IT IS approaching the end of our interview and the waiter approaches with a degree of hesitation before coming out with it.
‘Did you used to play football?’
‘Are you Mark Rutherford?’
The uncertainty is explained by the fact Rutherford still looks so young. He turns 50 next March.
You would not know it. Until three years ago, he was still lining out for Lucan United in the Leinster Senior League.
The waiter goes on to recount meeting the Englishman’s mother and sister in the bar at Tolka Park when Rutherford was in his pomp at Shelbourne.
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An attempt to pay for our coffees was dismissed out of hand. Not a bad legacy considering Rutherford was only ever supposed to come here for a month.
The 30th anniversary of his debut for Shels — he scored the winner against Sligo Rovers — is on October 4.
If he was minded to forget how much time has passed, he has not been allowed to do so.
Recently, Shels’ Under-10 girls team was playing Lucan before one of his own kids was in action.
The Reds were being coached by Andy Byrne, the men’s first-team kitman back in the day, who told all of his players about what a legend Rutherford was. One kid piped up ‘My grandad knows you’.
Rutherford ruefully observed: “It used to be someone’s brother or sister who knew me.”
GIVEN A HAND
His initial loan move came about when Eoin Hand — then manager of Huddersfield Town — had taken an interest in the winger who had made a handful of appearances for Birmingham City
But he was just back from an ankle operation and needed to build up his fitness. Hand let Ollie Byrne know and Rutherford was soon bound for a city which was far from cosmopolitan.
Rutherford recalled: “I used to get stopped and asked where I was from. They’d think it was somewhere exotic like the Caribbean.
“I’d say Birmingham and they weren’t happy. I’d be like, ‘The weather is the same as here’.”
Rutherford estimates he could count the number of racist incidents he experienced on the street on both hands.
He added: “That’s ten times too many but people were so friendly. I’d remember those times rather than the bad times.”
Tough-tackling full-backs who thought going through his spindly legs for a shortcut would teach him a lesson were more frequent but he kept coming back for more.
In all he had three spells at Shels, winning a league and three FAI Cups in his first. He also won the old Third Division in one of his two stints with Shrewsbury Town before moving to Newry City.
In 2001, he joined Bohemians, playing an integral part in their Double success that season and winning another title under Stephen Kenny two years later.
Rutherford said: “Ollie heard I was going to Bohs and said, ‘You can’t go to Bohs but in the end I did.”
He is fondly remembered for his role in the Gypsies’ comeback from being 4-1 down at half-time to defeat Shamrock Rovers 6-4 in Santry.
On the Rovers side that day was Sean Francis, whom he knew since their Under-10s football in Birmingham. They remain close.
Rutherford said: “He’s always asking me what Roddy Collins said at half-time. It was just shouting and roaring to get us more motivated.
“People still stop me and talk about the game.”
He subsequently played for Rovers and his league career finished up with him playing in the 2006 and 2007 Cup finals for St Pat’s and Longford Town before a final season with Shels in the First Division.
His career is worthy of an interview in itself but that is not why we are here.
Never mind the football, there was another good reason why Rutherford is still in Ireland.
Another reason why, earlier this month during an enforced absence, this Englishman found himself with the thankless task of trying to homeschool his youngest child — who attends a Gaelscoil — through Irish.
She was Melanie Hill.
Their first meeting, 25 years ago, was inauspicious, Rutherford’s face breaking into a grin as he recounts it.
He said: “I was in Night Owls in Ranelagh with the Shels lads. She stood on my toe as she walked past and knocked my drink over me.”
Within two months, Melanie — up from her native Cork for the weekend with friends — had moved to Dublin.
Four children followed — twins Naoise and Holly are 18, Eabha is 11 and Rian eight.
In 2014, came the devastating news that Melanie had breast cancer. She passed away — at the height of lockdown — on the twins’ 17th birthday in May 2020.
In the intervening period, she had tried to inform herself about her condition and, when appropriate, to explain to their children.
The hope she tried to retain was challenged by being predeceased by those whose cancers were less advanced than her own.
She went into a hospice for a procedure still intending to explore alternative treatments abroad but took a turn.
Visiting restrictions were eased when it became clear she had only days left.
Rutherford takes solace from the fact that, before she lost consciousness, she was involved in arrangements for her to come home and from his faith that she is now with her parents, both of whom died within a year of losing their daughter.
But, clearly, there is a huge void for him and his kids.
Rutherford said: “My mum and dad were separated. I couldn’t imagine being without my mum.
“For them to be without her now is so hard. I’m trying to take her place and be mum and dad at the same time.”
He has kept the show on the road and is due to return to work on a part-time basis at the end of the month but stresses the kids remain his priority.
While the twins may be able to help out with the younger two, they are also in their Leaving Cert year.
Then, there is football.
Naoise and Holly play for DLR Waves Under-19s, and Eabha and Rian for Lucan.
There is training on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday and then matches on Saturday, Sunday and sometimes Wednesday.
He said: “Parents have been really helpful giving lifts. It can be a struggle and ordeal to juggle but you get there.”
He sees the kids as resilient and happy as they can be and said: “Without them I don’t know what I’d have done. If it was just me and four walls I would have found it really difficult.”
A long list of former team-mates, coaches and staff have been — and are — in touch, for which he is immensely appreciative.
Even so, it has not been easy.
He said: “I’ve tried to occupy myself, I think I’ve painted every corner of the house — the banisters, my bed, the cabinets, the fence, just to keep myself occupied.
“But, for the first few months, there were some days I was just staying in the house, sat on the edge of the bed but I knew I had to sort myself out.”
Amid all the tumult of a single parent with four kids, Rutherford’s sanctuary has been running, going for a 5km jog when everyone else is in bed, some rare time alone to clear his head.
Now, he is running that same distance at football grounds before a series of WNL fixtures to honour Melanie and both raise funds for Breast Cancer Ireland and awareness of the disease.
A trial event takes place between the Under-19 fixture between DLR Waves and Cork City tomorrow before the first run proper prior to the senior match between Shels and Waves next Saturday which is live on TG4.
He is due to conclude prior to the Women’s FAI Cup final on Sunday November 21.
l DONATIONS can be made at www.gofundme.com/f/melanie-hillrutherford-bci-5k-runs
l DONATIONS can be made at www.gofundme.com/f/melanie-hillrutherford-bci-5k-runs
Source : https://www.thesun.ie/sport/football/7652642/shelbourne-bohemians-legend-mark-rutherford-breast-cancer-awareness/5245