Tuesday 12 December 2017

Climbing ladder rung by rung in bid to make the grade

Bristol Rovers striker Rory Gaffney admits: ‘I’m 26, I’ve no pedigree and I’m only in League Two, and not exactly tearing it up’
Bristol Rovers striker Rory Gaffney admits: ‘I’m 26, I’ve no pedigree and I’m only in League Two, and not exactly tearing it up’

Sean Ryan

ON Wednesday, Bristol Rovers striker Rory Gaffney will set aside his football boots and sit the first of five exams which will qualify him as a professional accountant (ACCA). With a first class accounting degree from four years in GMIT, Gaffney is no stranger to mixing football and studies, but that can have its downside, as he explained after scoring in last Tuesday's 4-1 win over Hartlepool.

"I won't sit my exam in June because, believe it or not, I'm hoping to have my first summer holiday after all those years at college and playing summer football with Mervue United and Limerick," he said. Even still, there is a doubt about the holiday the 26-year-old has planned: "If we don't make the play-offs, I'm planning a 10-day holiday in America, but if we do, we don't get off till May 30 and we're back on July 1.

"Naturally, I hope we do make the play-offs, and if that's the case, I have tickets for Ireland's game against Sweden, and I'll go to Paris for five days."

What you quickly learn from talking to Gaffney is how level-headed he is. A native of Tuam, Gaelic football was his main sport until he decided to have a go at soccer when he was 16. To have come so far in 10 years means that he has passed a lot of others on his way, but he doesn't set himself targets, other than mastering whatever rung of the ladder he finds himself on.

"There's a lot of luck involved," he says. "At 16-17 I didn't play at a great level - Mervue weren't a good team. The only reason I got on was that Mervue entered a team in the A Championship, and were then willing to enter the First Division. I played Gaelic until I signed for Limerick, and even played an odd final then on the QT!"

Not that he had any joy playing for Tuam Stars in the Galway senior final or the Junior A final, both of which they lost. In his last year with Mervue, he came on for Galway under 21s in the Championship, notched a couple of points, but they lost to Sligo.

So, sometimes you have to make your own luck. In Gaffney's case, he listened - and learned about an FAI FáS course in Castlebar. "At Mervue some of the other lads had been on the course and I decided, before I went to college, I'd go to Castlebar for a year. It was full-time training and it gave me the bug that it would be great to do this every week."

It also sharpened his skills, which were honed further at Limerick FC in the Premier Division. In 2014, Cambridge United watched Limerick beat Sligo Rovers, Gaffney scored, and he was signed at the end of the season as a free agent.

"I had a pain in my ankle, and I brought it to their attention," he recalled. "I was given exercises to do, but it turned out there was a tear in my ankle tendon, and I had to have an operation in March. I was out till the start of this season. Then the manager was sacked, and the new manager said I wouldn't be playing."

It seemed like luck had turned against him. In only five appearances, he scored two goals, but he was way down the pecking order.

"I was told to leave Cambridge on transfer deadline day and go to Tranmere. I know they were a big club, but I didn't leave the League of Ireland to play in the Conference, so I told them I wasn't going," he said. Stalemate ensued, but Gaffney continued to work hard. Describing his assets as a player, he said: "I live life right and try to do everything to the best of my ability. I appreciate training and try and make the most of every session. In a game, I want to tick as many boxes as I can to help the team."

In December, salvation arrived in the form of Bristol Rovers manager Darrell Clarke, who had been trying to interest Richie Towell without success. "We had seen Rory, and liked him, and felt it strange that he was not in the team," he explained. "We took a chance, and he has rewarded us tenfold. He's great in the dressing room and great on the pitch. He's got character, and professionalism."

For Gaffney, the loan move was also a gamble. "When I came they were 12th (in League Two), and I'm thinking, in a worst case scenario, if I do well in training they might keep me till the end of the season. Instead it turned out to be a dream month. We went undefeated - five wins and two draws - and no way was I thinking we'd go on that run. I knew nothing about them."

He weighed in with five goals in the seven games, including crucial braces over the Christmas period to defeat Leyton Orient and Luton Town. "I knew I caused myself trouble with those goals, but I thought when the Cambridge manager called me back at the end of the loan he was just playing games. I knew he didn't want me and doesn't want me and he was angling for a bit of money."

Gaffney missed one game, which Bristol lost, before a fee was agreed, and now he has a new contract, on better terms, which extends to the end of next season. After Tuesday's win, Bristol lie in sixth place, but it's a very tight battle just to keep in the play-off positions with eight teams all within three points of each other. "Since I came back, we've had a series of tough games and the goals aren't flowing like they did before," he said. "Still, I've nine in 20 appearances in League Two this season, between Cambridge and Bristol, and if I could maintain that rate I'd be a happy man."

When it comes to ambition, he has his feet firmly on the ground. "Not so long ago, my ambition was that Bristol would keep me till the end of the season, and now my targets are just to play well on Saturday, be a pain in the arse for defenders and win a few headers," he said.

"I don't think that, two years on, I want to be in the Championship, or three years on, in the Premier. I have achieved more than I thought I would. When I was younger, my goal was to play for Galway United."

As for international ambitions, he has no illusions. "I'm 26, I've no pedigree and I'm only in League Two, and not exactly tearing it up. Take Adam Rooney, who is knocking the goals in regularly in the SPL, which I imagine is a tougher League, and he can't even get a run-out."

Irish strikers are a rare breed, so Gaffney, who has pace and power as well as a wonderful attitude, shouldn't rule himself out.

But, for the moment, he has to take his place on the sidelines, as a hamstring strain suffered last Tuesday rules him out of the Bristol Rovers team for a couple of weeks.

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