Back in 2006 Pat Holmes had taken over the Mayo U21 team alongside Noel Connelly. The county minors were beaten in the 2005 All-Ireland final so five of them were given a trial for the next level. Ballina Stephenites’ Ger Cafferkey was one.
Straight away Holmes, full back for Mayo in the 1997 Maurice Fitzgerald final, and Connelly saw their starting full-back for the season ahead. Oodles of pace and an ability to knock the ball out of the attacker’s hands gave them a solid platform to build a team from. In February Pat’s phone rang.
“He said he was pulling out of the panel because he wanted to concentrate on his studies,” said Holmes. “We knew at that stage he’d be on our team because you could see he was the best full-back by a distance. He took a bit of convincing and we even used Gerry Leonard in Ballina to coax him back in. He did and won his All-Ireland U21 medal but also did very well in his Leaving Cert and got the points for engineering.”
Cafferkey isn’t your typical footballer. More cerebral than a lot of his colleagues, he saw the bigger picture before his career even took off. His studies would count a lot more in the long run than football. But when he committed, he gave it everything.
That approach has made some of his managers and team-mates stand back in awe.
“All Ger ever wanted to know was about his direct opponent,” said Holmes. “As the season went on we used to watch the teams we were going up against and Ger, above anyone else, always wanted to know the guy he was marking, what foot he kicked with, what’s his traits. It was something I never ever saw a player doing before but he’d write it down. Then in the dressing room or on the coach to the game he’d take out his list of pointers on what he had to do. I never saw any player in all my life doing that before but that was Ger Caff. I don’t know if he’s still doing it but that was the way he analysed everything.”
He’s a deep thinker on the game and was heavily influenced by tales of the 1950-51 Mayo teams who took a more intellectual approach towards the game. In a recent interview, one of the few he’s given, he said: “I’m a big fan of intelligence in sport, so even though I have never seen them play, the stories that I have been told about Paddy Prendergast and Sean Flanagan have shaped my philosophies on sport.”
It’s something his club colleagues have noticed as well. Former team-mate John Healy took over the senior team this year and was taken aback by the level of detail Cafferkey went into preparing for games.
“He’d regularly be on to the club management looking for video analysis of games and organising workshops to analyse the opponents and individualise the players so we could identify their weaknesses and strengths and work on them. He studies the game at a different level than most lads.”
“Ever since he first started with the senior team he gave an impression that he took football very serious. He wouldn’t be laughing or joking in the dressing room. He’d always be the type that would be preparing properly. He was very focused on his football from an early age.”
A future manager one day? “He’s comfortable working with lads on a one-to-one basis,” said Healy. “I don’t think he likes, at the minute, telling the group what to do as a whole. He likes taking a corner-back aside to tell him what to watch out for. He was at training with us only last week and he brought our corner-back, Padraig O’Hora, aside and showed him how to tackle properly.
“We were only talking about him and David Clarke last night. If every county player from Ballina had the same attitude as them... they’re truly role models for the club players. I’m a firm believer that how you treat your club is how you are respected at inter-county level and they’re very well respected nationally and are club men to the core.”
Raised on the Belleek Road on the outskirts of Ballina, his parents Ann and Joe watched him follow keenly in the footsteps of his older brother Declan, a talented footballer and hurler. Ger also excelled at both sports and hurled a lot in his youth. Asked earlier this year in the club newsletter what his biggest sporting regret was, he answered: “Forced to be a waterboy for James Stephen’s [the hurling wing of the club] march to the 2007 Connacht hurling final through a long-term injury. Missed an opportunity to mark Joe Canning.”
Last February a picture appeared on Twitter of him holding a collection bucket in heavy rain for the hurling club. Chairman and neighbour John Tighe has the utmost respect.
“He played senior with us until a couple of years ago. He always combined the football with the hurling until he had to knock it on the head,” Tighe said. “But he still did the church gate collection, the flag day and he’d come to our matches regularly. He loves hurling.
“He’s very approachable and he’s still an a active member. When we play championship matches he’ll turn up and he could do umpire or linesman for us.”
That dedication was something Seamus O’Dowd saw in him as a 13-year-old. O’Dowd, who played senior football for Mayo back in the 1960s and early ’70s, managed Cafferkey as an U14. While O’Dowd confesses he never picked him out as a future All Star, he did see a rare drive in him.
“He improved rapidly after he left us but that’s because he put so much into the game,” he said. “He was always determined and once he put his mind at something he’d give it a go. He’s a very humble fella, gracious and there’s no bullshit about him.”
O’Dowd saw Cafferkey play his first game in Croke Park in 2000. Ballina Stephenites were beaten in the Féile quarter-final being staged in the capital by Crumlin but it subsequently emerged the Dublin side fielded three illegal players.
“It wasn’t until the final people realised it. They had beaten Rocks of Tyrone in the semi-final so the GAA set up a special game for us for a silver medal. Sean McCaigue presented us the medals the day after Galway beat Kildare in an All-Ireland semi-final. Hopefully another GAA president will hand him a medal tomorrow.”