point came in an in-house game against the Armagh u-21 side.

Kieran McGeeney laid down the gauntlet. Rafferty was to start in midfield for the first half, but after the midway turnaround, the Grange man was thrown into nets to test out his ‘sweeper ‘keeper’ skillset.

It was something they’d talked about, but the idea transformed into reality that day. Rafferty, just back from a cruciate injury, decided that if it was right for the team, he’d give it a go.

He’d done a bit of goalkeeping when he was younger, and actually stood in as a sub ‘keeper during the 2019 season, wearing the number 16 jersey throughout the championship.

When his net-minding ability wasn’t required, Rafferty featured out the field with the sub ‘keeper number on his back.

But this time, it was the real thing. “We had a few conversations, talked about it with Kieran Donaghy, but my fear was whether I’d be good enough at the goalkeeping side of things to even make enough of a difference,” recalled Rafferty.

“He dropped it at my feet one day. The funny thing was I played quite well out the field and then the goalkeeping half came round, and it went well. I wasn’t doing any scoring or anything, but I set up a few attacks and was using my kick-passing range.

“We had a phone call a couple of days later and he said he really wanted to go for it. He asked me to think about it and I talked to a few people and just thought that if we think it’ll help the team, then we’ll go for it. There wasn’t a whole pile to lose.”

Fast forward two seasons and Rafferty’s position is perhaps the most scrutinised in Gaelic football. A goalkeeper coming up and kicking points from play wasn’t the done thing, an outfielder standing between the sticks for a penalty shout-out was unimaginable.

But in the short time Rafferty has been guiding the goals for the Orchard County, he’s experienced everything, and more, that a goalkeeper could go through.

Three penalty shout-outs, a last-minute kick-out press in the Ulster final, and Rafferty even caught one of Mayo’s kick-outs in a league encounter back in February. It has it’s high points and low, but all in all, Rafferty has enjoyed the experiment.

“Trying to catch a ball in goals is a completely different ball game to trying to catch it out the field. Everybody is going for that one ball whereas in nets, they could be going just to disrupt you.

“It’s a lot different but it’s enjoyable. Ciaran McKinney’s our goalkeeping coach and he’s been brilliant. We obviously talk about things, different kick-outs, angles of high balls coming in and even the talking side of it.

“My communication on the pitch has got quite good over the past two years so that was a big one as well. It’s obviously come with a lot of scrutiny too, it’s like marmite, some people love it, and others think it’s daft.

“With our defenders, the likes of Aaron McKay, Paddy Burns, Aidan Forker and Barry McCambridge, we have a good relationship. Everybody always talks about team defence so it’s just incorporating the goalkeeper into that as well.

“If we can avoid turnovers in the middle third, I’ll still have a good chance of getting back or even Aaron or whoever is the closest will jump into nets, but we try not to leave ourselves that there’s nobody home.

“I think we got a good understanding throughout the year that we always have one or two people at the back door so if we’re turned over then we can get back or we can delay the other team enough to get somebody into goals.”

Rafferty is almost a marked man at this stage as he offers a huge scoring threat going forward. Last year, Armagh knocked rivals and then All-Ireland champions Tyrone out of the championship and Rafferty kicked two points from open play.

“If I was being critical, the one thing we talked about throughout the year was that I wasn’t really going forward with as much intent (as last year). I was maybe just playing around the periphery, whereas if I was going for it then that was causing more bother for other teams.

“The odd time, they obviously know to keep an eye out. But I think it’s still an overlap that even if someone is picking me up it means that we have a defender free and when you have the likes of Aidan Forker there, you’d be happy enough with him strolling up the field.

“It has its risks, and it’s benefits but when it works, benefits outweigh the risks. Some people don’t like it, but it is exciting too. You don’t really see it much in other sports, goalkeepers coming out, so hopefully we can use it to advertise our games.”

The Ulster final proved Rafferty’s biggest test of all. With the game in the melting pot, Derry reverted to a full court press on his kick-outs, which worked to perfection. The game eventually went to penalties and the rest is history.

“The Ulster final was more of a decision-making error on my part rather than an execution of kick-outs. When the stakes are high, you just have to be that wee bit more calm upstairs to pick out the pass. But it’s swings and roundabouts, we’re very good at pressing teams as well.

“It’s difficult for any goalkeeper to try and block out the noise and try to pick out at the right option. You would see a lot of keepers now coming out (to press the oppositions kick-outs) and you can use that, you can just kick it out straight on top of him.

“At least if we’re competing in the air with that goalkeeper, they have to get somebody at the back to get into goals so that can be a disadvantage too.”

For the second year running, and the third time inside 12 months, Armagh lost a penalty shoot-out, with Monaghan knocking Kieran McGeeney’s men out of the championship and progressing to the last four. “Believe it or not we do practise them a lot,” insists Rafferty.

“I’d obviously rather hit a few penalties, but I’d be quite confident in saving them as well. I got a good hand to Shane Walsh’s this year, I saved one in both shoot-outs, but it is a pure lottery, it’s 50/50.

“The pressure is off goalkeepers in penalties realistically. It’s expected to be scored. Thinking back, I think I went the right way for a lot of the penalties, there was one of the Monaghan boys that kicked it down the middle and I remember hearing it hit my studs.

“It’s easy for me to say I don’t agree with them, and I don’t overly agree with them, but at the same time, thinking back to the Ulster final, we should have had the match won. Derry and Monaghan would probably say the same.

“We had our chances to win it but that’s the nature of football. Both teams will argue that it could have been won in normal time, but we’ve been on the losing end of penalties so I’m not going to say they’re a great job.

“You’re there to win a football match so I’d rather it’s just left to the lads to win a football match. In championship football, we’ve only been beaten twice in normal time against Donegal in Ulster last year and Tyrone this year in the round robin.”

While Rafferty should be looking forward to playing midfield in the upcoming club championship, disaster struck last weekend. When bearing down on goal for Grange, an opposing defender tried to block his path.

A tangle of legs later and Rafferty’s season was over. In the incident, Rafferty suffered a dislocated angle and a fractured fibula (which will heal itself), keeping him sidelined for the remainder of the year. But the injury isn’t as bad as first feared and wasn’t his first concern.

“I’m hoping maybe I’ll get a bit of good news in the next week or two and I’ll have to go for an operation and get it sorted. I’m hoping it’ll be three or four months (out); I thought it was a lot worse at the time, I don’t think it’s as bad as I first feared, but it’s still not great.

“The way they described it was, it’s a non-weight baring bone (the fibula), so you can walk around with it, but you can’t really play, so hopefully it’ll sort itself out. It’s the ankle that’s the problem, I’ll have to get an operation on it.

“I looked down obviously and saw it and I had a few choice words at the time. It did look and feel like it went back into place,” added Rafferty, who also missed out on an All-Ireland Road Bowls semi-final last Sunday due to the injury.

“I was supposed to fly out to Marbella on a holiday eight hours later, so I was more concerned about that than anything else. The ambulance came and when I got to the hospital, they realised it wasn’t fully back in, so they gave me pain relief and clicked it back into place.”

Rafferty lay on the ground for three hours waiting for an ambulance to arrive, but the community helped raise his spirits.

“I have a lot of people to thank. There was one fella, Darren Kelly in particular, he went up to the house and came back with a few blankets and that and a few others threw a couple of blankets down as well so I wasn’t lying on the wet ground.

“He came down with a few sandwiches and put up a gazebo too when it started raining. It was crappy enough sitting there but we were trying to have a laugh the whole way through it just to keep the spirits high.

“My uncle, he thought it was great craic. He likened it to a bit of a wake with the sandwiches and all flying about. It definitely helped at the time but with the holiday, I was so, so annoyed.

“The injury itself, it looked quite bleak at the time so as you can imagine, there was 101 things going through my head, so I suppose the distraction for those few hours was a bit of a help and it helped put the time in.”

While it’s the end of Rafferty’s 2023 campaign, the road to recovery is one he has trampled before. There’s no doubt that he’ll be back bigger and better next season..

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