Rafferty rise encouraging for Harte and Tyrone
By Michael Devlin
Tyrone have had to endure a few setbacks over a tumultuous winter season.
Firstly, accomplished coach Peter Donnelly vacated his backroom team role, as did Stephen O’Neill.
Then Connor McAliskey, Tyrone’s top scorer in 2018, left the panel before team captain Mattie Donnelly saw his 2020 league campaign obliterated after sustaining a serious hamstring injury in December.
Into the new year, and All-Star forward Cathal McShane’s intended move to Australian Rules football has become the latest blow to Mickey Harte’s upcoming plans.
However, a strong pre-season yielded yet another Dr. McKenna Cup which has lifted some of the gloom, and the Red Hands kicked off their Division One league campaign with a satisfactory win over Meath on Sunday in Omagh.
One of the positives emanating out of Tyrone’s good start to the year has been the performances of growing talent Liam Rafferty.
The Galbally man’s rise since his introduction to the senior inter-county scene last year has been steady, and he further strengthened his claim for a regular starting place with another eye-catching display at the weekend against the Royals.
“Getting a full game was a big thing,” said the 22-year-old, who chipped in with two points from defence. “Getting the 70 minutes under the belt really helped the fitness there, going into next week. Hopefully I’ll keep my place.
“This is only my second year in the panel. I only had a year with Peter Donnelly. Peter was brilliant in terms of football coaching and strength and conditioning.
“But now, with Jonny Davis coming from an Ulster Rugby background, a professional background, he has brought that into Tyrone, and I think it’s starting to benefit a lot of lads, including myself.
“Everyone is buying in, and I think that’s important, it’s about getting that fitness in the legs at this level. You have to keep driving and driving.”
The signs are looking good to Harte as well, who after a debut season of patiently blooding Rafferty in, is happy with the progress he is now seeing.
“I think that’s why you have to invest in players, and we invested in Liam last year. He probably didn’t get as much game time as he’d have liked last year but it certainly brought him on a lot.
“He’s now matured into a really good player and out there today he showed that new sense of belief in himself.”
Getting two league points on the board on the first day out was crucial, according to Rafferty.
“For the outsider looking in, I’m sure people are saying Tyrone are missing their captain and vice-captain. But we have been training hard and we knew that we were ready for Meath.
“We knew they would be coming up from Division Two looking to prove a point, and you saw how the results went last night (Saturday), so we wanted to go top of the table. It’s good we got the two points to do that.”
While Rafferty is a talent on the way up, a more established name came back into the fold at the weekend in the form of Mark Bradley.
After taking last year out, the Killyclogher man came off the bench for his first appearance since the 2018 All-Ireland final and didn’t look off the pace in a lively 20-minute spell, registering 0-2.
“The movement of Mark Bradley was great, and I was able to find him each time,” said Rafferty. “Anybody was able to find him, he really brought a spark up there.”
Bradley’s return also pleased Harte. “We know how good a footballer he is, we know how elusive he can be.
“I suppose we missed him last year and he was back ready to rock this year but hurt the knee around Christmas time. It was a pity he missed the McKenna Cup games, but as you can see there, he is still a good talent and it’s nice to have him in.
"I thought if we went out and stepped up our performance in the second half we would get the result we wanted,” said the Tyrone boss about how his side raised their game after halftime.
“We did seem to take control of the game more in the second half and I suppose at a critical time in the game we injected a bit of pace into our team as well and the people who came in up front, got the scores on the board just when we needed them.
"Sometimes things work that way. You bring in people and they make an impact straight away and there are days you bring in someone and it doesn't be seen. That's the gamble that you take in this game.”
While Tyrone’s league endeavours in recent years have resulted in consolidation rather than title contention, Harte made no bones about his desire to get his hands on some silverware.
"I'd love to get that trophy at the end of it.
“Obviously there are stages and phases of what you want: you obviously want to stay in the division, that's the first thing you want to do, but ultimately, if you don't have that belief that you want to go for the title then you wonder why you're there.
"If you don't have that belief then it will never happen. If you have that belief, it doesn't guarantee it will happen - but there's a possibility."