Raffaele Cretaro interview – Part One

Sligo Rovers will this Saturday, celebrate the career to date of one of their own. Raffaele Cretaro’s contribution to the club throughout 16 seasons will be marked with his testimonial which takes place at the Showgrounds at 6pm.

Ahead of the big day, Raff spoke to David Goulden and Jessica Farry about his 18 years in League of Ireland football.

In part one, he remembers his goal-scoring debut in Monaghan, how he established himself as a first team regular and the 2005 First Division success.

It all started on the third day of September 2000 at Gortakeegan. Leading by two goals to one and with an injury to a starting player meaning a change was required, the then Sligo Rovers manager Tommy Cassidy took the brave decision to introduce an unproven 17-year-old to the fray.

Almost 18 years later and with a hatful of medals and a multitudes of great memories with his club, Sligo Rovers will pay tribute this Sunday to Raffaele Cretaro, whose name has gone on to become synonymous with the football club.

Having scored that day in Monaghan, Cretaro has gone on to step across the white line for the club 520 more times, with plenty more appearances yet to come. He boasts one League of Ireland title, two FAI Cups, one First Division title and one Setanta Sports Cup amongst his personal haul. Each of these successes came during his time at Rovers and this weekend a host of faces from those glory days will take part in Cretaro’s testimonial.

Amongst those taking to the field are names from the club’s ‘golden era’, which heralded a league title, three FAI Cups, one league cup and one Setanta Sports Cup. Danny North, Danny Ventre, Jeff Henderson, Joey Ndo, Romuald Boco and Anthony Elding will all line out on Saturday. All played their parts in those victories.

A few faces from Raff’s early years will also be there to celebrate including Carl Van Der Velden, Paul Lally and Barry O’Dwyer. One man fondly remembered not just by the supporters but by Cretaro in particular is former striker Padraig Moran.

“I would have played with Padraig in the first two years of my career”, Raff recalls. “I would have come into the dressing room kind of saying ‘that’s Padraig Moran in the corner’. It’s done a full circle now where I’m in that position now. But the very words he said to me when I asked him would he come along was ‘if I’d something on I’d cancel to come’. To hear that, is mighty.”

So respected is Raff, he didn’t have to put too much effort in trying to convince his friends in the football world to take part.

“It’s been brilliant. I was pleasantly surprised, most of the lads you’d contact them and there wasn’t a ‘Jesus, I don’t know’. Pretty much there and then ‘ah yeah I’ll get it off. If I have something on I’ll cancel’. It’s great.”

Cretaro’s love affair with football began in his home town of Tubbercurry. Playing all the way up to junior level with Real Tubber at the turn of the millennium, the then teenager was recommended to Rovers who as always, were keen to give local youth a chance.

“I would have been in with Sligo/Leitrim squads at Under 16 and u18 with Niall Harrison. I remember I had a particularly good year, myself and Michael McNamara had a good year with the under 18s.

“We got to the ‘Snickers’ All-Ireland final. Tommy was the manager who would have been looking at it. Niall Harrison would have been the development officer at the time and he would have put our names forward to Rovers and said ‘maybe have a look at these guys’.

“I remember Tommy bringing me in for pre-season and being down at Sligo Racecourse. I think I was 17 and I remember after that session thinking ‘Jesus!’. We were on the racecourse and there was no sign of a ball. We just ran. It’s funny how much it’s changed.”

Raff netted Rovers’ third of the day on his first appearance, closing down a stray back-pass before tapping past the Monaghan goalkeeper.

“I was lucky enough that it was a small squad at the time”, he remembers. “A couple of injuries within the first two months gave me the opportunity to be on the bench and obviously get a chance to prove myself. When I did get the chance, I came on as a sub up in Monaghan and scored. I think it set the ball rolling and gave me the confidence to go on.

“I remember it like it was yesterday. I remember going up on the bus. I remember the pre-match meal we had. I remember everything about the day, being on the bench with Lee Marshall and Damien Kennedy who was here at the time. One of the lads got hurt and we were 2-1 up at the time. It was probably a brave decision by Tommy, we were only 2-1 up at the time. I was running around like a lunatic and there was a short back-pass to the keeper. I’ve charged it down and the ball has hit off me and rolled into my path and I slotted into an empty net.”

Almost two decades on from that game, Cretaro remains a pivotal figure in the current Rovers side. His ability through the years to look after himself away from the game has paid dividends.

“I wouldn’t have thought it if you’d told me then I’d still be playing in 2018. 18 years of anyone’s career is a long career. To be here still and still training, and playing as well as I would have back then, with probably an older head on me. It’s unbelievable. But it’s probably testament to myself, how I would have looked after myself off the pitch, away from football. I would have always lived my life the right way.

“The standard of professionalism from when I was a youngster to where it is now. Now it’s different. Everything is done right. It’s really professional. Before you even go out on to the pitch now you have guys doing activation which is injury prevention. They’re maybe in for half an hour, 40 minutes before we even step on the pitch. Then you’re doing your warm up so this is all the stuff that has come in now.

“I was probably doing it in a lighter capacity back then to how it’s being done now. I wouldn’t have known a whole lot about activation but that’s gradually come in. I really bought into it. It’s probably a big part in the fact that I’m still playing. When the sessions were finished it wasn’t a case of ‘right we’re done now I need to get myself into the dressing room, get a shower and get home’. I’d probably be the last off the pitch cause I’d always be there stretching for maybe 20 minutes after. That’s just a routine that I had gathered as a youngster. I felt I needed to do it in order to get the best out of myself and give myself the best chance.”

Growing up, Cretaro was no different to any football mad lad.

“That’s what I wanted to do. In school, I wanted to be a footballer. Any class we would have off, I’d gather the troops to go to the pitches. Any substitute teacher we got I’d be like ‘ah come on take us to the pitches’. I just wanted to be a footballer. Whether that was for Manchester United or Sligo Rovers. That’s the way I was. I was driven in that regard. That’s what I wanted to be. I was lucky enough. I’ve been lucky enough to do it for 18 years now. I wasn’t full-time from the start but within two years I went from leaving school to working part-time in a factory to being a full-time professional. I’ve been lucky to do it.”

Cretaro really established himself as a Rovers regular under the stewardship of Don O’Riordan who spent the best of four seasons with the club in the First Division.

“I’ve great memories of Don”, Raff adds. “I’d still be in contact with him, I’d talk to him every now and then. I’d pick his brain as I’m starting out as a coach. I remember the first season he had come in, we were struggling for a right-back at the time. I just said ‘I’ll play there’ and he started me for two games at right-back and I think I scored. I played well in the first game and in the second game we were down in Athlone.

“Athlone were at that stage running away with the First Division, they were 15 or 20 points clear half way through the season. I played at right-back and I scored down there. I remember Don afterwards on the bus saying ‘look we need to get you in with the board ASAP, we need to get you on a new contract’. He had made me feel really good. He said all the right things and as a coach did all the right things to help me as a player.”

Cretaro quickly became known as a vibrant attacking full-back who, when called upon, slotted comfortably into every position. He has gone on to deputise in every corner of the pitch expect between the sticks. Although that could soon change if needs must!

“We had that conversation!”, Raff laughs. “If I was told ‘we need you for goals’ I’d say ‘I’ll give it a go, no problem’. That’s just me. They’d probably be trying to chip me all the time because I’m a small lad!”

O’Riordan departed the Showgrounds in 2004, making way for Sean Connor who delivered Rovers’ first trophy since the 1997 league cup win in the form of the First Divison.

“That was my first taste of success”, Raff affirms. “The previous four or five years were mid-table and that was my real first taste of success as a player.

“We were full-time at that stage. There was no-one in the First Division at the time, except ourselves, who was full-time.

“These are all fantastic memories and I’m lucky enough to be involved with them.

“We had fantastic players like Liam Burns, Faz (Fahrudin) Kuduzovic, we were blessed to have such a good squad and be full-time. That season I played at right-back for Sean because one of the lads picked up an injury and I slotted in at right-back and probably that’s why I would regard Liam as one of the best players I would have played with.

“As a young lad he’d talk me through the whole game. I didn’t put a foot wrong that season and I was nominated for player of the year. That was solely down to him helping me.”

Althouh Raff was heavily involved with the team who achieved promotion, he would have to wait for his first taste of Premier Division football. With another job to contend with, he wanted to go against the wishes of Connor and sign on part-time.

“I got on with Sean. I had great time for him. I played for him every week.

“The following year we had a bit of a dispute over a full-time contract. I ended up moving to Galway and playing another year in the First Division under Stephen Lally. It was one of those ones where we just couldn’t agree on something. I didn’t fall out with Sean or he didn’t fall out with me. We just couldn’t agree terms.

“I was still working at that stage, but he wanted everyone full-time and we just couldn’t agree. I kind of bought into it after that.

“My initial thought down there was ‘what can I do to help Galway United get to the Premier Division?’ I was lucky enough that we did it. We came third and by default we ended up getting promoted. I had a fantastic season there, got on the team of the year. I was travelling up and down and I enjoyed it.”

Back in Sligo, Connor moved on to Bohemians while Rob McDonald was appointed to the Rovers hot seat.

“I remember coming towards the end of the 2006 season. Rob had come in and he got in contact with me about making a return. He didn’t have to ask me twice. I was dead on for it. Galway did all they could to try and keep me. Once Rovers came in, it was a case of ‘show me where I sign’. I realised if I wanted to progress as a footballer I needed to go full-time.

“That’s when I said ‘I’m going to give this a bash as a full-time footballer’ and it was probably the best decision I ever made. It brought me on, physically, fitness wise and brought my game on leaps and bounds because I was training every day.”

Keep an eye on sligorovers.com for part two of this interview in the coming days.