Friday 23 February 2018

Forker's big chance to be just like hero McKeever

Declan Bogue

IT was in the squeeze and the swell, among the fumes of alcohol and the tears shed, that another generation of Armagh footballers was born.

On that fateful evening of Sunday, September 22, 2002, an orange crush covered the Croke Park pitch as Kieran McGeeney ascended the steps of the Hogan Stand to lift Sam Maguire for the first time in their history.

Paidi O Se waxed-on about being set free at last from the years of oppression and helicopters flying overhead. In the imagination of every child in the county, though, they wanted to be just like this group. Like 'Geezer,' like McGrane, like Oisin (McConville).

Aidan Forker of Maghery didn't know if he was going to get a ticket or not. At 10 years of age he thought he was going to miss out. At the last minute his father got them, two tickets for the Hill, so he sat on Joe Forker's shoulders.


Some couldn't take it. His mother couldn't handle it at half-time and left the ground. Aidan and Joe stuck it out, though, for Oisin's goal, Clarke's points, and for the final, delirious push over the top. In the carnage, he even lost sight of his father momentarily.

"I was one of the people in the big crowd on the pitch," he recounts, "but I remember being delighted and seeing the delight on my dad's face. Just hugging anybody you could see, it was unbelievable.

"I remember being surrounded by people and I was only small, so I did actually lose him for a couple of minutes. I managed to find somebody that I knew -- maybe it was my uncle or something -- and he took me under his wing for a couple of minutes. It was just pandemonium. Mental!"

There had been other times that he went to see Armagh play, when he would marvel at Ger Reid's full-back displays and the famous semi-final against Kerry in 2000. But the All-Ireland final was when his ambitions crystallised.

This success was not frittered away. Armagh, contrary to some beliefs, did not take their eye off the ball and pour everything into the hope of another senior All-Ireland. In 2009, Paul McShane brought a band of minors to victory over their old rivals Down in the Ulster final, and they weren't done until they toppled a highly-rated Mayo in the All-Ireland final.

Forker was invited onto that team, but he turned it down -- "silly me" he says now -- to play for Armagh in the Milk Cup soccer tournament. They didn't get on so well, but one highlight was playing against Manchester United -- although they lost 4-0, Federico Macheda helping himself to a brace.

Soccer was important for Forker at that age. "I played for Dungannon Swifts from when I was eight or nine. I showed maybe a bit of promise when I was young, but nothing came of it. It was hard, but I had to give it a rattle," he says.

He continued with the Swifts until last season, when he was called into the Armagh panel. "I had to choose one or the other and thankfully I chose Gaelic. You have to choose one and give it a good go and I'm happy I have done that with the way things have panned out."

Dungannon came back with improved terms and more money. "But I would always say I wouldn't be motivated by that," he explains.

"That's the good thing about the GAA, you're in it because you want to be there.

"I was only in the Irish League for a few years and I saw a few lads who were only in it for the money ... But not me."

Tomorrow he will take the field with the No 10 jersey on his back, just like one of his main heroes from 10 years ago, Paddy McKeever. "It's funny, because I was talking to him earlier in the week, but Paddy McKeever would have been one of I would have looked up to and I had an Armagh jersey with No 10 on it, because Paddy was No 10 and he was left-footed like I am."

For Forker, the rivalry between Armagh and Tyrone is still as keen as it was 10 years ago.

Living in Maghery, on the shore of Lough Neagh and a stone's throw from the Derrylaughan pitch, it always is -- no matter how each county are going.

His mother is from the Fox family and she has 14 brothers and sisters. Some of her sisters married men from Tyrone and he has a lot of cousins from Coalisland.

The craic between the two sides of the family has been mighty for a while now.

His dad was a handy club player, and earned a few outings in the Orange jersey.

Naturally, Armagh observers are going to point out the similarities with Aidan and his elder brother Stefan, who might have joined him on the county panel this year, but he went to England.

County football, then, has been a natural progression: "It's been better than I expected. hard work, obviously, but I like that," he enthuses.

"Hopefully, we can get a win and get a good start to my county career.

"But, you never know, and I am trying to keep my feet on the ground. Paul (Grimley) and Paddy (O'Rourke) will make sure of that."

The Athletic Grounds in a championship battle between Tyrone and Armagh, when you can't catch your breath, is no place for the weak or the faint-hearted. But that's where Forker makes his debut. He'll be equal to it, no doubt.

Irish Independent

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