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Sunday, 23 November 2014

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How Rafferty's hat-trick sealed his place in Carlisle Utd's hall of fame

The year is 1976 and, if you’re not wearing bell bottoms, wide lapels and platforms, then you’re not in fashion.

Billy Rafferty photo
Billy Rafferty

Abba’s Dancing Queen is the biggest hit single of the year and Brotherhood of Man, representing the UK, triumph at the Eurovision Song Contest with Save Your Kisses For Me.

Rocky, starring Sylvester Stallone, is a box office smash, and on TV the most popular shows feature two streetwise cops with a stripey car and a love of chunky cardigans, Noel Edmonds in a multi-coloured jumper and a puppet show starring a pig who fancies a frog.

It’s also the year that Carlisle United fans find a new goal-scoring hero to worship.

Billy Rafferty knew he’d written himself into Cumbrian folklore by hitting the fastest goal of the 1976/77 league season against Southampton – a right-foot volley after only 32 seconds – and then scoring a stunning hat-trick in the final six minutes of a 4-3 win at home to Cardiff City a week before Christmas.

But the big Scottish targetman didn’t realise just how much he had endeared himself to Blues fans until he went for a Sunday afternoon stroll around the city’s Bitts Park with his wife Elaine.

As the couple walked through the underpass at Hardwicke Circus, they were stopped in their tracks by a piece of graffiti daubed on a wall.

BILLY RAFFERTY IS GOD

Fast forward 30 years and Rafferty, with his name also etched proudly into Carlisle United’s hall of fame, is a guest at a sporting dinner at the Shepherd’s Inn.

As he finishes his final course, a bespectacled, grey-haired man in his late forties approaches his table, holds out his hand and tells Rafferty what an honour and a privilege it is to meet him at long last.

Then comes a confession: During a misspent youth, it was he who had used a spray can to share his appreciation of Rafferty’s goal-scoring exploits with the rest of Carlisle.

BILLY RAFFERTY IS GOD has long since been whitewashed over and the newspaper clippings in his scrapbook detailing the most memorable day of his 21 months at Brunton Park have faded, but Carlisle fans never tire of stopping the 58-year-old in the street or supermarket to talk about the hat-trick he scored on December 18, 1976.

For Rafferty, every single moment of the game is still as clear as if it had happened only last Saturday afternoon.

“George McVitie had scored the first to put us 1-0 up but then we went in 1-1 at half-time in what was a fairly even game,” recalled Rafferty.

“Cardiff then came out and played us off the park. We were all over the place, they went 3-1 up and the crowd was really restless.

“Half of them were already down Warwick Road with six minutes to go when I was scoring my hat-trick.

“Cardiff failed to clear a corner, I swivelled and knocked the ball in with my right foot into the top of the net.

“Everybody thought it was a consolation goal in a 3-2 defeat, but then with two minutes to go, the ball was knocked over the top and I ran in behind the defender. He just got there before me but didn’t get enough on the clearance and I hit it with my left foot to make it 3-3.

“Right on time, Phil Bonnyman got the ball on the right side of midfield, got the ball down the wing, whipped it in and I got across the centre-half and volleyed it with my right foot into the bottom corner.

“When we went in, Cardiff couldn’t believe it because they had played so well in the second half. I went up to their goalkeeper Ron Healy afterwards and he was just absolutely gobsmacked.

“The reaction among the fans was incredible. Even now people want to come up and talk to me about it.”

The treble was among 37 goals scored by Rafferty in 83 league and cup appearances after joining the club in a £25,000 deal from Plymouth Argyle in May 1976, before Carlisle cashed in on their prized asset when they sold him for a then club record fee of £130,000 to Wolverhampton Wanderers in February 1978.

Over this summer, as Carlisle manager Greg Abbott scoured the transfer market for a striker to replace Watford-bound Danny Graham, top-scorer at Brunton Park in the last two seasons, Blues fans of a certain vintage must have wished that Rafferty could have rolled back the years.

It took three months littered with frustration, dashed hopes and sleepless nights before Abbott’s protracted pursuit of a new striker ended last week with the £75,000 arrival of Richard Offiong from Hamilton Academical.

Finding a proven goalscorer in Rafferty’s mould is like looking for a needle in a haystack as players like him are now a priceless commodity.

In today’s game, a big, strong centre-forward like Rafferty, capable of holding the ball up and linking play and being reliable enough to find the back of the net on a consistent basis, is so highly sought-after, he’d probably be worth at least £5million

Rafferty was born too soon to enjoy the riches clubs are prepared to lavish on today’s pampered Premier League players.

Powerful agents, the Bosman ruling and with it the advent of player-power hadn’t even been heard of. Rafferty negotiated all nine of his transfers himself, starting as a teenager at Coventry City, before moves to Blackpool, Plymouth, Carlisle, Wolves, Newcastle United, Portsmouth, Bournemouth and, finally, a spell in Portugal.

“If I’d played today, I would have probably ended up a millionaire, because a striker who can score goals these days will earn at least £20,000-to-£30,000-a-week,” said Rafferty.

“If you have two or three years in the Premiership, you wouldn’t need to work again once you retire from the game.

“Players of my generation are all in the same boat – we all missed the money.

“I’m not complaining as compared to the guy in the street we did well and probably earned three times the average wage, but it makes you think when you look at today’s salaries. Players can now earn in a week what we did in a year back then. But I’m not bitter because I played during some great times when there was a different set of values.

“I don’t really understand why people need £120,000-a-week when they could more than manage on £10,000. There’s something missing in the game now – even the atmosphere at matches is different. Everybody sits these days. When people were standing on terraces in my day, it created a great atmosphere.”

The William Henry Rafferty story began in Port Glasgow on December 30, 1950, and even though he began his working life at the age of 16 as a draughtsman, he always felt his destiny was to become a footballer.

His dad, also William Henry, had been taken on by his home-town team Hull City, but his football career was wrecked by the outbreak of World War II when he was drafted into the Royal Navy.

His ship docked in Greenock on the Clyde, where he settled after meeting his wife Barbara, and he was determined to make sure his son would have the chance to follow the football dream that had eluded him.

Rafferty junior’s potential emerged with juvenile team Port Glasgow Rangers, once scoring nine goals in a game. Rangers and Celtic were alerted, but, after accepting Coventry City’s offer of a week-long trial, he set his heart on playing in England.

At the age of 17, he was handed a two-year deal and made his debut in a 4-0 defeat at Newcastle United at the end of the 1969/70 season – the first of 27 games at Highfield Road.

After seeing his first-team chances limited, he joined Blackpool in 1972 in a player-swap deal with Tommy Hutchison heading in the opposite direction.

But it was his move to Plymouth Argyle which really ignited his career.

He formed a formidable strike partnership with future England and Ipswich Town star Paul Mariner with their goals helping Plymouth win promotion to Division Two in 1975.

Rafferty scored 43 goals in two seasons at Plymouth and, had it not been for Kenny Dalglish and Joe Jordan, he might well have been considered for international honours with Scotland.

His £25,000 move to Carlisle in May 1976 was a shock but, with The Pilgrims suffering financial problems, they had to part with one of their prized assets in a cut-price deal.

By the time he arrived at Brunton Park aged 25, he already had a reputation as one of the best strikers outside the top-flight.

“I was travelling up to Scotland to see my parents and I can remember walking up the front path and seeing my mum opening the front door with the phone in her hand,” said Rafferty.

“It was the Plymouth secretary saying they had agreed a fee with Carlisle and asking if I wanted to speak to them.

“There had been talk of Liverpool coming in to buy myself and Paul, so my first reaction was ‘no’.

“But Carlisle had a good reputation as being a footballing team and they had been in Division One, so I decided to go and talk to them.

“It was closer to home and it was as if fate had intervened because it was while I was at Carlisle my dad had a heart attack. I was devastated because he was my mentor. It was such a shock, but at least he had been able to see me playing a lot of games before he died.”

Rafferty made a major impact as soon as he arrived, netting both goals in a 2-1 win over Southport in the League Cup first round in the curtain-raiser to the 1976/77 season.

The striker didn’t miss a game all season, making 47 league and cup appearances and scoring 20 goals, but despite his best efforts, Carlisle finished third from bottom and were relegated to Division Three.

The Blues’ demise alerted other clubs, who tried to prise away the club’s most saleable asset, but Rafferty displayed the kind of loyalty which is missing in today’s game by opting to stay.

He made a further 36 appearances and scored 17 more times – the most memorable of his goals coming in a 4-2 defeat in an FA Cup third round replay against Manchester United at Old Trafford in front of 54,156 fans on January 11, 1978, after Carlisle had held the Red Devils to a 1-1 draw at Brunton Park five days earlier.

Just over a month later, Wolves dangled £130,000 in front of the Carlisle board – and the offer was too good to turn down.

Rafferty signed off in typical style by scoring on his farewell appearance in a 2-2 draw against Colchester United in February 25, 1978.

“The trouble with clubs like Carlisle is that they always have to sell,” said Rafferty.

“Not long after I joined them, they sold John Gorman and Bill Green, which was really costly.

“We had such a good team here. John was a fantastic player who would have been great even in this day and age as a wing-back.

“Allan Ross was a legend, a complete character and a good goalkeeper.

“George McVitie was a tricky winger and a great crosser of the ball who was responsible for a lot of my goals.

“The nice thing about Carlisle was that it was a lovely family club with a nice atmosphere.

“Part of the reason why I came back to Carlisle when I retired was because I felt so at home.”

Another big move to Newcastle followed, before he helped Portsmouth win the Division Three championship in 1983.

He later returned with his wife Elaine, a former fashion model, to the city they considered home and opened a thriving beauty salon in Carlisle.

If Rafferty had been a tin of something you’d buy in a hardware store, he would do exactly what it said on the label – score goals. Good, old fashioned goalscorers, as any manager will tell you, are hard to come by these days.

Rafferty said: “I don’t think there are any great front players at the moment, although Didier Drogba causes a lot of problems and, if I was a centre-half, I wouldn’t want to play against him.

“There used to be centre forwards like Cyril Regis, Joe Jordan and Kenny Dalglish who used to frighten the opposition, but there don’t seem to be many players like that now.

“It’s a funny thing being a goalscorer because you get players who are technically good who are rotten finishers. There is a technique to finishing and the knack is not being too deliberate and showing your hand.

“In England’s line-up there is no one to frighten defenders.”

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