Irish League Lives: Linfield legend Peter Rafferty's remarkable career
His departure from Linfield was described as pure soap opera! But that was hardly surprisingly due to the fact it was Peter Rafferty.
The colourful, charismatic, defender, who enjoyed nine golden years at Windsor Park, winning a total of 21 trophies, walked away on his own terms.
His trademark handlebar moustache and flowing locks (even though he had little on top) made him one of the Irish League’s most distinguishable and controversial characters. He wouldn’t have had it any other way.
Peter, a lifelong Blueman, knew his time was up. When Roy Coyle brought a certain David Jeffrey back from Manchester United, ‘Bald Eagle’, as he was affectionately known, decided to fly the nest.
“We had won the double the previous year,” recalls Peter. “Then this big lad with blond curly hair turned up at pre-season training at Newforge. He introduced himself as David Jeffrey. I shook his hand and wished him all the best.
“I was 34, I knew my days were numbered. I played in a friendly against Southampton, that was my last game.”
It was well known local journalist Ivan Little, of this Sunday Life parish, that eloquently captured Peter’s farewell in a double page spread in the club’s match programme.
Peter amusingly remembers: “Big Ivan wrote a great piece which I still laugh about. He said ‘Peter Rafferty’s departure from Windsor Park is almost as dramatic and equivalent to Meg Richardson leaving the Crossroads Motel’. In those days, that was a much-viewed soap opera on television. I took some banter after that, I can tell you.”
Peter, from the Donegall Road area of Belfast, began his playing days at Distillery at the old Grosvenor Park.
“I actually started with the 8th Old Boys on the Ormeau Road,” he adds.
“I scored over 50 goals playing centre forward. Wee Norman Brady then took me to Distillery. Tommy Casey was the manager and he played me in every position.
“I actually turned out in goals for seven or eight games. Eddie McAfee was our goalkeeper but, because of the civil unrest, he sometimes couldn’t get out of Londonderry.
“I think I played in every position except the left wing. We had a good side with Gerry McCaffrey, big Alan McCarroll, Joe Conlon, Derek Meldrum and Roy Walsh all on board.
“We got to two Irish Cup finals. The first one was against Ards, I had just turned 20. They beat us 4-2 in a replay — Billy McAvoy got all the goals for them, but I was playing outside right.
“The next one was against Derry City at Windsor Park. We beat them 3-0. Martin O’Neill was a member of our team. We then drew Barcelona in the European Cup Winners’ Cup — what an experience that was.
“I had moved back into the centre of defence along side Martin Donnelly at that stage. We had Geordie Lennox, Jim Savage, big Roy McDonald in goals and Peter Watson. We handled it pretty well considering the gulf in class between the teams.”
But Peter’s odyssey took a dramatic twist when he was persuaded by Billy Sinclair to put pen to paper at Linfield.
“I started out at left back because Ivan McAllister was the recognised centre half,” he explains.
“To be honest, it didn’t really suit me. Sinky was then replaced by Billy Campbell. He was the one that started to organise the end of season trips to Spain. We used to pool our bonus money for winning trophies. It was a rough week and the least said about that the better!
“When Roy Coyle took over in 1975, things began to change. In saying that, Roy’s first season was trophyless. We lost a couple of Cup Finals against Carrick Rangers and Coleraine.
“At the end of Roy’s second season, we won the County Antrim Shield, beating the Glens. I think even Roy would admit that win kept him in a job. It was the victory that really lit the fuse paper in terms of the club’s success over the next five or six years.
“Roy brought in a lot of quality and the team virtually picked itself. When you take into consideration we had George Dunlop, Alan Fraser, Terry Hayes, Lindsay McKeown, myself, Peter Dornan, Davy Nixon, Stephen McKee, Colin McCurdy, Billy Murray, Trevor Anderson and Martin ‘Buckets’ McGaughey. It was unbelievable.
“I was given the captaincy — a post I held until I finished. I’m very proud of that. I’m also really proud of what we achieved as a team.”
Peter, of course, went on to enjoy legendary status, as did quite a few of his team mates, but he quickly points out: “There were also a lot of people behind the scenes that deserved a great deal of credit — Kenny McKeague, Andy Kerr, the late Davy Tibbs, Billy Rodgers and Len Hiller. They really were the glue that helped everyone bond.
“We had some fantastic trips in Europe against top teams, facing PSV Eindhoven, Standard Liege, Lillestrom. And, of course we had the infamous night in Dundalk, which was played at the height of the Troubles.
“There was a full scale riot going on with people running across the pitch with bodies on stretchers — and the match still taking place.
“It resulted in us being banned from playing at Windsor Park in Europe. The return leg had to be staged 500 miles from Belfast, which meant we had to travel to Haarlem near Amsterdam. It was a nice wee bonus for us, but for the club it was a financial nightmare. We also had to play the following season in the Netherlands against Nantes of France.”
Peter upheld his hard man reputation on quite a few occasions and was a regular in the sin bin.
“I was sent off 13 times in my career,” he adds.
“To be honest, I never injured anyone in my life. In those days, we had to contend with people going over the top of the ball. You wouldn’t get away with it now.
“A vast majority of my sendings off were for retaliation after being elbowed in the face or being hit with a sly one. I suppose some of it was down to immaturity.
“As I got older, I should have wised up a bit. But you had to look after yourself against the likes of Alex Robson, Alan Harrison, Rab McCreery and Gary Blackledge, Paul Kirk and Gerry Brammall. They were all tough nuts.
“We not only had to look after ourselves, but also likes of Murray and McKee, guys who were a wee bit lightweight. The Irish League was a small, confined space and there were quite a few vendettas that went on — and carried over. It was a case of ‘I’ll get you next time’.
To conclude, Peter recalls with gushing pride the day he pulled on the Northern Ireland jersey for the one and only time.
“It was against England,” he says. “Allan Hunter came off at half time. Manager Danny Blanchflower told me I was going on. I remember their forward line — Kevin Keegan, Tony Woodcock and Trevor Francis.
“People still give me stick, saying it was the day I made Francis into the first £1 million footballer. I still have the clipping of the match report the following day.
“It related to the local Irish League hero making an appearance at half time, quoting: ‘He looked like a Mexican desperado and he also played like one’
“That as probably a fair description of my contribution to Northern Ireland.”