Wednesday 18 September 2019

'It's hugely disappointing. You've a range of emotions: you're angry, embarrassed . . . the whole lot'

Jason Forde now a vital cog in the Tipp machine after lowest point of 2017 All-Ireland semi-final

Jason Forde. Photo: Sportsfile
Jason Forde. Photo: Sportsfile

Dermot Crowe

As a child, Jason Forde placed Eoin Kelly near the summit of his affections, his favourite Tipperary player, without realising that he would get to play with him one day.

Kelly made an early start, debuting in the championship at just 18, which allowed enough time for their careers to overlap before he retired in 2014. Kelly's career took off like a jet plane. Forde's rise has been more fitful, a slow burner.

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In 2013, aged 19, he came on in the febrile qualifier match in Nowlan Park against Kilkenny, hardly a soft landing, and then had to wait until 2015 before he started his first championship match in a 16-point win over Limerick. He started the Munster final win over Waterford and was then replaced at half-time in the All-Ireland semi-final defeat by Galway.

The following season, in their All-Ireland-winning run under Michael Ryan, Forde's career went into a reverse spin when he had to settle for substitute appearances. In 2017, he remained a peripheral influence, starting only one of Tipp's championship matches before finally pinning down a place in 2018.

"Every player wants to be starting," he says, "but when you look at the players ahead of me who were playing, you had a lot of lads who won All Stars, played on All-Ireland winning teams. It wasn't the easiest six forwards to break in to. And then I probably wasn't playing well enough to be there either. You have to be realistic. When you're in the moment maybe you don't view it as such. But when you look back you'd probably say the six lads who were playing were justified playing."

He is 25 now and Tipp's most valuable forward after Seamus Callanan. That is considerable progress since their All-Ireland winning year and the season that followed it. Every player has a pivotal moment in their career. Forde's came at the end of 2017 in the All-Ireland semi-final loss to Galway.

"It was obviously a disappointing season, to go out to Galway by a point. And I got brought on and taken off in the same game. That wasn't easy to deal with. If I was to go back in 2018, what's the point in going back to do the same thing - you're only going to end up with the same result.

"So I met up with a lad from Nenagh, he's a personal trainer, just did that bit extra in the off-season. When you get into the season it's hard to make those changes that maybe you need. That probably stood to me."

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Getting over Galway, and the experience of being taken off after being put on, took time. In the 34th minute he replaced Michael Breen and in the 61st returned to the bench when Niall O'Meara was introduced. "It's hugely disappointing. You've a range of emotions: you're angry, embarrassed . . . the whole lot. I actually remember getting up the following morning after it and thinking, 'oh, what's going on here.' We were club training. I actually went down. I've always said the lads in the club have been massive for me. They knew I was hurting. Probably appreciated the fact that I came along. Gave me a bit of a lift as well.

"There's no point saying it's not (disappointing) - it is tough to deal with. I'd been knocking around the panel for a few years. You're obviously looking to make an impression. We were after coming off the big high of the All-Ireland in 2016 . . . I was probably at the lowest I was ever at after '17. I owe a lot to those lads in the club for picking me up. And family at home as well would be great."

His home club is Silvermines, one of the GAA's oldest, founded in 1884. Noel Sheehy, part of the Tipp teams that won the 1989 and '91 All-Irelands, is their only other county man of repute. Sheehy was a defender and when Tipperary minors set out in 2011 they had Forde at centre back, having played at midfield with the minors the year before. When UL won the Fitzgibbon in 2015 Forde was centre back. As the manager of that team Brian Lohan says he was as likely to score three points from centre back as anywhere in the forwards. But versatility can be a curse.

Gary Kirby was manager of UL when they won the Fitzgibbon again in 2018, with Forde a key player. The period coincided with his emergence as Tipp's main forward in the absence of the injured Callanan. "It took him a while to break through (with Tipp)," says Kirby. "People said I suppose that he wasn't getting involved. I would say the big thing (in his turnaround) was his work rate, getting more involved with the team, becoming more of a team player. Himself and John McGrath were up front for us, their work rate was exceptional."

There was also a tendency to take too much on by himself. While he was a Fresher with UL under Kirby, Silvermines had a long run in the intermediate club championship, finishing up in an All-Ireland semi-final in 2013 which they lost after extra-time to Clara from Kilkenny. Forde was also a star player for the county under 21s.

"What you find a lot is when you see a top player from a club like Silvermines," says Kirby, "he probably had to do all the work himself. When he came back into county he probably had that mindset of trying to do too much himself. You find that in a lot of players coming from weaker clubs. It takes a while to adjust."

Eamon O'Shea was manager when Forde was introduced to the Tipp panel and for his first three seasons as a senior county player. Together they worked on areas that needed improvement.

"Maybe just staying in the game and stuff like that," says Forde now. "Definitely in terms of tackling and work rate it needed to come up a couple of notches from where it was. I suppose that comes from experience too and when you get that bit more physically developed. You always say you wish you knew back then what you know now but I don't think you can. You have to have the experiences to make you that much of a better player so you can come through and take those experiences.

"Every player probably has those kind of games . . . where I can't seem to get myself involved in the game enough. It's just to make sure that you're adding something to it. You're tackling or you're making space for somebody else. Something that's contributing to the team. It comes from having more patience and being that bit wiser."

Which has applied, more broadly, to the team he plays for. The Munster final thumping from Limerick threatened to uproot the foundations Liam Sheedy had been laying.

"I suppose we would have been unhappy with our energy levels on the day," says Forde. "I thought we were quite flat over all. And Limerick, you know, got an upper hand in that game and it was probably their work rate more than anything else. They just outworked us. It was stuff that we looked at, and said if we were going to go places we needed to make sure we get to the levels that we needed to."

But the emphatic nature of the loss must have made recovery difficult? "The big thing is not to overly dwell on it either. Take the learnings you can from it and try to apply those and make sure you're better the next day you go out and stuff. I think sometimes if you over-analyse you can beat yourself to death over it. I don't think that's good either. We just didn't reach the levels that we had in other games."

The line of Tipp's graph is pointed upward since then, with their finish against Wexford when a man down helping to bolster the team's belief system. "I suppose after John (McGrath) got sent off and then they went five points up, at that stage it's not looking good. You need to get a couple of scores and get back into it. Maybe that's where our experienced players stood up; every other year you might have panicked and tried to go for goals, whereas we actually just tacked it back on, point by point by point . . . You are still worried at that stage even though everything is going with us that if they get another goal it could change it again. But we just tried to concentrate on keeping the points going over and the next ball, next ball, next ball . . . that's the way we went about it."

Forde pointed to Tipp's composure when asked about possible frustration creeping in after the third goal cancellation, denying Jake Morris an advantage when he hit the net late in the match.

"I don't think anyone went in and started roaring and shouting at the referee or anything like that, and getting sidetracked by that. All we did was (say) look, this is what has happened, this is what we have been dealt, let's get on with it. I think every time one of those setbacks happened we actually responded, be it a point or a big play, I know Ronan (Maher) had a big catch. Things like that. So, I suppose we should be happy with the way we responded to setbacks because those are going to happen in matches, it's going to ebb and flow and certain things are going to go against you. All the time we would be looking at how can we react to this, and what can we control?"

Any discussion on Kilkenny avoids deep engagement on the history and rivalry. "We'll be approaching it in the same way that we approach any game and that's trying to get ourselves right first and foremost. As I say, if we're any bit off as we were for the Munster final it's not going to happen for us. We obviously have massive, massive respect for them and what they've done."

Taking over the frees in the absence of the injured Callanan early in 2018 helped Forde's influence and confidence grow. "He was coming off back surgery so I think it just started in a challenge match in January. There was no conversation about it. Do you know when you have these early pre-season games or whatever, it's whoever hits the frees and that's the way it goes. I think we played Slaughtneil up in Dublin and I think that was the first game I hit them. It went reasonably well. Then we played Dublin a week or two later in a challenge match and it went reasonably well again. Then with the new format the league started that bit earlier in January and I was asked to hit them for the first game and it just rolled from there really. Then I was hitting them with the college as well."

From being peripheral the previous season, Forde was their star player during the spring, shooting the lights out, and ending the National League as top scorer on 7-72, including 2-12 in the final against Kilkenny. Despite Tipp's exit from the championship after the Munster round-robin, Forde finished their chief scorer with 3-39 from four games. In average scoring terms he was the championship's top scorer and he had the highest score in a single game with 1-14 against Waterford.

Their early departure a year ago adds value to their current resurgence. "I suppose it just makes you appreciate it that bit more and be grateful for where you are. This time last year we were all sitting at home watching it, or gone off somewhere on holidays watching it, wishing that you could be there."

If he takes the Liam MacCarthy Cup back to Silvermines, it will be a token of his appreciation for the help they gave him when he needed it most.

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