Sunday 19 November 2017

'Football can give you a kick in the nuts, but the wheel can turn'

David Forde is in a fight to make France 2016 but new perspective on life means he remains content with his role in aiding the journey

‘I just need to be ready, that’s all I can do. When it comes, I need to be ready to play and give it my all,’ says David Forde. Photo: Seb Daly / SPORTSFILE
‘I just need to be ready, that’s all I can do. When it comes, I need to be ready to play and give it my all,’ says David Forde. Photo: Seb Daly / SPORTSFILE
David Forde celebrating after his excellent display against the Germans in Gelsenkirchen Photo: Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

Goalkeeping is all about angles but Irish goalkeeping now is all about the numbers. Quite simply, six into three won't go.

David Forde started this campaign in the No 1 jersey but finished it on the bench as Darren Randolph started; that the man sitting beside him, Stephen Henderson, is highly unlikely to go to France reflects the uncertainty.

Shay Given's legendary shadow still hovers despite constant infirmity and, when fit, recurrent inactivity; Rob Elliot is currently a Premier League regular but an Ireland irregular.

And if anyone can ascertain the precise relationship status of Martin O'Neill and Keiren Westwood, answers are welcome on a postcard.

Forde was at the last Euros when a cleary unfit and unhappy Given joined his team-mates in an undistinguished trio of painful defeats. Four years on, he remains unsure if he will make it a double.

"I've played 23 games for Ireland and hopefully I'll have many more," says the 36-year-old Millwall man.

"But it's about staying grounded and present. I'm here this week and all I'm thinking of is these two friendly games. It's out of my control, I can only control what David Forde can control. I need to be opportunity ready."

Goalkeeping is all about perspective too, even if it seems so often reduced to a myopic pursuit.

Sure, it is so often reduced to a mano-a-mano combat with the onrushing striker. Or last man standing against the penalty kicker. Hero or Zero; no room for Mr In-Between.

Hostile

But one also has to view the bigger picture, the vast expanse of the field that lies ahead, the wide arrangement of friendly and hostile bodies between your goal and safety.

"Football can change so quickly," he says. "Look at the last year. I've gone from being player of the season with my club, keeping 16 clean sheets, playing for Ireland.

"But then you're relegated and you lose your place with Ireland. Football can give you a kick in the nuts, it's the thing about the sport. But the wheel can turn."

Goalkeeping is about being selfish but it is also about being selfless. Forde started the campaign against Georgia and, were it not for him in Gelsenkirchen, John O'Shea's late goal would have offered consolation, not celebration.

When the World champions returned to Dublin, Forde's precipitative decline and Given's improbable return elbowed him from the side; when the Lifford man was injured (again!), O'Neill beckoned Randolph, not Forde.

The West Ham keeper then provided the most important goalkeeping assist to an Irish goal since Packie Bonner's Italia 90 bomb so discommoded the Dutch.

Forde would have been forgiven a whispered curse or more; Millwall team-mate Alan Dunne suggests in his new book that the Galway man once tore a door off the dressing-room hinges in a fit of temper.

"That might be a bit excessive! I'd be some man to pull a door off its hinges! There might have been a bit of aggression there. . . I suppose in the past I might have had a bit of a temper alright but it's something I've managed to get a handle on.

"It's about being selfless. That's where people get it wrong.

"They think it's about being selfish. But they're wrong.

"It is your country and you take personal issues out of it and that's what will make you be successful.

"So that's why I was delighted for Darren. At first, there was slight disappointment because I was getting ready to come on, I was in that zone.

"But when he went on, I wanted him to succeed because if he does that means we're all going to the Euros.

"It's a level of maturity. It depends on how comfortable you are in yourself. I wouldn't have done it 10 years ago."

If the next 10 days seems to many like Forde as if it will define them as footballers, a decade may as well be a lifetime.

Ten years ago, he had turned his back on all this. Disenchanted with London life and the dust-turned dreams of misty-eyed childhood, he had started an Arts degree in NUIG and pondered a new life with the Galway senior footballers. A new dream.

Stephen Kenny, no mean dream-weaver himself, suggested a final fling. A second chance. So he went to Derry. Renewed his passion. Met a special group, and a special man.

When he first heard of Mark Farren's illness, it was Christmas 2008 and Forde was just months into his second chance at trying to fulfil his ambitions in the professional game.

He had always assumed then that the popular, and prolific, striker would someday join him in England and then, who knows what life could pour forth? Who, indeed, knows?

It is only two months since Farren tragically passed, aged just 33, after a terrifically stirring battle with brain cancer that only astounded those who didn't know him. Those who did were unsurprised at such bravery.

This is perspective writ large; how can a man possibly wish ill of a rival in football when someone you knew so well is facing his biggest battle of all in life?

"It was very sad," Forde says softly. "I was close to Mark at Derry, we had such a special group and Stephen made something special happen.

"I always felt Mark would go on to achieve great things, go across the water and represent Ireland. We spoke about that between us a lot.

"And then it was such a shock to the system when he got ill. God rest his soul. He was beautiful human being and it was a privilege to have known him. He was one of the most sincere people in football."

Which is why, perhaps, he views all those driven buzzwords like fulfilment and ambition a little bit less lightly at 36 than he did at 26 when his first English professional career ended.

"Family gives me perspective which you don't have at 26. Your bubble is just football and then all of a sudden life starts when you're having children. Your perception of everything changes.

"It makes you cherish it even more. You go away to England with these cherished beliefs of what you think football is going to be. And then you see it for what it really is. I got disillusioned and then came home.

"But I always felt that there was unfinished business there, that I had more to offer, get back to England and play for Ireland. So it has given me great satisfaction that I eventually fulfilled my goals.

"But listen, you can go any way when you're at that age coming home. I'd met Jim Brennan (his old secondary teacher and schools coach) and I went back to do an Arts degree. I wanted to play for the Galway senior footballers until Stephen twisted my arm.

"I hadn't fallen out of love with the game as such. I just wasn't enjoying it as much as I wanted to do. I didn't enjoy my time in London, I found coping quite hard.

"So to have Stephen reignite the fire in me, it made me chase the dream again. You come to a crossroads. Luck is when opportunity knocks and you're given these choices. It's up to you if you make the choice and then make the changes you need."

Recently, he made the choice to stay at Millwall, where he rarely starts and, when he does, he has struggled; money may have improved elsewhere but not necessarily geography or playing opportunities. It possibly hints at resigned contentment, letting the chips fall where they may.

Hindsight

"The opportunities did come up but I didn't feel the proposals were sufficient for me to leave Millwall. Hindsight is a great thing. I can still get a chance there before the season ends, there is a lot of football to be played."

But if he doesn't make the Euros, he will be there as a fan and will strive for the World Cup; he stopped drinking two years ago, changed his diet and training. He sees a career beyond 40.

"There's a lot of life and football left in me and I want to play as long as possible," he insists.

For someone who can still recall the tears that spilled uncontrollably, on the coach from Burnley when Alan Kelly first called him up in 2011, it is impossible to gainsay the nobility of his spirit.

"You can't not but like him - not because he should be in the squad because you like him - but he's done very well for me here," says O'Neill. "I just thought it would be a little boost and, with respect, he never let me down in the time I've been here and done well. Who knows what might develop?"

Forde remains sanguine. "It has been a turbulent campaign for me but personally, I'm delighted. We've achieved our goal of getting to the Euros.

"I can see the confidence it has given the team and everybody within Irish football. But I have also seen the lift it has given everyone in the country. So for me to play a big role in that gives me a great sense of fulfilment, being part of that success."

He is not defined by success or failure, rather the journey that takes him there.

"Once you're on the top, the next thing is at the bottom. But it can turn again. I just need to be ready, that's all I can do. When it comes, I need to be ready to play and give it my all."

He knows enough now to know that not everyone can get a second chance.

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