Sunday 28 May 2017

No regrets as glory years end

Time has caught up on Matty Forde's days in the Wexford jersey, writes Damian Lawlor

MATTY FORDE spreads himself across an armchair and sifts through a medley of memories as the curtain closes on his inter-county football career. milestone matches that paved the way for awards, trips, friendships and controversies. He's not sure where to begin. "It's like all the years have rolled into one," he says.

The journey began in 1999 when his brother, Pat, who played 60 times for Wexford, relayed a message that manager JJ Barrett wanted him for a league match with Tipperary. In the dressing room he was handed the sub-goalkeeper's shirt.

"Don't ask me how or why, I never played in goal in my life. I just shut my mouth and took the jersey. I didn't think I belonged there," he adds. "There was no texting back then and JJ wouldn't have been one for ringing you either. I wondered if Pat had been taking the mick."

A few weeks later, however, once Barrett saw him in training, he made his outfield debut against Fermanagh. The manager, a Kerryman and journalist, was guiding a team of perennial losers, but their attitude was good and he sensed that something could happen in Wexford football. He was shrewd enough to realise the revolution would have to centre around Forde.

Barrett's countyman, Mick O'Dwyer, was another to quickly recognise the prodigious talent. Still eligible for minor, Forde played in a challenge match against Micko's Kildare and clipped over seven points from play. Afterwards, he approached the Wexford camp enquiring about Matty. They told him the kid was a minor, one for the future. Said they weren't sure if they'd be using him that year.

"Well, if ye're keeping him for the future then we'd gladly have him in Kildare for the present," Micko responded bluntly. "Send him on to me."

Barrett's job was to string a few wins together and he duly delivered, becoming the catalyst for Ger Halligan's reign which was equally impressive. Slowly, Wexford started climbing out of the lower sections of the league and began notching the odd championship win.

It took Forde a while to get going but early in 2004 something clicked. He was named team captain and hit 2-12 against Sligo in the league. A week later, it was 4-5 against Galway. Suddenly, Wexford football had a national identity for the first time in 50 years and the media began swarming around the new superstar of the game.

* * * * *

He turns 32 this year, hardly ancient, but feels short on the flat-out speed needed for his natural habitat in the full-forward line. For the first time, he doesn't have the hunger either; a prolonged recovery from chronic back problems has seen to that.

"On May 15, 2009, I underwent back surgery and didn't come back until May 2010. In three weeks, I lost two and a half stone. I was eating anti-inflammatory tablets; they were about as useful as smarties," he says. "I couldn't do weights so the pounds fell off. I used to get about 25 minutes' sleep per night.

"I needed half a disc removed and it was highly-invasive surgery. A friend came to collect me in the Mater Private after the operation. I stood outside waiting with my bag but he drove past, not recognising me. I slept on my belly for a month and gradually the pain subsided, but I don't want to experience that again.

"I probably shouldn't have played last year. I'd played a few games with Kilanerin but was only a passenger. With inter-county football, the full-forward line was out because my speed was going. Last year was the only time in my life I didn't enjoy football. We had the best young manager in the game -- what did that say about me?"

That's a far cry from 2004 when he was top scorer in the league and the championship, won the county's first football All Star, represented Ireland in their International Rules victory, starred for Leinster in the interprovincial championship, steered Wexford to their first provincial semi-final since 1994 and scored a massive 2-10 in a qualifier victory over Offaly. The GPA gave him their highest accolade and he pushed hard for the GAA's equivalent.

Companies queued to sponsor him, sportswear giants threw gear at him and through it all he continued raising flags. He topped the '05 league scoring charts again as Wexford beat Tyrone to reach the final. Heady days for him and the team.

There was even a tug of war for his services. The Wexford hurlers wanted him and he felt obliged to give it a shot.

"John Conran asked me in, but I was never up to the required standard," he admits. "I remember standing in a training game, the ball fizzing around and knowing I was out of place. I didn't stick around too long."

In 2006, however, the momentum fuelling his burgeoning career finally ran dry when he stood on Offaly's Shane Sullivan in the Leinster semi-final. He scored 1-7 that day but few will remember that feat.

The incident with Sullivan was replayed several times on the big screen at Croke Park, something that has never happened since, and with each showing Forde was vilified like a panto villain. Later that night, The Sunday Game put him under the spotlight again and a forensic examination continued right up until Christmas.

"Whenever Wexford football is discussed in the future this incident will pop up and I regret that. I put my hand up, I stood on Shane and it was wrong. But I'm still adamant I didn't mean it. What happened was stupid, but not pre-planned. It happened at a hundred miles an hour on a championship day. I didn't mean it. The Croke Park screen kept showing it which didn't help me either. They stopped showing incidents afterwards. I can see why."

Sullivan actually stood up for Forde as the GAA's disciplinary powers sharpened their claws but after a series of appeals, a marathon Disputes Resolution Authority (DRA) meeting ended at 5.0am one morning and left him suspended for three months.

"I got home from that meeting at 7.0am and I was shook," he remembers. "I hadn't actually been sent off against Offaly, but the following week against Monaghan in the qualifiers, I realised how serious the whole affair was. I was booed from the moment I got off the bus to when the final whistle went. But that day my team-mates fought for me. They won that game for me. But things wouldn't be the same. The incident was replayed for the rest of the year. I even sat down one night that Christmas to watch telly and up it popped again.

"I was walking down a street in Dublin and was verbally abused. It was a lot for an amateur player. If you're getting €100,000 a week, fine. But I had no idea what was in store."

In the aftermath of that Offaly episode, his temperament was the topic of much public debate.

"I was easily risen and narky sometimes, but now I was Public Enemy Number One. I was bloody delighted to put that year behind me."

Suspended from the GAA, he was linked with Kilkenny City after joining local soccer outfit Gorey Rangers. He played rugby with Gorey RFC too. There were even reports he was transferring to Wicklow in 2007. "I'm born and bred Wexford but all that stuff was flying around," he laughs. "Nuts."

* * * * *

THE 2007 championship didn't offer much retribution. It was largely underwhelming and Wexford's first taste of their '08 Leinster championship clash with Meath wasn't too sweet either.

They trailed by 10 points with 18 minutes remaining before one of the greatest comebacks in GAA history was launched culminating in Forde notching the winning point. A few months later, they ended up in the All-Ireland semi-final against Tyrone after recovering from a 3-23 to 0-9 Leinster final hammering against Dublin to subsequently beat Down and Armagh.

"The lads never got the credit for what we achieved," he says. "It was our first time in an All-Ireland semi-final since 1945. Like, when I started off in 1999 we were in the bottom two in the country. Then JJ Barrett strung a few wins together in Division Four and we thought it was unreal.

"Core players like John Hudson, John Hegarty, Eric Bradley, John Cooper, David Murphy, Red Barry, Paddy Colfer, Philip Wallace -- those lads never got the credit they deserved as we went up the leagues.

"Because we were beaten well by Dublin in '08, we were too easily dismissed. Still, we beat almost every top team in Ireland during 2003-2008. It was a gradual building process started by JJ and then Ger Halligan, Dec Carty and Michael Furlong. Pat Roe, the straightest man I've ever met, built on that. Half the lads were afraid of Pat they respected him so much. I'm shocked that he hasn't got a big job since. Dom Twomey and Paul Bealin played their parts too, before Jason Ryan brought us to a different level.

"But our team was unsung. When 2009 went downhill, people roasted us, forgetting where we'd come from. They didn't realise the effort needed to even compete at that level. Overall, we were definitely not as bad as we showed in '09 and probably not as exceptional as in '08. Somewhere in between."

As the team's linchpin, Forde's every move was closely scrutinised.

Last year, he was refused entry to Wexford Park for a Kilanerin game. He was injured but was entitled to enter the ground as a county player. He'd forgotten his pass, however, and some busybody wouldn't let him in.

Eventually, county secretary Margaret Doyle smoothed a ridiculous situation but a local reporter got wind of it and Forde was dismayed to see the story plastered all over the media days later. No escape.

A year before, he lost his driving licence after a drink-driving incident and was dealing with the setback until a national newspaper started hounding him. Matty learned that there was just no escaping the headlines.

"Ah, everyone will have one or two episodes, but you do the crime and do the time. With that driving thing, you want to be left alone because it's not anything to do with football. I can't do whole lot about it now and I've learned my lesson. Overall, I had brilliant team-mates and managers, the media were sound, adidas looked after me for years and apart from that Offaly thing I have no huge regrets on the field."

Indeed, there were many light-hearted moments. He cites an episode with Tyrone's Ryan McMenamin in the 2005 league semi-final. "It was the worst day ever, wind and rain everywhere," he grimaces. "We knew we'd a great chance. Pat Roe said it was a day for getting down and dirty in the trenches."

That's exactly where Forde ended up. There was a tussle outside the Tyrone square and five or six bodies piled in on top of Forde, who was at the bottom of the ruck with Ryan McMenamin. As the referee hauled players off each other, McMenamin pushed Forde back down into the pond. Forde emerged like a muddied war veteran with only his teeth visible. "I actually started the whole thing," Forde laughs. "I gave Ricey an oul' dart first, so I had it coming. People only saw my head being shoved into the pool of water and he got awful stick. Ricey was never as bad as they said."

He reckons his toughest battles were with Joe Higgins and Aidan Fennelly from Laois.

"I ambled out for an O'Byrne Cup game two years ago and Fennelly was waiting for me. 'What in the name of f**k are you still doing here?' he asked. I asked him the same question, we had a quick chat and then ripped into each other. That was the way it was."

He'll miss his team-mates and the big championship days, but there will be upsides too. He went golfing to Portugal, with the Kilanerin lads recently, a trip he'd forsaken over seven years for football.

"That trip was a new lease of life," he says. "Football was always first with me. Even during the hype of 2004 and 2008, it was always about football. I asked the likes of Pat Roe for permission to go on All Star trips and never took it for granted.

"I couldn't believe I had a Wexford jersey but that chapter is done now. I'll go back to Kilanerin, try to bring the golf handicap from 11 down to single figures and then I'll try coaching. 'Tis all great, I have no regrets."

Nor should he. When the GAA was first formed, Wexford footballers were Kings, winning five All-Ireland titles. They had to wait 100 years for Matty Forde to emerge and recast them as a serious football force. He walks away now, having helped put his county back on the map.

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