Two great strikers were reunited last Wednesday, but in the saddest of circumstances. It was the last time Billy Rafferty and Paul Mariner would be together.

“I got some news from Paul’s partner, Val, that he wasn’t going to have too long left,” says Rafferty, the Carlisle United legend who had formed a brilliant partnership with Mariner at Plymouth Argyle.

“Unfortunately, when I went, he was very heavily sedated. It was awful seeing him like that. But I had to go and see him.”

Rafferty had kept in touch with Val during Mariner’s illness, and was far from the only illustrious player to call in on the 68-year-old in the days before he passed away from brain cancer.

Jurgen Klinsmann, who worked with Mariner at Toronto FC, visited the day before Rafferty. It was further evidence of the respect and standing afforded to a fine player, an admired striker, an adept England international and someone who, for a couple of precious years, formed a double act with Rafferty that went down in legend in Devon.

In 1974/5 their goalscoring and intuitive partnership led Plymouth to Division Three promotion. Between them they supplied 47 goals. Rafferty, who would move to Carlisle a year later, recalls their relationship as one of those times in football when two people hit it off and the good times just flow.

“We had a very special partnership,” Rafferty says. “We shared a special bond together. It was one of those where people say it’s like telepathy. We just complemented each other so well.”

Mariner, who would later achieve top-level glories in an Ipswich Town side that featured notable Cumbrian players such as Kevin Beattie, David Geddis, Robin Turner and Steve McCall, was already at Argyle at the time Rafferty joined.

News and Star: Mariner pictured in 1975 - the year his and Rafferty's goals saw Plymouth promoted (photo: PA)Mariner pictured in 1975 - the year his and Rafferty's goals saw Plymouth promoted (photo: PA)

The former had been picked up from Chorley and was in the infancy of his professional career. Bolton-born Mariner was joined by Rafferty after the Scot had enjoyed early spells with Coventry and Blackpool.

Rafferty was held up by a knee injury early in his Plymouth spell and could not fully dovetail with Mariner until his second campaign. “But once we got going,” he says, “it was great.”

“If you looked at it on paper, we were both very, very similar in the way we played,” Rafferty adds. “Paul, when I first went there, was one of those lads who was undoubtedly brave, quick off the mark, good in the air and could hold the ball up well.

“The only real difference between us to begin with was probably that I also tended to get turned and dribble past people, and scored some of my goals that way.

“By the time we’d been playing for two years together, though, Paul developed that as well. I used to watch him on television when he was at Ipswich and quite often he would dribble past two or three players. That sometimes happens when you’re training together every day.”

Rafferty says he was not surprised that Mariner went on to have such a fine career. It took in Ipswich’s era of FA Cup and European glory under Bobby Robson and later spells with Arsenal and Portsmouth. Between 1977 and 1985, Mariner also collected 31 England caps and scored 13 goals for his country.

After player-coaching abroad, with Wollongong City in Australia, Albany Capitals and San Francisco Bay Blackhawks in the USA, Mariner was in demand as a local radio commentator, before heading back into coaching – at Harvard University, and with New England Revolution.

A spell in charge at Plymouth followed, before his time with Toronto, and then a media punditry career in America.

News and Star: Mariner later returned to manage Plymouth (photo: PA)Mariner later returned to manage Plymouth (photo: PA)

Mariner, Rafferty says, was at ease in different worlds. “He was always a big character,” smiles Rafferty, 70. “He always made me laugh. We would always have a joke in training together – usually at someone else’s expense!

“And when people say we had that telepathic understanding, well, I would always say that anyone would know where Paul was on the pitch, because he had this great big foghorn voice…

“He was such a nice lad, though, he really was. He was one of the best. And what a good player he was. He would have been perfect for today’s game, in the way they leave centre-forwards up front on their own. I honestly think he would have been ideal in the modern game.”

Mariner’s former clubs have been fulsome and heartfelt in their tributes. Ipswich said they were “devastated” to hear of his passing, and ended their tweet with the simple message: “Thank you, Paul.”

The England national team ensured Mariner would be remembered. The BBC’s Euro 2020 final coverage paused to mention the former Three Lions striker. Plymouth said: “Thanks for everything, Paul,” while in America, New England Revolution said: “Our hearts are broken. Paul is a true legend of our club who had a profound impact on who we are - both on and off the field. Our thoughts are with his family and friends.”

The Mariner family, after his death last Friday, released a statement thanking the NHS for the “unbelievable care” Paul received during his illness. All the messages of love and support, they said, had been gratefully received, likewise the recent visits from old friends. His football career, they added, meant the world to him, while the memory of his sense of humour and passion for life and work would endure.

It is also the memory of an icon of his time, a man who stood tall in English football – a man who, in Rafferty’s case, will always be treasured in at least one corner of Carlisle, for the things they did together at the opposite end of England.

“It’s amazing that, in Plymouth, so many people speak about Mariner and Rafferty,” he fondly says. “I was only in Edinburgh last week, checking into a hotel, and the young lad there knew who I was – his family were from Devon, and they knew me from that time at Plymouth with Paul.

“It’s lovely to be remembered that way and lovely to be remembered for that partnership we had.

“He was one of the best centre-forwards of his time, and a person nobody would have a bad word for.

“I shall miss him dearly. Special footballer, special man, special memories.”