Ron Rafferty: more valuable than all the Sputniks in Russia

Cod Almighty | Article

by Neville Butt

16 February 2021

Former Grimsby centre forward Ron Rafferty died in January 2021 at the age of 86. Neville recalls the ability and the events that made him an all-time Town legend

Ron Rafferty was the second-highest goalscorer in Grimsby Town's history, a figure held in awe by so many followers of Town, and of football. I was lucky enough to see him play many times.

My earliest memory of Ron pre-dates his joining the Mariners. He joined Portsmouth after completing National Service in 1954 and early press notices suggested he had a bright future in the game. England's defeat by Hungary in 1953 had finally brought home that coaching needed to evolve and Pompey sent a delegation abroad who came back with modernised ideas. During a training session the squad - almost overflowing with international stars - was split into six units of one coach and three players. "In the England International Len Phillips' group are Johnnie Gordon, Rees and Ron Rafferty. If anyone is capable of teaching and developing the talent of these three young inside forwards, who better qualified than the masterly controller of the ball; Phillips? And Phillips, the indefatigable, puts his charges through it; passing, dribbling, shooting, running into position, they all come into the general picture." In the end it was Grimsby Town who gained the gratest benefit from those drills.

It was when Sheffield Wednesday hosted Portsmouth that I first saw Rafferty play. The Wintringham Grammar School first and second teams had been to King Edward VI Grammar School, the matches taking place on ice and snow. No such inconvenience at Hillsborough. We stood at what was then the "Kop" end. Rafferty played in that game as the inside left in a W formation. I don't remembver his personal display but I was impressed by the quality of football played by the visitors as they won 3-1.

Portsmouth, having won the League title twice in the 1940s, finished mid-table that year, and would follow Grimsby down to the third division. They made the mistake of not concentrating on their younger, brighter prospects, selling Rafferty to Grimsby in December 1956 for a ludicrously low fee of £3,500. His success was immediate.

Grimsby manager Allenby Chilton had the knack of spotting talent. He had released 18 players from the team which had to apply for re-election in 1955 and then led his new team to the Division Three (North) title in 1956. Following promotion, Rafferty was another addition to the squad.

The highly-rated Imps centre half Emery, harrassed by Rafferty and baited by the crowd, put into his own goal and Ron got the second. Two weeks later Town out played Fulham, master craftsman Rafferty making the task of keeping Town at bay impossible

I was then doing my own National Service, so the number of games I could see was curtailed, but I was on leave on 9 February 1957 when we hammered Lincoln City 2-0. The highly-rated Imps centre half Emery, harrassed by Rafferty and baited by the crowd, put into his own goal and Ron got the second. Two weeks later, on another weekend off, Town, in a splendid performance, outplayed Fulham 3-1. The goals came from the recently installed Jimmy Fell, Bob Crosbie - in what turned out to be the last time I watched him - and Johnny Scott, with another display from master craftsman Rafferty making the task of keeping Town at bay impossible.

Scoring goals was second nature to a team that, in 1957-58, seemed to become even stronger with the signings of ex-Busby Babe Jeff Whitefoot and Ron Stockin. It needed considerable diplomatic skills to complete a saga and finally win Whitefoot's signature, but win it we did and he impressed on his debut in a 3-3 draw at Oakwell. We were 3-1 down but in the 76th minute Fell delivered a free kick from a difficult angle that found the head of a lively Rafferty who out jumped three - yes three - Barnsley defenders, to reduce the arrears to 3-2. Seven minutes later Scott fed the unmarked Rafferty who notched "a grand goal" to level matters. Rafferty and Whitefoot shared the headlines: "Finally you can forget all the transfer talk about Ron Rafferty, Town would not let him go for all the Sputniks in Russia" wrote the match reporter.

1957-58 started in cavalier fashion, with the first half of the campaign full of juicy victories. On 14 December, I listened to the commentary of John Arlott and Maurice Edelman on British Forces Network radio on a marvellous display and a memorable 7-0 win at Eastville against Bristol Rovers. The emphasis was on a well organised team display with the superb attacking force of the Mariners again clicking. Rafferty added a goal from the spot.

A game many recall with fondness is the defeat of mighty Liverpool 3-1 on Christmas Day with Johnny Scott, Jeff Whitefoot and Jimmy Fell finding the back of the net. My brother recalls this joust for the goal of Johnny Scott: a memorable volley from the edge of the penalty area following a Gerry Priestley corner. Town had spotted that Moran was uncomfortable at left back for Liverpool and we attacked with two right wingers Scott and Priestley interchanging positions throughout the second half. On Boxing Day we played the reverse fixture at Liverpool: there was no M62 then, so it was some trek. We managed opportunist goals from Priestley and Rafferty, who received no service but reduced the deficit to 3-2. Two days later, we beat Charlton 4-2, again the headlines shared between Rafferty, who netted twice, and Whitefoot, the star of the side.

By 30 December, Rafferty had notched 21 goals, but the second half of the campaign brought some dismal displays. Town were probably affected by the Munich air crash in February 1958 with one-time Manchester United colleagues Jeff Whitefoot, Allenby Chilton and Johnny Scott surely scarred by the tragedy. Suddenly goals dried up: seven matches without scoring and a mere seven points from a possible 28, although the Mariners had enough points in hand to finish 13th. In that untypical 14-match barren spell Rafferty only added a further three goals.

Rafferty was also a good defensive player, his stamina and persistence in the tackle terrific assets when the going was heavy

In 1958-59, the defence crumbled. Rafferty was in fact also a good defensive player, his stamina and persistence in the tackle terrific assets when the going was heavy. The tactic of switching midfielder Mike Cullen and Ron Rafferty was used on a heavy ground at Orient in December. It was a well thought-out tactic on the heavy Brisbane Road pitch giving Rafferty the chance to help the defence and provide Cullen with the opportunity to harass the Leyton defence with his dribbling and close control. Town won thanks to a Johnny Scott penalty.

It set up Grimsby for the visit of Liverpool the Saturday before Christmas, but the game resulted in a defeat which summarised the season. We led 2-0 after Ron out-jumped the defence and Mike Cullen notched another, but then conceded three, all goals which could have been averted. The crowd was incensed, the mood made worse by the continued chirping of Jimmy Melia in what was hardly a rapport with Mariners fans. In a relegation season, Rafferty has a more than reasonable return of 19 goals from 39 games but somehow our enormous attacking potential was never realised as we often reached the opposition goal but failed to take our chances, and gleaned just six points gleaned out of a possible thirty in the concluding stages.

One more victory would have saved us and we had great chances to take both points from two specific games. Ron Stockin netted for us against Rotherham United but we failed to convert the chances manufactured with one simple opportunity missed at the near post, and we lost at home to Bristol Rovers 2-1; Rafferty did score but failed to convert other opportunities including one from a short distance that flew high into the Osmond stand. It was a team which had so much talent and footballing nous: too good to go down is an old adage and this team finally redeemed itself in 1961-62.

1959-60 brought together the strike partnership of Ralph Hunt and Ron Rafferty. Allenby Chilton had resigned in April 1959 and his replacement Tim Ward only took over in February 1960 so the credit for bringing Hunt to Grimsby belongs to caretaker boss Bill Lambton. Hunt, like Rafferty, had been on the books at Portsmouth but had never made the grade there. A potent goal poacher with proven heading ability, he came to Blundell Park from Norwich. Together, the two strikers caused mayhem: Hunt with 33 goals and Rafferty with 24. Their joint presence in the box unsettled keepers. Two poor runs, yielding four points from seven games then three points from five, cost us our chance of promotion, Town finishing fourth. Future FA president Sir Stanley Rous was impressed with Town's continental look: unfortunately our new white shirts and red shorts rather than our style of play.

In 1960-61, we were severely restricted by a serious injury to Hunt who notched only six goals from fourteen attempts. He was not replaced and we had a spell of five points from ten fixtures and nurdled only five victories after Christmas. Rafferty notched 24 goals from 45 matches, ploughing a lone furrow, as Town finished sixth.

As well as Rafferty, the team of 1961-62 had in it Don Donovan, Duncan Welbourne, Keith Jobling, Ron Cockerill, John Scott, Mike Cullen, Alan Barnett and John Pearce from the side which had been relegated in 1958-59, and Tony Knights had also been on our books. To remain colleagues, despite relegation, speaks volumes for the players and the management team of a club that bonded well both on and off the field. Cliff Portwood and Brian Keeble had joined Town in 1959 and Freddie Jones replaced Jimmy Fell, who was transferred to Everton in March 1961. Thus the squad for a promotion campaign was ready for action.

There was nothing spectacular about the results from the early games and Town looked merely comfortable in mid-table. Then came a never to be forgotten run  when, from 6 January until the end of the season, the Mariners won 36 points out of a possible 42. Aided and abetted by the elusive inside forward Portwood - just 5 feet 6 inches and 10 stone two - Rafferty bagged 24 goals in 21 matches.

Many described the penultimate fixture with Watford at Blundell Park as the match of the season. A crowd in excess of 14,000 demonstrated the importance of the contest. We had to win against a team that featured the diminutive but brilliant ball player Tommy Harmer "The Charmer" from Spurs and Cliff Holton the one-time Arsenal goal getter. Scott opened the scoring after 14 minutes but Harmer equalised from a free kick. The crowd offered raucous support and Town romped into a 4-1 lead thanks to Jones, Scott and Rafferty, but then clammy palms in the second half with Sammy Chung and Bunce reducing the arrears to one goal. Town hung on to their lead and eventually increased it thanks to a second goal from Rafferty.

It was almost inevitable that Rafferty would be involved in both Town's goals in the game that won promotion

The game that decided Town's fate at Brentford on the last day of the season, in front of thousands of noisy QPR fans whose team would have been promoted had relegation-worried Brentford secured even a point. It was almost inevitable that Rafferty would be involved in both Town's goals. Six minutes into the second half, he was fouled on the edge of the area. Scott's free kick rebounded off the wall to Portwood who netted from a narrow angle. A defensive error by right back Coote meant the defender lost a race for the ball with Ron Rafferty who eased the ball past Cakebread to give Town a 2-0 win and promotion. Rafferty finished with 34 goals, breaking the record which had been set by Hunt in 1959-60 for the number of goals scored in a Division Three campaign.

It proved to be the high point of Rafferty's career. Tim Ward's contract ran out in 1962 and he was not offered a new one. Why not? What did the directors know that the mere mortal fans did not? It was no surprise that Derby County jumped at the golden opportunity to offer terms to their one-time skipper and England international, who had become a much-respected and effective manager. As John Kirk recounts, the new manager Tom Johnston tried to nurse Rafferty through injuries by playing him as a half back, until he was sold to third-flight Hull for £10,000. He played only 16 games for them over two seasons before he returned to Hampshire with Aldershot Town.

But in 1961-62, Rafferty had underlined the credentials that make him an all-time Mariners great. He held the ball up where necessary and laid it off purposefully, but above all he could hover and then head the ball either accurately and powerfully goalwards or to one of his attacking colleagues. It made him, over seven colourful seasons, an ideal foil for talented wingers like Fell and Scott, the lynchpin of the Grimsby attack.

The home page photograph of the 1961-62 promotion winning team is copyright of the Grimsby Telegraph. OUr thanks to them for letting us use it.

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