Ahead of Dundalk FC’s first Premier Division match against Waterford FC since the turn of the millennium in Oriel Park this Friday night, it’s hard not to think back to their last league meeting and wonder what the last few years in the League of Ireland might have looked like were it not for Michael Rafter.
In November 2012 the then 20-year-old scored twice as the Lilywhites beat Waterford Utd 2-0 at the RSC to claim a 4-2 aggregate play-off victory that secured their Premier Division status.
Just 19 days later Stephen Kenny was appointed the new Dundalk boss and a glorious era commenced which would see the club win all before them on the domestic front, as well as reaching new heights in Europe.
Sadly while Dundalk’s star has soared since that play-off victory, an ankle injury put an end to Rafter’s career for good two years ago.
Still just 25, the Tipperary man says that people still discuss his double that proved so pivotal to the modern day history of the League of Ireland.
“I suppose it does still come up quite a bit,” he said.
“Considering the success Dundalk have had since, even locally back here in Tipperary people would have seen Dundalk playing in Europe and things like that and they’d still mention it to me about the goals against Waterford that kept Dundalk up.
“It’s a nice thing to have to my name,” he said.
Rafter has followed Dundalk’s exploits with a touch of pride since his departure after that game but said it was “mad” to think Kenny might not have taken the job were it not for his goals.
“ It’s incredible the job he has done since he took over but it was pivotal in him taking over that we won in Waterford that night.
“That season I remember, even though we were struggling, no one in the dressing room believed we were going to get relegated. Even before the game in Waterford we all believed we were going to win that game and we did.
“We knew there were new owners coming in and that the club would be in a stronger position the following year. Stephen obviously took over the team and assembled a squad together that went close and then they went on to dominate up until last year.
“It was a great night, especially looking back now to the league titles the lads have won. I’m still in touch with John Mountney and Shieldsy regularly.”
2012 was a difficult year for the Lilywhites with the very future of the club in question until Andy Connolly and Paul Brown stepped in to save it. The pair, who at the start of the year sold their stake in the club to a group of American investors, could do little to influence matters on the field at that stage.
Sean McCaffrey, who sadly passed away in late December, departed the club in July and it was a struggle to make it to the end of the season with caretaker Darius Kierans in charge.
After a surprise 1-0 FAI Cup win away to Bohemians in mid-September, the club wouldn’t win again until a 2-1 victory in front of 260 fans against Bray Wanderers on the final day of the season. In between there were some heavy defeats, a 7-0 thumping away to Shamrock Rovers, followed by a 4-0 stuffing by Derry City in the next game.
An unlikely cup final appearance was killed off by a 3-0 defeat at home to St Patrick’s Athletic at the start of October while the penultimate game of the season saw Cork run out 3-0 winners at Turner’s Cross.
The win over Bray, which Rafter scored the opener in, gave some hope locally going into the play-off but a Waterford side featuring current Republic of Ireland international Sean Maguire were still hot favourites to return to the Premier Division.
An early Lorcan Shannon goal in the 22nd minute of the first leg gave Dundalk hope but Stephen Maher’s dismissal 11 minutes later left them facing a massive uphill struggle in a game they were already on the back foot in. Paul Phelan would level four minutes into the second half before substitute Ben Ryan put the visitors ahead on the hour mark.
A Waterford side then managed by Paul O’Brien could and probably should have added to their advantage after that but were forced to settle for a 2-2 draw as Stephen McDonnell, who has since had to retire due to a heart problem and is managing Warrenpoint Town in the Danske Bank Premiership, crashed a 25 yard effort to the net to give his side hope for the second leg.
Still, there was no doubting who the favourites were. It was a former Waterford player who would decide the tie though. On the stroke of half-time Rafter scored from the spot before killing the game off on 69 minutes when he beat John Frost to a breaking ball on halfway before racing clear to finish low past Packie Holden.
They were goals that arguably changed Irish football history and ones that Rafter remembers fondly.
“My time in Waterford wasn’t the best when I was there. There was a lot of in-house stuff that probably wasn’t right. It wasn’t perfect. I didn’t get on the best with some of the coaching staff so I probably left on bitter terms.
“There was abuse and all that so it was good to get down there with Dundalk and kind of show them that they were wrong about what they said about me. I celebrated them goals a bit more special than usual.
“I remember getting the break of the ball on the half way line and thinking it was a long way to go while looking over my shoulder. I was seeing if there was a runner with me so I could square it and I think Lorcan Shannon was getting up close to me but the keeper stood up so I just slotted it down the side of him and luckily enough it went in.
“It kind of eased a bit of pressure at that stage. We probably could have gone on and made it 3-0 then. We hit the post and had a couple of chances which ricocheted round the box but it was a great night, especially looking back now to the league titles the lads have won.”
Sadly for Rafter his career failed to follow the same trajectory as Dundalk’s after that. He scored 12 goals in 19 league appearances for Derry City in 2013 before joining Cork City at the start of the 2014 campaign. Eight goals in eight pre-season games looked set to see him lead the line for John Caulfield’s side but an ankle injury meant he didn’t kick a ball competitively for the club that season as Dundalk went on to famously pip their rivals to the title with a 2-0 victory on the final day of the season at Oriel Park.
“In pre-season I was probably as fit as I’ve ever been. I was in shape, my body fats were down and I was scoring regularly. I had eight goals in eight games in pre-season and literally 10 days before the first game of the season against Pat’s I just went over on my ankle in training.
“I had a previous injury with that ankle while I was in England and I’d had two operations and unluckily whatever way I went over on it I just wrecked all that had been done to my ankle from the previous operation. It tore up all the surgery that was done.
“Eventually I had a big operation to put two pins in. The doctor told me at that time that I probably wouldn’t play again but he left it up to myself whether to try or not so I done my rehab and went off travelling. I came back then and gave it another go but my body just wasn’t up to it. Every time I was getting close to fitness, another muscle would pop. My body alignment was probably out.
“The most disappointing thing was the run of form I was in when it happened. I was coming off a good season and I was starting out at a new club as fit and as sharp as I’d been in the League of Ireland and then not to go and show that was tough. I never got to kick a ball that season so I never got to show what I could have been.”
Indeed, Rafter – who was capped at underage level for Ireland right through from U-15 to U-19 level – believes he could have changed the course of history yet again by scoring a goal or two somewhere along the line that would have denied the Lilywhites their maiden title under Kenny.
“It’s easy to say that but I say that to all my friends anyway,” he laughed.
“Who knows really but I was a confident chap when I was playing and I believed in my own ability so I would have definitely put myself down to get a point here or there to pip them to the league that year.”
Another comeback attempt with Finn Harps in 2016 failed and these days the odd game with his local club Glengoole United is all he can manage.
“I went back playing junior football with my local side, playing with my friends and my brother but I can’t do a whole pile of training with my ankle.
“It’s just like a run about for me. I was scoring a few goals but I ended up breaking my shoulder and being out for six months then with that as well.
“I must be injury prone,” he laughed.
While admitting to missing the game, the former Colchester Utd trainee said he was happy to be playing locally in Tipperary.
“Of course you miss it. It’s grand that I’m not in a wheelchair or anything like that so I can still play a bit of junior football and I can still do what I love but you do miss the professional side of things between the full-time training and the setups.
“Even an away game, you probably wouldn’t have enjoyed them back then but you’d miss them now.”
Rafter’s location means he doesn’t have a League of Ireland side to support near to him but he said he still had a fondness for Cork City having watched his fellow parishioner Shane Long’s progress from playing at Turner’s Cross to moving across the water to England.
“I haven’t gone to a match in a while but I do keep track of it. I watched the Dundalk-Cork game on Friday.
“Growing up Cork was the closest team to me here in Tipperary and then Shane Long is from the same parish as me so when he went to Cork City we all became Cork City fans.
“I keep an eye out for all the clubs I played for though and I hope they all do well. I loved my time at Dundalk. That moment in Waterford was probably the best moment of my career, even though it was a poor season but then in Derry I probably played my best season so I’ve a lot of time for them. Cork wasn’t to be but it’s the closest place to here so I still look out for them to do well.”
Having seen Sean Maguire’s progress at City in recent years, Rafter admits he can’t help but wonder what might have been had he been given the chance to be John Caulfield’s main man four years ago.
“After Derry there was interest from England from Chesterfield but I turned it down to sign for John Caulfield at Cork.
“He talked me into giving the League of Ireland a go for another year. He said if I had a season like I had the year before or even a better season and if I could get fitter and sharper then there’d be better clubs coming in for me.
“Then the injury came. It’s easy to dream about what could have happened but sometimes things don’t work out.
“Any of the lads I played with I’m delighted for them all and I watch out for them and I’m glad to see them doing well. I’d have played all the way through with the likes of Robbie Brady, Jeff Hendrick, Shane Duffy, John Egan and even Matt Doherty, now who is in the squad. Daryl (Horgan) was in squads with me as well. All the boys I played with up through the underage years have gone on to do well really so it shows it was a strong year.”
Rafter’s chance of carving out a career in football might be gone but he believes the League of Ireland offers a genuine opportunity for youngsters to progress and play first-team football before moving on to bigger and better things.
“It’s a genuine pathway now, especially with the underage setups at U-13, U-15 etc. There’s a pathway for players in Ireland now rather than young lads worrying about going to England at 16.
“I do believe in 10 years that the League of Ireland will be in a lot healthier position and that there will be much better players in it. It will only benefit our national team hopefully.
“The scouting systems now are huge so you have to be seriously talented to go at a young age now but there is such thing as late development. It does happen and that’s where the underage leagues are going to be brilliant for helping young kids who might not be fully developed at 15 or 16 but by 18 or 19 they could be playing League of Ireland at that age.
“When I played for Dundalk I was 19 and I played most of the games that year. Looking back now I was just a young kid really but with the exception of a few there’s not as many young players breaking through. I think it will only get healthier.”
Rafter’s career might have ended prematurely but he has certainly left his mark on the modern day League of Ireland.
Who knows where Dundalk would be right now had it not been for his goals? Would Sean Maguire have gone on to forge the path he did had Waterford been promoted?
Would Cork City and others have progressed as much as they have were it not for Dundalk forcing them to play catch up?
All valid questions about a side who were incredibly preparing for a game in Russia against Zenit St Petersburg four years on from Rafter’s brace in the RSC.
“It was fairytale stuff to be honest,” he said.
“It’s a small town in Ireland and you look at how well they’ve done in Europe and the big nights they’ve seen. It’s fantastic.”
Rafter’s League of Ireland career might be over but his contribution to its current state is unlikely to be forgotten in a hurry.
James Rogers (@jamesdundalk)
Image Credit: Dundalkfc.com