Grimsby Town Football Club are saddened to learn of the death of Ron Rafferty, one of our greatest ever players.
Ron was born in South Shields in 1934, but was raised in Berkshire from the age of two, and his early games were for Slough Youth Club, Burnham and Wycombe Wanderers (then of the Isthmian League), and as an amateur for Shrewsbury Town. There was still National Service during the early 1950s, so Ron had a period with the RAOC, before joining Portsmouth as a professional and rapidly gaining a first team spot in 1954. Pompey had spotted him from his Wycombe Wanderers days.
Remarkably, he only stayed at Fratton Park for eighteen months before Allenby Chilton picked him up for the unbelievable fee of £3,500! What a steal that was for the Mariners! Making his debut for Town on 5th January 1957 in an FA Cup match away to West Ham, he scored as Town put up a great fight before losing 3-5. A week later, he made his Mariner's league debut back in London again in a 1-1 draw at Leyton Orient, Ron became a fixture in the Grimsby attack for 7 seasons. It took Ron 3 games before scoring his first league goals for the Mariners (2 goals in a 3-4 defeat at Leicester City with 34,000 spectators in Filbert Street), then another 2 versus Bury in a 3-2 win at Gigg Lane, followed by one of the two goals that sank Lincoln at Blundell Park.
Allenby Chilton had been back to his old club – Manchester United – to secure Johnny Scott earlier in the season, and late in the same season, local lad Jimmy Fell broke through into the first team. So began the partnerships between three iconic Town players that are almost always spoken about in the same breath. Scotty on the right winger, a traditional and very accomplished dribbler who would play for Northern Ireland in the 1958 World Cup; the raiding Jimmy Fell on the left wing who was more direct in his game than Johnny Scott; and both feeding over wonderful crosses to Ron who would climb high above the unfortunate centre-halves to power the ball home with his head, or to strike with either lethal foot. For those of us fortunate enough to see this triumvirate in action, it was a sight we have never forgotten and never will.
That first part-season, Ron played in every game from 5th January onwards – 18 in total, and scored 11 goals.
His first full season started with Town hammering seven past Leyton Orient in the very first match. All five forwards scored, as well as midfielder (and future temporary manager) Dick Conner. That wasn't the only time that Town scored seven that season. In November they featured on the Saturday afternoon radio broadcast from Eastville and recorded the club's biggest-ever away victory by 7-0. Ron scored (of course). Indeed that season he scored 26 times! Most teams found him just too hot to handle. On a personal note, my first game as a spectator came on 4th April 1958, when we took on Brian Clough and Middlesbrough in a Good Friday match, when the recently returned Tommy Briggs scored a hat-trick, and Ron became my immediate hero with a goal too. And he has remained my hero ever since!
The 1958-9 season started in optimistic fashion. The first game was at Anfield, where Jimmy Fell scored the opener for the Mariners in front of almost 50,000 fans, but then had to go in goal as Clarrie Williams was injured. Town's ten fit men held Liverpool to a 3-3 draw with Ron again scoring. A couple of home wins seemed to set up the Town, and then Town played neighbours Lincoln and secured a 4-4 draw. Town's scorers were …. Rafferty, Rafferty, Rafferty and Rafferty! (A couple of years later he put SIX past Lincoln in a Lincolnshire Cup semi-final). Unfortunately, the season deteriorated somewhat and Town were relegated. However, Ron scored 19 goals, and was watched by Matt Busby Manchester United's great manager, with a view to being signed by the Old Trafford outfit. Fortunately for us, Ron stayed on the east coast – his best was yet to come, but what would have been his transfer fee in today's game? For a player who scored 20+ goals in every full season with us (bar one), and 36 in an exceptional year, he would have commanded a very high price indeed.
If a team had one forward scoring 24 league goals (Ron) and another scoring 33 league goals (Ralph Hunt) you'd expect promotion. Sadly, despite another 11 goals from Johnny Scott, Town could only make it to fourth in the newly formed Third Division, behind Southampton and Norwich City.
1960-61 saw Town again threaten promotion from Division 3, and Ron “Chipped” in with another 26 goals (his nickname was frequently “Chips” Rafferty after an Australian actor of that name). Although the season saw Town 6th at its conclusion, the League Cup had had its first outing, and despite Town being heavily defeated by Bolton, Town's first ever goals in the competition were both scored by Ron.
With such firepower in his boots and from his head, it would have been sad if Ron's massive goalscoring feats hadn't seen his efforts rewarded with a promotion on his CV … and that came in 1961-2 in dramatic fashion, and Ron's best-ever goal-haul. The forward line was most frequently Johnny Scott, Cliff Portwood, Ron Rafferty, Mike Cullen and Freddie Jones. By the end of the year, Town were 12th, and Ron had scored 10 league goals. It looked like another season was already petering out. Suddenly, as the New Year dawned, the Mariners hit form winning 7 games on the trot. Ron was the Talisman scoring 10 of Town's 16 goals in that run, as well as the goal that gained a point at Sincil bank, and another in the win against the Cobblers. In fact hardly a game went by without Ron being on the scoresheet, even when he visited his old club at Fratton Park he scored (he'd scored against Pompey at BP too – so we did a double over the club that ended up as Third Division Champions courtesy of the old boy!)
It all came down to the final game of the season at Brentford. A win would see Town promoted, and QPR remain in the division, so thousands of QPR fans swelled the Brentford crowd to a remarkable 19,000, almost all cheering on the home side. But goals by Cliff Portwood, and fittingly by Ron saw Town comfortably home and dry, celebrating with a glass of milk, before a train journey home the next day with the linesides and stations packed with Mariners fans before a rousing welcome to the heroes at Grimsby Town station and a civic reception a day or two later. Ron had scored 34 league goals, plus another two in the cups. It was his best-ever season …. and he had played the greater part with ligament problems! What a hero!
He had to have his knee problems fixed in hospital, and from December 1962 he played many games in the midfield, half-back line. The reason for playing a forward who had scored 36 goals the previous season mystified me for the best part of four decades, but I took the opportunity to ask him about this when he was a guest at a match at BP in the early 2000s. He explained that manager Tom Johnston thought it would save his knees somewhat if he played in midfield rather than up front. Ron said - “It was the worst position possible for my knees, as you're always twisting and turning when playing there, and that plays havoc with knees!”
In the summer of 1963, he went across the river to Hull City, a snip at £10,000. His legendary status at Town was assured. He was, and remains, the club's top post war marksman, indeed, in the entire 148 year league history of the Mariners, only Pat Glover has scored more goals.
Unfortunately, in just his third game for the Tigers, his ankle was badly injured, and then he had another breakage. Three season later he joined Aldershot where he played mostly at centre-half, and is still held in the highest esteem as he is at Town.
Those of us “of a certain age” universally admire Ron as a player, as a goalscorer, and as a human being. In the last 65 years we have seen some really great footballers grace the pitch at Blundell Park, but, in my humble opinion, the greatest of these is without doubt, the great Ron Rafferty. It was truly an honour to see him walk onto the pitch, to EXPECT a goal from him at any moment, and to seldom be disappointed. We will never see his like again. He will be missed wherever he played, wherever he lived.
Ron Rafferty 1934-2021