Ireland hope Forrester determined to pass Chelsea test
Former St Pat's schemer is relishing his chance to take on the Blues and to prove his credentials
For a lot of people playing Chelsea these days, and especially if you're a League One club facing the daunting task of going to a Stamford Bridge pitch that hasn't even seen them drop a point in four months, the temptation would be to sit deep, play defensive and see what happens. Chris Forrester doesn't think like that, though, and neither do his Peterborough United side.
"We won't be scared of them," the 24-year-old Dubliner says. "There's no point in going and trying to defend for 90 minutes, losing 1-0 or whatever. We've only lost one game in 13, so we'll go in hopeful we can get a good result. I think you've just got to go and express yourself."
To show what you can do, grasp the opportunity? "Exactly," he replies.
That was what Forrester did in his last FA Cup match against a Premier League side, when Peterborough narrowly got knocked out of last season's fourth-round replay on penalties to West Brom, and earned the praise of every BBC pundit that watched him. His composure and perception at the base of midfield even earned comparisons to Michael Carrick.
That got people's attention. Now he has the chance to make a proper pitch. That is the opportunity the FA Cup third round presents. It is telling that West Brom will actually be one of a few clubs watching Forrester today, along with Norwich City. If he were to eventually move to one of those, the midfielder would be team-mates with either James McClean or Wes Hoolahan, and potentially re-emphasise a new reality for the Irish squad that those two represent. Because going by Martin O'Neill's call-ups throughout 2016, the League of Ireland is now one of the main sources of international players. There were nine who came through the domestic league over the last 12 months - including Hoolahan and McClean - and that was the same number as had graduated from the academies of either the Premier League or Championship.
Given the international outlook of the big English youth systems, it may well be the main route to an Irish cap in future. It is the path Forrester eagerly wants to follow, having joined Peterborough from St Patrick's Athletic in 2015.
"I can't stress enough how much that is my ambition."
Forrester has made rapid progress at Peterborough, and there are many in the game who feel he would be ready for the step up. Others think he could be the next Hoolahan, right down to the fact he is a "street footballer" who only got formal coaching in his teens. The irony is Forrester has so caught the eye in England without doing the eye-opening things he used to in Ireland. Famous for his spectacular goals as a winger at Pat's, he has played a different role at Peterborough. Manager Grant McCann felt Forrester would be a more natural fit at the back of midfield. He was quickly, and very slickly, proved correct.
"I found it comfortable, and I've stayed there ever since. I don't know, it comes naturally to just get on the ball and try and pass. It's just the way I play," he says.
His much-admired poise is all the more impressive because it comes amid the physical chaos of League One. To appreciate some of the division's aggression, it's worth considering a story about the player he is so compared to. When Carrick went on loan to Swindon Town in 1999, some of the division's hardmen supposedly fancied 'smashing' this kid because of his more elegant talent. They couldn't get close to him.
"You've got to make your own time," Forrester smiles when such stories are put to him. "Nah, every game is different. There are a lot of players that would smash you up given the chance. I think it's common in any league. Give a player enough time to hit, he'll hit you but, no, you have to make your own time and the way we play gives you plenty on the ball.
"I've seen a fair few bad tackles in the league since I came, but not for me… I'm too quick for that!"
Such comments are said with a cheekiness rather than any arrogance, and Forrester is easy company as he sits in Peterborough's welcoming training ground, where the many young players going through look to share a laugh with him.
It means he also cuts a different character to his last big interviews with Irish press. When Forrester spoke to media this time last year, one of the main themes was his struggle to settle and how he wanted to go back to Dublin so often, especially with his young daughter there. Part of the issue was living alone in a town he didn't yet know. Forrester got to see his daughter just before the busy Christmas schedule and she is set to visit in the next few weeks, to a house he now shares with teammate Brad Inman. That little thing has made a big difference.
"Having him there is just perfect. You don't even need to talk, just someone there when you need them. It's been enjoyable," he says. "All we do is chill out and watch telly, box sets. It's Walking Dead now, I've seen all of Narcos. The joys of being a footballer!
"When I am back in Ireland now, I do say, 'I'm going back home', whereas I used to say 'I'm going back to Peterborough'. I've settled in really well.
"I got home before Christmas, then obviously had a busy schedule. That keeps you occupied, keeps your head on that, and not thinking about being at home. Last year was a bit tough but I've already been through it so I'm used to it now."
"I like to get home as often as I can, obviously see me little girl … but I don't want to be going home too much, or they'll think I'm taking the piss!"
Forrester does feel his extended time in the League of Ireland actually ended up helping him adjust to England all the more quickly because he was more grown up - and that partially explains why so many players have succeeded through that route.
"I remember when I was trying to get a move, I went on a few trials and they just didn't fancy me, for whatever reason. I think it's hard, a lot of pressure on you when you're young, you could go to a team and just freeze up," he admits.
"But I think, with the League of Ireland, it's a good enough standard to get yourself out there. It helped me massively because I was gaining experience every week. I was playing in a really good squad, always learning from Ger O'Brien and Bucko [Liam Buckley] and that. I think that's one thing a player can't value enough - learning how to control yourself in a game.
"I think over the years I kept getting setbacks, eventually Peterborough came and I think I was at a level of maturity and know-how of the game that I was like, 'Yeah, I'd be able to manage myself here'."
Forrester does think that maturity is maybe one small reason - to go with the one big reason of his position - as to why England hasn't seen him score so many audacious goals.
"I'm a changed man now," he laughs. "Nah, only joking. It's just a different role, and you've got to be more disciplined. When I was younger, I was probably trying those things because I didn't know any better. That shot I had against Drogheda [a volley from near the centre circle], I probably wouldn't try that now. I'll just get the ball and I'll keep it. I'm a bit older now, and keep the ball rolling. That's my game now."
He's also more than willing to make that game even more sophisticated, by watching the best at it, adding: "When I first started playing this position, I used to look at [Sergio] Busquets. He plays the position really well. He's so calm on the ball. You have your Messis there, good defenders there, and it's just Busquets holding it all together. That's what I'd like to see myself as in this team. Just the way he plays and the way he carries himself, I think he's unbelievable - the main man."
It is no exaggeration to say Forrester could eventually be the main man for Ireland, but he has so far just made the provisional squad for last year's March friendlies against Slovakia and Switzerland. That, however, has only fortified his ambition.
"I was really disappointed I didn't make the final squad [for those friendlies], and it motivated me to get to that level. 'You're close, but you're not just there yet'. It was a good push for me," he insists.
That is also why today is so big. A good performance at Stamford Bridge could get him that move to the Championship, at least, and merely playing at that higher level would likely go hand in hand with an Irish cap. Peterborough are actually a rare progressive club who willingly talk up their production of players, and chairman Darragh MacAnthony has even spoken about the price Forrester could get. The midfielder himself is a little more coy about a move, insisting it would be "perfect" to get promotion with his promising team, but still seems to relish the challenge.
"It's testing yourself against the best, isn't it? To see where you're at, where we're at, as a team," he says. "If scouts or whoever see you can manage yourself well against players like that, they'd probably be more inclined to take a gamble on you."
Forrester doesn't look like a gamble. He looks ready to pass the next stage of his career, while so assuredly passing the ball.
- Chelsea vs Peterborough United, Eir Sport 2, 3.0
Sunday Indo Sport