THE BESSBROOK VIEW – John Rafferty (Manager)
|Pic - Jerome Quinn / Ulster Colleges|
The phone rings and at the other end of the line is the broad, distinctive South Armagh brogue of John Rafferty. The Poyntzpass man was skeptical of a text message from deepest South Derry seeking an interview ahead of this week’s MacRory Final.
The current Bellaghy manager is well versed with the Derry GAA scene. His close friend on the 1989 Sigerson winning St Mary’s team was Danny Quinn, himself a MacRory Cup winner in the blue, white and black of Maghera.
A year managing Slaughtneil added to the network of Derry contacts. Rafferty weighs it up and returned the call. There is a trust.
The jovial, jokey demeanor hasn’t changed a bit and you can see how it rubs off on his teams. Paul Hughes refers to the Maghera players as ‘the cubs’, Rafferty to his Bessbrook side as ‘the fellas’ and during the interview he cannot speak highly enough of them.
Rafferty hasn’t had the best of memories from St Patrick’s Day. In 2006 he led St Gall’s to Croke Park but they came up short against Salthill/Knocknacarra and two years ago was in charge as Bessbrook fell victim to Ciaran McCloy’s match winning save. Two one point defeats and two tough pills to swallow.
When we mention what this week’s MacRory Final means, without thinking he automatically refers to the players. He takes a back seat.
“Ack, it’s great for the young fellas. If you’d offered them that in September they’d have took it with both hands. It shortens the spring term because after Easter they’ve their exams to face so it provides a nice distraction for a couple of weeks.”
It wasn’t always like this. When the likes of Steven McDonnell and Ciaran McKeever were pupils at Bessbrook, MacRory Cup finals were not even on the radar. Things have changed drastically and it was driven from the school’s top brass as Rafferty explains.
“Oliver Mooney [ex-principal] suggested going into the colleges. He made no apologies for it and wanted the boys pushed up into ‘Grade A’ football with any team that was seen to be fit.”
Mooney got his wishes as the mindset took a change of direction and the wheels of change began to turn. This stance then has been adopted by new leader Jarlath Burns and since entering the MacRory in 2012 they have reached two finals and a semi final.
“At that time [after 2013] people thought we were a ‘one good year’ outfit. We have had two reasonably good years since then as well which is down to the fact the boys are keen to listen. Once they are keen to listen and try their best, that’s success in itself, so they’ve had four successful years.”
Before a ball was kicked last September, Dungannon, Colman’s, Cavan and Maghera were being bandied about as competition winners.
Bessbrook weren’t even considered but as the season progressed Rafferty saw something in his young team. He saw his own personality and almost a stubborn attitude, they were not prepared to accept what was perceived of them.
“St Colman’s gave us an unbelievable trimming one Friday night up in Burren and the following Monday night every child was back out at training and they trained very hard.”
Rafferty often talks about training in the ‘mud and gutters’. It was a dark, cold miserable evening and the majority of Ulster’s student population were in the warm confides of their own home.
“It didn’t get any better the following Saturday, we went out and Cavan beat us by 8 or 9 points as well but the following Monday the boys were still out training.” He realised himself and Barry Shannon had something to work with.
Rafferty was never found wanting for commitment in his playing days but young people are different now. Not everyone has that steel but after ‘two unmerciful trimmings’ this Bessbrook team proved they wouldn’t wilt.
Their sheer honest endeavor and solid coaching base from the clubs in South Armagh began to come to the fore but their championship run required it’s fair slice of luck. Everyone needs it. As Rafferty quipped, “luck is what you are left with after you give 100%.”
Goalkeeper Mickey Murphy produced a wonder save in Clones when their game against Enniskillen was in the melting pot. St Ronan’s Lurgan tore Bessbrook apart in the early stages and a more clinical edge could have killed them.
Rafferty’s ‘fellas’ were still swimming against the tide but as they treaded the stormy waters they came through and now have one hand on the MacRory Cup.
“The thing I like the most about this bunch of players is they always give you 100%. You never get back on the bus and wish you had played a wee bit harder and I wonder what would have happened.”
When the topic switches to their opponents, Rafferty immediately makes Maghera favorites. “Paul Hughes is about a long time and I’m sure he’ll try to box clever but any team that beats Dungannon has to accept they are favourites.”
Rafferty has been ‘well informed’ about the Derry men’s semi-final. He rattled off Maghera’s key men from O’Caiside in goals right up Shane McGuigan and including Conor Glass.
If Glass is an inspirational leader for Maghera, then Bessbrook have a similar character in Jarlath Óg Burns.
“He’s a good captain, he gets on with it and a good lad fore by. It’ll be a great individual battle between him and Conor Glass. People complain about Gaelic Football being too defensive and it’ll be nice to see two fellas that are renowned for their attacking play so it’ll be a good battle in the middle of the field.”
None of his Bellaghy connections have been of any value to him. “South Derry people are very like South Armagh people, because nobody seems to know anything about them [Maghera]. It’s a case of down around Lough Beg, whatever you say, say nothing.”
Bessbrook will be expecting to pick from a full panel but if they are to lift an historic first MacRory title, Rafferty knows what lies ahead. He has been around the block long enough.
“They [Maghera] have great experience behind them. They have played in 3 or 4 finals coming up through school and that fair helps young fellas but we’ll go and we’ll give it a rattle. We can’t do any more than that.”