Andy Watters: The answer to our prayers and Derry's search for magic

Andy Watters

Andy Watters

Andy is a sports reporter at The Irish News. His particular areas of expertise are Gaelic Football and professional boxing but he has an affinity for many other sports. Andy has been nominated three times for the Society of Editors Sports Journalist of the Year award and was commended for his inventiveness as a sub-editor in the IPR awards.

"I haven't played in a blitz yet..." Youngsters shake hands after a match
"I haven't played in a blitz yet..." Youngsters shake hands after a match

GREAT news this week that young Padraig Rafferty has come through his surgery and has come home to Poyntzpass.

It’s the answer to the many, many thousands of prayers that were said in the local community and far beyond by those who feared the worst last week the football-loving Armagh and Manchester United fan Padraig was rushed to hospital for surgery on a brain tumour.

Padraig was one of those lads who always seemed to be up at the football field, smiling and full of beans and chasing a ball around with his mates in the Under-8 team. The Baptist Church held a soccer summer camp at the field this year and he was in the thick of it too.  

So all hearts went out to him and his family when he suddenly became ill. A post on the O’Hanlon’s club’s Facebook page was shared throughout the country as people from all walks of life joined the GAA community in solidarity with his family.

The good news is that, just five days after surgery at the Royal, the wee battler has amazed everyone by recovering sufficiently to go home and the signs are very encouraging that he will make a complete recovery.  

There are two John Raffertys in Poyntzpass. One is ‘County John’, the Armagh footballer who also does a bit of farming, and the other is ‘Farmer John’, the farmer who also played a bit of football. Padraig’s dad is ‘Farmer John’ and, having come through a terrible few days, he said the family has been overwhelmed by the support from near and far.

“Thanks to the club, the whole community of Poyntzpass and everybody from afar from myself and Lorraine,” he said.

“We were overwhelmed by all the support and we hope people continue the prayers because Padraig isn’t the only child who is going through this.”

While they were passing the nervous minutes before going into theatre for what was a very serious operation, John mentioned that a blitz was planned for the club’s U10 team this weekend.

Padraig began to cry.

“What’s wrong?” asked John.

“I wanted to play in that,” says Padraig.

“I haven’t played in a blitz yet.”

Hopefully we’ll see him there on Sunday.

Has Mickey Harte come along at the perfect time for Derry?
Has Mickey Harte come along at the perfect time for Derry?

TIMING is everything in sport. It’s all about synchronicity: The right mix of players coming together with a manager who can get the best out of them in conditions just right for them to flourish.

Get that and you’ll get success.

The magic formula is so hard to find - if it wasn’t they’d all be at it - but Derry supporters must be hoping their county has found it. We won’t know whether they have until next year but we do know, because the events of the past week have proved it once again - that Ulster is the beating heart of the GAA. Nowhere else matches the fanatical interest in, or competitive intensity of this northern province. Counties up here are constantly at each other’s throats and that drives them all to push harder and aim higher.

The return of Jim McGuinness to Donegal had already stoked the furnace and now we’ve all just about come to terms with the news that Mickey Harte has been installed in Derry. The fact that he has gone there must surely light a blaze under his native Tyrone so big that bonfire builders in Larne or Moygashel (neither a GAA stronghold) would be dancing round it proudly on the 11th night.

Since their All-Ireland year in 2021, Tyrone have lost their mojo and if the sight of their old master coming back onto the stage doesn’t make his former students get their heads down and work harder in training then nothing will.   

Apparently Harte had wanted one more season with the Red Hands. He didn’t get it and, fair enough, he’d had a long run as Tyrone manager and no-one, not even a man who delivered three Sam Maguires, has a divine right to be manager.

Whoever delivered the news will have chosen their words carefully: “Thanks for all you’ve done, you owe this county nothing, you’ve been a great servant to Tyrone, BUT…”

No matter how sensitively it is handled, getting dumped is still getting dumped and it must have stung.

Tyrone winning the Sam Maguire the following season rubbed salt into the wound.  

Something like that would make you doubt whether you’re still relevant, wouldn’t it?

“Maybe the county board was right?” you’d think: “Maybe my time had come?”

It’s how you deal with that disappointment that matters and Harte (and Gavin Devlin of course) came out fighting. Harte didn’t get this opportunity with Derry because of what he did in Tyrone, he got it because of what he achieved with Louth last season. Third place in Division Two, a Leinster final appearance and a place in the Sam Maguire group stage...

The return of Jim McGuinness has stoked up Donegal's engine
The return of Jim McGuinness has stoked up Donegal's engine

Expectations have gone up now. Derry have the tools to win an All-Ireland and Harte is expected to be the man to guide them to the Sam Maguire.

Dublin and Kerry are both beatable but taking this on is a brave and brilliant gamble by Harte who, at 69, is an inspiration to everyone to keep chasing those dreams and never allow anyone to tell you what you can’t do.

You’ve got to admire Harte’s boundless energy and ambition and, having previously installed a Fermanagh native followed by a former Tyrone player, why wouldn’t the Derry county board go for Harte if he was up for it? Which he was.

Derry’s Ulster rivals will be queueing up to bring him down.

Where has all this left Armagh? They came agonisingly close last season and there’s an Ulster title in them and maybe more if everything goes just right but, with Harte and McGuinness back in the picture now, have they missed their chance? Opportunities don’t just keep coming.

A rising tide lifts all boats and Harte’s second coming means pre-season training just got harder for all county footballers. It will inspire the Orchardmen just as it will Tyrone and Monaghan.

And then there’s Donegal. Jim McGuinness was plotting and planning long before news broke that his old rival had returned to the Ulster fray and he’ll know that those talented boys across the border in Derry have just brought in a man with three Sam Maguires behind him and a sizeable chip on his shoulder.

As the nights get chilly and the evenings draw in, you can’t help but yearn for next year when all these questions will be answered.

It’ll be a long winter but it’ll be worth the wait. Timing is everything in sport.