Gary Rafferty - Proud to be a Poolie

MICK HUTCHINSON on his late Poolie friend

Gary and I were both in complete agreement; Danny Wilson should never have been sacked. Things never really seemed to go right for us from that moment on. It’s true that whilst we were still sitting a respectable 13th in League One in December 2008 and might not have been pulling up too many trees; we were not heading towards a footballing freefall either. Sadly that was to follow, and would of course eventually cost us our hard fought and hard earned League One status. For a couple of lifelong ‘Poolies like Gary and me, who could only look on from the outside, and spectate from The Town End, the coming months and years would begin to look like we were rapidly losing our way, faster than we appeared to be losing our nerve.

Gary’s view – never excitable and never emotive – was that the club had once again, and not for the first time in recent years, triggered its own wonky kneejerk action, which would end up in us getting rid of the right man for the job. He was a shrewd judge Gary; he knew what he was talking about, certainly as far as ‘Pools were concerned. His knowledge and insight came from a lifetime of watching the boys in Blue and White – well, the thicker end of 40 years must surely be considered a lifetime by anybody’s reckoning.

Gary’s last home game before he became ill, was against Sheffield Wednesday in August 2010, the one where we got battered 5-0, and were lucky to get nil. A good old fashioned thumping was not the result that any of us wanted, and couldn’t have been a particularly pleasant game for Gary to attend. It was scant reward we can all agree, for all his club service and a loyalty that had begun many years earlier. Gary bore his illness bravely and in a highly dignified way, though sadly he died in April this year.

Gary had reminded me – only weeks before that Sheffield Wednesday mauling - that it had all begun for him one August night back in 1970, and a defeat (of course!) at home to York City, 3-2; even goals by Ron Young and Nick Sharkey couldn’t save us that night. It was around this time that Gary and I became school friends, and we shared together our love for ‘Pools. After school we attended Sixth Form College; by now we were grown up enough to attend the home games on our own – behind the Rink End – so it was quite natural that towards the end of the 1980’s we took up our more adult spots in the middle of the Mill House, before a combination of cold winds, freezing hands and wet feet led us to the newly covered and newly refurbished Town End at the turn of the 90’s. It became our habitual roost for the next twenty years.
"His knowledge and insight came from a lifetime of watching the boys in Blue and White"
Gary had over the years witnessed more of Pools than me, as a combination of work and study had taken me away from the area for the early part of the 1980’s, Gary however never missed a game. He would also remind me that over his lifetime of watching ‘Pools he had seen every gonnabe, wannabe, maybe could be and might be; he could add to them every free transfer, freeloader, no hoper and ‘loanee’ imaginable, but that necessary ‘suffering’ would every now and then throw up a Malcolm Poskett, or a Bob Newton or a Paul Dalton – some of Gary’s favourite players from days gone by, as well as Tommy Miller, Gordon Watson, and Ritchie Humphreys from the modern era.

With modern ‘Pools it seems in serious if not yet terminal decline, and in the year the club lost one of their most devoted fans, it would be easy to stop there and conclude that things are all very doom and very gloom. But Gary, despite his illness, was a positive guy, and what has happened since he died, would I am sure have made him feel proud to be a ‘Poolie. First of all at the last game of last season (The Sky game against Brentford) I spoke to the club P.A announcer Phil Dunn, about Gary’s recent passing. Phil read out a very fitting and respectful half time tribute to Gary with only limited information about him from me. That was really excellent Phil! Thank you for that; Gary would have appreciated your words. There were also words of condolence on the message boards and some blue and white shirts at his funeral; Gary would have appreciated that as well.

Knowing perhaps that he was seriously ill Gary had mentioned to his mother that he would like to have his ashes scattered at The Vic, not always the easiest thing to arrange, and not always the easiest wish for a club to accommodate. I approached the club on the family’s behalf and spoke to Sarah at the club, who was extremely helpful. So much so, that I left the family in the hands of the club to make arrangements from there. My understanding is that the club were, ‘absolutely marvellous’; which really gladdens the heart doesn’t it.

On a recent warm late August afternoon the club granted Gary’s wishes. A small area just behind the Town End goal line was set aside by Barry – one of the very helpful ground staff - for Gary’s ashes to be interred. Family, friends, and the odd fan gathered for a short, private, moving ceremony, with some poignant readings, that allowed Gary to now keep a permanent watch on proceedings on his beloved Vic, as well as being within a stone’s throw of the spot he used to occupy half way up to the left of the goalpost (eighteen yard box to be precise) in the Town End. Gary would really have liked that.

My older brother Chris was deputed to organise the collection for a brick to go on the ‘wall of fame’ outside the Vic in Gary’s name. A number of Gary’s many friends from The Kings Arms bar in Billingham had already seen to that, with the money already in place. The inscribed brick together with a certificate from the club to support its placement on the wall made for an excellent tribute all in Gary’s honour, and calls for a huge ‘well done’, a big ‘thank you’ and extended appreciation to everyone at Hartlepool United for their help and consideration towards what might appear a simple task, but is in reality an extremely important event. Well done ‘Pools; I knew you wouldn’t let ‘us’ down.

Of course what would make a really good post script to this story would be if the first home game that ‘Pools played following Gary’s ‘arrival’ ended up turning the tables on the opposition for that 5-0 defeat, (say for argument’s sake it was against Bradford City) and we beat them 5-0. Unlikely from the way we have performed in earlier games, impossible given that the opposition came from a higher league. And ...what if four of those goals went into The Town End with Gary overseeing proceedings. I know, I know wouldn’t even be allowed to make it up. Just suppose though, that was what happened; now Gary would really have liked that.