Tuesday 20 March 2018

Joe Brolly's Derry 'death notice' still rankles for Oak Leaf defender

Forester determined to atone for lack of 'fight' against Tyrone last year in Red Hand rendezvous

Gary Sice of Galway in action against Neil Forester and (inset) Joe Brolly
Gary Sice of Galway in action against Neil Forester and (inset) Joe Brolly
Derry’s Neil Forester challenges Gary Sice of Galway during the Allianz NFL Division 2 game in Tuam back in March. Photo: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile

Declan Bogue

Knowing the man, it was intended as a joke. But seven days on from Derry's crushing defeat to Tyrone in the Ulster Championship last year, Joe Brolly's 'Death Notice' of Derry football was never going to go down well.

One year on, you ask Derry defender Neil Forester how he felt about his team being made fun of in such fashion. His voice gets slightly reedy and he swallows a little anger down.

"It does hurt, a wee bit," he says. "We went on, we beat Louth, Meath and Cavan. That death notice… One game! We were judged on one game last year!"

The team and management, Forester insists, didn't address it collectively.

"It was just something I took away and… It didn't sit well with me," he recalls.

That defeat precipitated a run in the back door.

After the Cavan win, Forester tweeted a picture of the death notice with the accompanying text: 'Rumours of our death have been greatly exaggerated' #Character #Passion #Doire.'

"I take great pride in playing for Derry. Maybe it's because I come from the city and there's not that many have done before," says Forester, who in January became the first man from the city to captain the county, in a McKenna Cup match.

His childhood hero was not Paddy Bradley, Enda Muldoon or Kevin McCloy, the established faces of the Derry teams of the noughties. It was clubmate Paul O'Hea, who became the first Steelstown man to play for Derry in 2007, the same year Forester played on the minor team that reached the All-Ireland final.

Forester works as a games promotion officer, travelling around the schools in the city spreading his gospel. His work is bearing fruit. Steelstown are an Intermediate side, second in the table and heading back to senior ranks.

"In certain areas of the city, like the Steelstown area, there are a lot of real true Gaels that really push the promotion of the games and I think that is really starting to come through," he says.

Kids are picking Gaelic football as their number one sport now. Maybe dabbling in a wee bit of soccer on the side."

Forester (28) first came into the Derry squad for the chastening 2012 Championship campaign under John Brennan. When Brian McIver took over, he dropped Forester from the squad - he departed with the advice that his shooting had to improve. By McIver's final year, Forester's form demanded a recall.

"It hurt at the time and it stung," says Forester. "But it got me right and I got back onto his panel. I scored a point against Galway on my first game back and I got great satisfaction from that."

McIver quit after that game, and was replaced by Damian Barton. Forester has been an ever-present since.

This year brought relegation to the Division 3 for the first time since Barton himself was in his early playing days - a fate sealed despite the last-day win they dug out against Fermanagh thanks to a late point from Carlus McWilliams.

"We were pushing hard for that victory and we went crazy when Carlus scored that point and the whistle went," Forester recalls now with a wry smile.

"We spent two minutes in absolute heaven, thinking we had gotten over the line, done what we had wanted to do… and then the results came through on the speaker."

Down's Jerome Johnston clipped a '45' over with the last kick of the season against Cork, earning a draw and sending Derry down on scoring difference.

There has been a lot of talk about the state of Derry football, but this weekend Tyrone are in town and despite evidence to the contrary, Forester believes it still stirs something in the Derry blood to see the Red Hands coming with their tails up.

"It's up to us to be really strong-willed and show that wee bit of character now. To force a close game. Be in the mix at the end and then try to get over the line in the last ten minutes," he says.

It's Derry-Tyrone. I was asked if it was Derry-Donegal for me, as a Derry city man. But no, growing up it was always Tyrone for me. No matter what, even if it was a McKenna Cup match, this was blood and thunder stuff.

"Unfortunately last year we didn't show the fight that we should have showed."

Derry city has had some tough times over recent months, the deaths of Martin McGuinness and Ryan McBride creating an atmosphere that hung like a pallor over the mouth of the Foyle.

"It's been a very strange couple of weeks, two high-profile deaths in such a short space of time," says Forester.

"Definitely it affected a lot of people in Derry city; there was a dark cloud hanging around the place for a good two weeks. A sombre mood."

It's time to part those clouds.

Irish Independent

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