Saturday 22 October 2016

Forrester finds his solace in the face of sacrifice

Daniel McDonnell talks to former St Pat's midfielder who, despite missing his daughter back in Dublin, is proving a big hit at Peterborough

Published 18/01/2016 | 02:30

Chris Forrester in action with Peterborough United during a Sky Bet League One match. Photo: Catherine Ivill - AMA/Getty Images.
Chris Forrester in action with Peterborough United during a Sky Bet League One match. Photo: Catherine Ivill - AMA/Getty Images.
Chris Forrester with the League of Ireland’s Player of Month trophy for last June. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach / SPORTSFILE

Ken Storey is a Peterborough United fan and a shoe salesman. He's been engaged in both activities for as long as he can remember.

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The jovial grey haired figure, a member of the POSH Supporters' Trust, specialises in agricultural and equestrian footwear and his job has brought him to Ireland on a regular basis.

Ken speaks like he knows a good deal when he sees it and is convinced his beloved club completed a piece of business last August that will reap a serious dividend. He never imagined that Chris Forrester, a budget buy from St Patrick's Athletic, would prove to be such a perfect fit.

"Oh, what a player he is," he enthuses, before exhaling deeply and repeating the statement for effect. "What a player. Players like him, they don't come along every day you know."

His view is shared widely around the ABAX Stadium, a venue that heaved with optimism ahead of Saturday's League One meeting with Southend. Peterborough is a club with a reputation for spotting talent and utilising their services before watching them advance to better things and Ken is convinced that Forrester is only passing through. "It's a stepping stone for Chris," he declares.

He is not alone. Peterborough's Irish chairman Darragh Mac Anthony made headlines earlier this month when he claimed that £3m would not be enough to sign the Dubliner who was picked up for a modest five figure sum. The regulars could understand.


"He's been exceptional," says Alan Swann of the Peterborough Telegraph, who admitted there was scepticism about the unheralded purchase because ex-Cliftonville striker Joe Gormley had struggled since his arrival. No distinction was drawn between the leagues north and south and Forrester's outrageous League of Ireland goals, which made him a Youtube sensation, carried no weight in his new environment.

When he was parachuted straight into the side and retained when Graham Westley quickly replaced David Robertson as manager, they quickly realised they had underestimated him.

Small talk with the local press makes it clear they believe the 23-year-old was plucked from the equivalent of an obscure non-league outfit but people around Peterborough now speak of Forrester like Saints fans used to; they wonder when a wider audience will become aware of his talent.

There is a minimal awareness of the background that made him so popular in Ireland, the tale of the street footballer from Smithfield that only got into organised football in his mid-teens with Belvedere before financial issues at Bohemians gave him Airtricity League exposure and a switch to win a league at Inchicore. The delayed appreciation because of concerns about his light frame has prompted comparisons to Wes Hoolahan, a late bloomer that was slow to move across the water because scouts trained in on his supposed weaknesses as opposed to his exceptional strengths.

Saturday was a milestone of sorts for Forrester as he made his league debut against Southend on September 5 and the return encounter with Phil Brown's charges allowed him to reflect on how far he had progressed in the intervening period.

Scouts flocked to the game with the chatty female steward near the press box teasing and goading them into revealing their identity as they collected their team-sheet. A young looking scout receives a ferocious grilling before giving in and admitting he was from Bournemouth. The men from Charlton and Ipswich sit next to each other.

It's believed that in-form striker Conor Washington, who is on the radar of Northern Ireland, is the main reason for their presence but the age profile of a free scoring side means that any number could be in the spotlight. Ken thinks that Washington is knocking them in because the midfield is creating so many chances.

Unfortunately, it is a bad day to visit.This will be Peterborough's first scoreless draw of the season although they look set to nick it at the death when a theatrical Marcus Maddison dive yields a penalty. With the regular taker injured, victory in a midweek penalty competition gives Forrester the responsibility.

His spot kick lacks conviction and is comfortably gathered by visiting stopper Daniel Bentley. He leaves the pitch with head in hands. "His only mistake all season," says a sympathetic fan.

Understandably enough, it takes him a while to emerge from the dressing room for a pre-arranged interview. "I wouldn't mind but I've been whacking them in all week," he sighs. "But I'll get over it. If we got a peno next week, I'd step up again. This is just a minor blip."

Disappointment is an unfamiliar feeling. In his new position at the base of the midfield diamond, an idea credited to Westley's assistant Grant McCann, Forrester is used to enjoying good results. When Westley mentioned him in the same breath as Michael Carrick, it bemused League of Ireland aficiandos who associate Forrester with his work in the opposition half.

At Peterborough, his brief is different and he spends a good portion of this game in his own half, dropping deep to pick up the ball from the centre halves or goalkeeper. Southend needed a result after a bad run and adopted a combative approach in midfield in order to achieve it with another LOI product, Gary Deegan, typically busy with his wild beard visible from the back row. Cian Bolger, a strapping centre half from Celbridge, keeps Washington quiet. Noel Hunt and Dave Mooney are sent in as late subs.

Forrester is tidy throughout and only has one difficult defensive moment. It's strange watching him sit back and allow others to assume creative responsibility, although he intends to work on getting forward more if he can time his runs correctly.and rotate with the other members of the diamond to avoid leaving gaps.

"I was nervous at first because I thought it was a position where you'd have to be going around smashing people," he smiles.

"It's a lot more than that. I possibly don't make as much tackles as I should but I'm trying to read the game better. I actually enjoy it because of the time I get on the ball. It's not a negative position; I always have the freedom to pass it. It's just moreso the assist before the assist, if you get me."

His composure on the pitch is evident and his friends never believed the football side of things would be a problem. The fear when he left Ireland was that the self confessed homebird, who had lived with his mother all his life, would struggle to cope with being away on his own. With an 18 month old daughter, Isabel, back in Dublin, it's doubly difficult.

"It's tough, I'm not going to lie," says Forrester, who hasn't been home since November, "I've people coming over most weeks but it's not the same as home. I go back after matches to an empty house. I can Facetime people about the game but it's not as good as a physical chat.

"I am getting there and next season I'll be more accustomed to it. And I knew it would be like this; I wouldn't have come over if it wasn't what I wanted."

Christmas was hard. "It was tough not to wake up on Christmas morning with my little girl," he continues, "I speak to her on the ipad and, to be fair, she's very smart on it. She swipes me to the left, leaves me in the corner and continues playing whatever game it is.

"Even if she's not talking to me, I don't mind once I can see her face every day. But she's a year and a half now and I think she might be starting to miss me now and realising that I'm gone."

In truth, it was fatherhood that gave him the push to drive on. There is no glamour in his solitary existence now; he lives around the corner from the ground and the walk for a bite to eat in Nandos or a game of FIFA in a colleague's house is about as lively as it gets.

He is conscious, however, that his lucrative profession can present opportunities which would change the life of his nearest and dearest.

"It's about putting everyone back home that I love and care about in a better position," he stresses, "As long as I'm willing to learn and adapt, I think I'll do alright. I'll be able to look after my family. It was the sacrifice I had to make."

Forrester was flattered by MacAnthony's praise - he couldn't avoid it when fans kept tagging him on Twitter - and beneath the quiet exterior you sense a confidence in his ability to ascend to another level, even if it's cautioned by his own critical assessments.

For years, he's heard voices say he could do with putting in extra hours in the gym and, while the instinctive reaction was to throw the eyes to heaven, he acknowledges there is truth in the observation."Maybe I've been a bit lazy," is the admission. "I wouldn't say that I've worked as hard as I possibly can there. I got here with doing a little bit and I need to push on now and stay on top of it. I've been doing a bit in the gym at a level I can cope well with.

"A lot of people would have said I'd have struggled physically but I think I've held my own well. I take a fair few challenges most games that you wouldn't really take back home, but it's been good."

The set-up and the full days at the training ground (9.30-3.30 with breakfast and lunch included) mean there is no excuse. He doesn't want to say a bad word about his old haunts, but the facilities here are better than anything he experienced in Ireland. "There's a lot of good things back home, but there's probably more good things here," is his diplomatic take.

His transition to larger crowds, better stadiums and a consistently higher standard of opponent has been seamless. In a St Pat's jersey, he would sporadically do things which prompted a recurring question - just how far could Chris Forrester go? The good news is that it looks like we're going to find out the answer.

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