IT was against Mayo that Ethan Rafferty got his first taste of life as an inter-county goalkeeper and, gearing up to face the same opponents almost a year on, the converted forward is beginning to feel more at home between the posts.
After regular number one Blaine Hughes started the opening three games of last year’s National League, Armagh boss Kieran McGeeney sprung a surprise when calling upon the experienced Rafferty for the clash with Mayo in Roscommon.
Five points without reply in the closing stages propelled James Horan’s men to a two-point victory that day, but McGeeney has kept the faith with Rafferty ever since – with the Grange man’s regular forays out the field giving the Orchard an added dimension.
That was in evidence again during Saturday night’s Division One win against Monaghan in Castleblayney, with Rafferty striding forward before curling over a superb first half score.
He was in the thick of the action late on too, bundling over Conor McCarthy to concede a penalty – which McCarthy converted - as Armagh had to survive a nervy final few minutes.
“I suppose I didn’t help with that,” he smiled.
But, where there was a large element of being plunged into the unknown in the middle of last year’s League, Rafferty is clearly growing into the role as the Orchardmen prepare to welcome Mayo to the Athletic Grounds on Sunday.
“The outfield stuff maybe comes to me more naturally but I am still trying to work on my kick-outs. I know I had one or two bad kick-outs, we lost three kick-outs tonight and we want to be lower than that, but I am happy the numbers are going down.
“They were a bit more pressurised because Monaghan press you, so I just try and keep working on those things.
“Mayo have been at the top tier over the past 10 or 15 years, so we have a big job ahead of us. We are under no illusions that it is going to be tough - we had a good game against them last year and they came away with the points at the end.
“We will try to go one better this year.”
Among the men who helped Armagh across the line against Monaghan was Niall Grimley, who came off the bench in the final quarter and won a vital kick-out that led to a point for fellow substitute Ross McQuillan.
It was at the end of May last year that Grimley broke a bone in his neck during a club game for Madden, with Armagh selector Kieran Donaghy hailing the towering midfielder’s resilience upon his return.
“He had a really scary injury last year, and he has actually amazed me at the start of League training with where he was at - catching ball going backward after that type of an injury shows huge bravery,” said the former Kerry star.
“Massive credit to him, he’s had a busy few weeks in his life, and we’re delighted for him on all fronts. He’s a tremendous young lad, and that catch really lifted us when we needed it because they had it back to a point at that stage.”