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A chip off the old block

London forward Shay Rafter is hoping to follow in his father’s footsteps against Galway in the Connacht Championship next Saturday – 25 years after Pat marked Pádraic Joyce in the same fixture

Shay Rafter with his dad, Pat, at McGovern Park, Ruislip. Photo: Damian Dolan
By Damian Dolan

Some things never change when it comes to the Connacht Championship and London – even after 25 years.

Michael Maher’s Exiles undoubtedly face a daunting challenge next Saturday at McGovern Park, but it’s no different to June 1999 when Pádraic Joyce, Seán Óg De Paor and Jarlath Fallon et al rolled into Ruislip as reigning All-Ireland champions. They left with a 1-18 to 1-8 victory, but it was a much closer run thing than the final scoreline suggests.

Maher’s class of 2024 face a similar maroon mountain, as Joyce returns to Ruislip, only this as Galway manager, intent on taking the first step towards going one better than their defeat to Kerry in the 2022 All-Ireland final. But Joyce isn’t the only link to events at Ruislip 25 years ago.

Handed the job of marking Galway’s talismanic corner forward that afternoon was Mayo-native Pat Rafter. On Saturday, his son Shay will be in the London team hoping to derail Galway’s provincial title plans, and deliver the Exiles a first-ever victory over the Tribesmen.

“My dad pulled on the London jersey and now I am too. He played against Galway, and hopefully I’m going to play against them as well. It’s a really cool situation,” Shay told the Irish World.

“I would pester him when I was younger about certain games and certain teams, and ask if he played against them. And he’d say yes, he’d played against Galway. He said it was an unreal experience and an unreal day. He’d tell me how good they were, but that London were very good that year as well, and they matched them for 50-55 minutes.”

For Pat, it’ll be “a very proud moment” if Shay gets a taste of the action on Saturday. “We’ll see on the day whether he (Shay) gets a start, or if he’ll be part of the squad,” he says, not wanting to tempt fate. The connection to 1999 certainly isn’t lost on Shay then – nor are his father’s footballing achievements in general.

Shay in action for London in their NFL Div 4 win over Waterford at Ruislip. Photo: Sheila Fernandes

Pat won two London senior titles with Tara in 1995 and 2003, and was London captain in 2000 against Leitrim. He was captain again the following year for the visit of Mayo, only for foot and mouth to put paid to that. Not surprisingly, Pat’s had a huge influence on Shay’s career. He was his coach at Tara from under 6s upwards.

“He’d always spend time with me in the garden, or we’d go down the local Gaelic ground. He was a good coach; we won almost everything at my age group,” says the 21-year-old, who is in his third and final year at Nottingham Trent University.

He only finished his dissertation the Wednesday before London’s final Div 4 NFL game against Carlow. London training has been juggled alongside his studies and the logistical challenges that go with the 220-mile plus round trip, in order to make training every Thursday evening at Grasshopper’s RFC in Isleworth.

Getting back up to Nottingham in time for Monday morning has been even more problematic at times, and the odd early morning lecture has fallen casualty to that. “He puts a lot of commitment into it, but he’s mad to do it,” said Pat.

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Family ties

When it comes to London versus Galway in Connacht, Pat knows a thing or two therefore about daunting odds. Indeed, 1999 stands alone as the only time the reigning All-Ireland champions have visited Ruislip in a competitive match.

But Pat can already point this year to having seen Shay help the Exiles to a first-ever win over Mayo, in the FBD League in January. You’d have got long odds on that. Not a bad way for Shay to mark his senior inter-county debut.

He contributed 0-6 (2m, 3f) to London’s 0-12 to 1-8 victory at the University of Galway Connacht GAA Air Dome.

“I couldn’t have asked for a better start and it’s definitely something to be proud of,” he said. Pat adds: “He played well – the whole team played well. It was the [London] boys’ first game together and with the massive turnover of players Michael (Maher) has, it was a great achievement.”

Shay celebrates All-Britain title success with London’s junior team in 2022, with Pat and mum Josie

It was a proud moment in the Rafter and Munnelly households – two families steeped in London GAA history.Shay’s grandfather, Dick Munnelly (Doohoma, Mayo), won every domestic trophy in Britain with Parnells. He also played for London.

Dick’s wife, Mary (Geesala, Mayo), was a founder of Parnells ladies’ team, for which their daughters – Josie, Geraldine and Sonya – all played with distinction, and success.

Mary would also serve the London and British Ladies’ Boards as secretary. Shay’s mum, Josie, won an All-Ireland 7s medal with Parnells ladies at Croke Park. She also played for London, as did Geraldine and Sonya.

Geraldine was also in the London team which won a first All-Ireland junior title in 1993 at Croke Park, as well an All-Ireland IFC Club in 2012 with Parnells. If that wasn’t enough, Sonya is married to London junior manager Stephen Lynch, who won senior titles alongside Pat at Tara.

Shay in action for Tara in the 2022 London JFC final against Wandsworth Gaels. Photo: Sheila Fernandes

Hailing from a small rural GAA club in North Mayo called called Kilcommon – orginally Glenamoy – Pat arrived in London in 1990 when he was 18.

He recalls making his London senior debut in 1992 against Laois in a challenge match. The same year, he won an under 21 provincial title with London, beating Lancashire in the final.

But his London career would be spasmodic. A back injury kept him out for two years, while he’d spend much of the 1990s in Chicago, where he played for the Wolfe Tones club. He was part of the Tara team which reached the 1994 senior county final, alongside a future All-Ireland winner in Meath’s Ollie Murphy. They’d lose out to St Brendan’s, though. “Ollie was a good player,” says Pat.

The following year he arrived back just in time to help Tara make amends, as they edged Naomh Mhuire by 1-6 to 0-8 in a replay to end the club’s 44-year title wait. It was Pat’s late point, in a player-of-the-match winning display, which won the day for Tara.

He stayed around long enough to chalk up a few National League appearances before heading back to America. He returned to London before Christmas 1998 and then Exiles manager Tommy McDermott – a St Brendan’s man who’d played senior for Donegal – wasted little time in bringing Pat back into the fold. Packie Hughes was one of McDermott’s selectors.

Pat accepting his man of the match award following Tara’s victory in the London senior final of 1995

When the National League recommenced in February 1999, Pat played in a 1-12 to 0-12 defeat against Antrim at Casement Park. Competing in Div 2A, Westmeath and Kerry then proved too hot to handle for an Exiles team which also included a couple of future managers of note.

Jason Ryan would go on to guide Wexford to an All-Ireland semi-final in 2008, while Paul Coggins took London to a Connacht final in 2013. A one-point victory over Limerick at Abbeyfeale at least ensured the Exiles finished the league on a high.

Challenge matches against Fermanagh and Roscommon were followed by a McGrath Cup final meeting with National League champions Cork at Ruislip. A much-changed Cork side prevailed, but they’d need two second half Fachtna Collins goals to win by 2-13 to 0-11, after the Exiles had dared to lead by 0-8 to 0-4 at the break. London were dreaming of an unlikely win when they stretched the gap to six, only for Cork to finish strong. Even so, McDermott’s charges had acquitted themselves well.

The Irish World’s coverage of London and Galway’s Connacht SFC quarter-final in 1999

A near full-strength Galway would be a very different proposition, though, at Ruislip on 6 June 1999, and from the first whistle the All-Ireland champions were all business. They stormed into a 1-10 to 0-3 half-time lead with Joyce racking up 1-2 in the opening ten minutes.

“He was an excellent player,” says Pat, who despite making his London debut in 1992 was playing his first game in Connacht. Joyce had also scored 1-2 in the Tribesmen’s four-point victory over Kildare the previous September to bring the Sam Maguire back to Galway for the first time since 1966.

“The pace was a massive step up – any mistakes you made were punished,” adds Pat, who recalls there been a “massive crowd” at Ruislip that day. “We respected them, but I don’t think we gave them too much respect.”

Galway started with 11 of the team which had lined out for the All-Ireland final, while Paul Clancy had come off the bench against Kildare. Michael Donnellan was a notable absentee.

6 June 1999; Pat Rafter of London in action against Padraic Joyce of Galway during the Bank of Ireland Connacht Senior Football Championship quarter-final match between London and Galway at Páirc Smárgaid in Ruislip, London, England. Photo by Damien Eagers/Sportsfile

“It’s difficult when you’re thrown in against the All-Ireland champions. They had some of the best players in Ireland at the time – players like Seán Óg De Paor and Jarlath Fallon – and they won another All-Ireland two years later,” reflects Pat.

But London hadn’t read the script. The home side battled back in the second half, thanks in part to Julian Grimes’ goal. With 19 minutes still to play, just four points (1-11 to 1-7) separated the sides. Points from Óg De Paor and Derek Savage looked to have quelled the local uprising, only for Jody Gormley – who’d played in an All-Ireland final four years earlier with Tyrone – to send Tom Feehan through to goal.

Feehan smashed the ball past Martin McNamara to cue pandemonium, only for the referee to bring London celebrations to a halt, and controversially rule that Gormley had over-carried. “If the goal had stood it would have been massive – the crowd were with London,” reflects Pat. When Tommy Maguire’s fisted effort then hit the post, London’s chance had gone.

The back page of the Irish World in 1999 following London’s Connacht SFC quarter-final against Galway

And so, the baton now passes to Shay, who represented London at under U14, U15 and minor before making the step up to the county’s junior team in 2022. He’d star that year in London’s All-Britain title success, which ended a 13-year drought.

Shay racked up 4-16 in five matches in Britain, and another 2-3 against Kilkenny in the All-Ireland JFC semi-final at Abbotstown. London reached the British final again last year, only for Warwickshire to gain revenge for 2022. Kilkenny then dashed their Croke Park hopes for a second time in the All-Ireland semi-final. “I loved every minute of it. It was just annoying that we didn’t get the job done the last few years,” says Shay.

Shay (front row, second from the left) in the London U17 team that played Warwickshire in the warm up game to the 2019 Connacht Championship game between Galway and London. Photo: Damian Dolan

Like Shay, Tighe Barry and Joshua Obahor have also progressed to the London senior team via the juniors. For Shay, the experience was “invaluable” in helping him make the step up. “The London underage structure had been crying out for something to bridge the gap from minor to senior, and it’s perfect. You’re representing your county with London-born lads.”

He admits he was “tempted” to give the juniors one more go this year, and try and make that Croke Park final, especially as his mum and dad have both played there. Pat’s opportunity came in 1989 for Mayo in an All-Ireland schools final against a Tyrone team which included Peter Canavan. But “the dream” of playing senior for London couldn’t be put off any longer.

Shay in action for London juniors vs Warwickshire before the 2022 Connacht SFC game against Leitrim. Photo: Sheila Fernandes

For Shay, it’s now about creating his own special moments in a London jersey – and following in the footsteps of other homegrown players like Liam Gavaghan and Killian and Phillip Butler. Shay was at Ruislip in 2011, when London took Mayo to extra-time and in 2013 when Paul Coggins’ side made history by beating Sligo. He was there again in 2017 at the opening of McGovern Park when Gavaghan “nearly beat Leitrim on his own”.

“I’ve been dreaming of this for a while, and playing out the scenario,” says Shay, who played for London minors against Warwickshire in the curtain-raiser to the London-Galway Connacht game in 2019. He then watched on as a Killian Butler inspired London ran Kevin Walsh’s Tribesmen to within four points.

“They ran them really, really close,” Shay reflects. The last two years have seen Shay tog out in the curtain-raiser again, this time for London’s juniors in the All-Britain championship against Warwickshire and Scotland. On Saturday, he’s hoping that his time has finally come to shine in the main event.

“I can’t wait; I’ve been looking forward to it all year,” he enthuses. “We’re playing against some of the best players in the game at Ruislip – you can’t ask for much more if you’re a London-born player. I’ll be over the moon if I get on.”

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