Strengthened by the experience
It's taken him a while but David Forde is a worthy wearer of the Ireland No 1 shirt, writes Dion Fanning
David Forde would hear the question a lot. 'Has it passed you by?' someone would say. Or he'd be asked if he was now past the age when could he fulfil what he describes as his "burning ambition" to play for Ireland. He was old, but not too old. In 2011, when he made his Ireland debut, he had a laugh to himself. They were wrong and yet they were right. David Forde was the oldest player ever to make his debut for Ireland.
Barring calamity, on Friday night he will be Ireland's number one in Stockholm. The latest step on a long journey from Galway to south Wales and back to Ireland before finally arriving in south London where he has come closest to figuring out the game and himself.
It's a wet morning at Millwall's training ground in Bromley when Forde leads the way into a prefab room to tell his story. He loves this club, loves the contradictions. Millwall has a reputation but it would be hard to find a friendlier place. He saw something of himself in them, in the defiance and the warmth that's reserved especially for those who belong. "You feel like you have to take everybody on. That's the way I've been my whole career."
It has taken some time so there have been more moments when it looked like it had passed him by and more opportunities for those who know him to wonder if he'd missed his chance. He grew up in Galway and played every sport he could but he was always a goalkeeper and he was always a regular at Terryland Park.
When he began to train at Galway United as a teenager, others might have spotted his potential before he did. Don O'Riordan signed him and he remembers a player whose potential could be seen in his build and his courage. "He was brave and his physique was excellent," O'Riordan, who now lives in Beijing, recalled last week.
As with every footballer, Forde has men who have intervened at the right moment in his career. His current Millwall manager Kenny Jackett is one. Stephen Kenny is another. O'Riordan was the first.
O'Riordan had a conversation with Forde when he was a teenager that gave a glimpse at an attitude that he was going to need. "I asked him, 'What do you want to do? Do you want to be a kid who plays in Galway and has a few jars or do you want to push for it?'"
Forde's answer brought a new regime. Every morning O'Riordan would knock on his door and the pair would head for a park in Galway and train. "For the first month or so, he was late and he was lazy and he'd get fed up because he wasn't as good as he wanted to be. But after that month I saw a determination that said 'I want it'. What I saw in him, he saw in himself."
O'Riordan told his old club Derby County about Forde and while he was on trial there, Eric Steele, now goalkeeping coach with Manchester United, provided more advice and information.
Soon there was another opportunity. Barry Town wanted him. There was a chance to play in Europe and a chance to make it. "I was told I might have a slightly better opportunity of getting spotted in Wales than in Ireland at the time and it certainly worked out that way," he says. "I was there for only six months and West Ham came in and signed me."
Forde had conflicting feelings: he felt he'd arrived but didn't think he belonged. He was "a young lad coming from the west of Ireland and I was in the bright lights of London".
He was in a dressing room with bright lights too. David James was England's number one goalkeeper. Raymond van der Gouw would arrive and Stephen Bywater was regarded as the best prospect in the league.
"All of a sudden I've gone from being Eircom League and the League of Wales to the Premier League. It was a big, big eye-opener for me. It was hard trying to integrate into that as well when I hadn't been involved in a professional set-up from a young age. That was a big thing. I suppose it's only through the years that I've done the stepping stones and integrated and felt more at home. That was a hard thing to do. It's probably why I say early on in my career I didn't do the right things. With diet and whatever I was probably still in a part-time mentality. I wasn't in the right frame of mind. I was still in a part-time mode."
Looking back, he says he didn't give himself a chance. He socialised too much and he wanted to fit in. "There probably was an insecurity and maybe a doubt wondering, 'Should I be here?' Plus being that age and it being the first time away from home, away from my family and friends, I was doubting it as well. I was saying, 'How much do I really want it?' That was it – just an insecurity and it wasn't until I've stepped out that I realised that it was what I really wanted. Now it's not an issue any more."
There were loan spells away from West Ham and then he returned to Galway. He was disillusioned with the English game and considered going back to playing Gaelic football before Stephen Kenny encouraged him to sign for Derry City. Kenny admits now that he was "completely inflexible". Derry were full-time and that required commitment. After a Friday-night game, Forde would make the four-hour drive to Galway to be with his family. On Sunday morning, he'd return for training. It didn't matter. The hours alone didn't bother him. "I started to get my love back for the game and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I had two of my best years for Derry."
There were great European nights and UK clubs began to pay attention. At this stage, Kenny felt Forde should be in the Ireland squad but there was never a call.
"I was always itching to get into the Irish squad but I thought I'd struggle playing in Ireland, playing in the Eircom League. I know players have done it but I always thought I have to get to England to fulfil that. I remember a couple of years back Stephen doing articles saying that, and even telling myself that I should be involved. That was big for someone like Stephen to say that."
Soon there was a chance to return to Wales when Cardiff City wanted him. He had no doubts despite his past experience.
Again he was faced with the challenge familiar to all goalkeepers, of trying to dislodge an incumbent. He made a few appearances but new faces kept arriving, faces with reputations bigger than his own and he was off again.
In 2008, he signed for Millwall with Jackett telling him he'd be his number one. Forde didn't hesitate. There were two trips to Wembley for the League One play-off final and promotion in 2010. Next month, Forde will return to Wembley for the FA Cup semi-final in a season that has surpassed expectations. "If you can play here, you can play anywhere."
Now, at 33, he is Ireland's number one goalkeeper. He made his debut in 2011, finally ending all those questions. He came on for Shay Given against Northern Ireland. Ireland were 4-0 up which didn't make it any easier as he didn't want to concede. "It made it more daunting," he says, but adds with words that capture his journey. "You can't even explain what it meant."
For Forde, the European Championships were something different. He knew he wouldn't play so he went there to enjoy the experience which he did, "not on a professional level or as an Irish fan but on a personal level".
When the Irish fans sang The Fields of Athenry during the Spain defeat, Forde was moved. "Being a Galwayman, it's a big, big song for us. There was some hairs on the back of my neck that night."
Since then, Giovanni Trapattoni announced that as Forde was playing for his club, he would be chosen ahead of Keiren Westwood. Forde is now the incumbent, working with a friend who is also a rival. "It's a lonely position and you need that bond. We know that it's nothing personal."
Forde believes the criticism of Trapattoni has been "harsh" and insists the squad are behind the manager.
The next two games could define things for Forde and the manager. Forde has been strengthened by all the experiences "that didn't kill me".
Those who have worked with him aren't surprised. Stephen Kenny noticed his determination at Derry and how he demanded as much from himself as others. "I just keep striving," Forde says. "I put so much in to it and I'm just so determined to win, to progress and to make myself better. I've always had that, I've wanted to play for Ireland and I'm no different now. That's just the way I am."
Don O'Riordan is only startled by one thing. "I'm surprised it hasn't happened earlier. He deserves it because of his dedication and attitude. He's been to England and back. It's fantastic to see a lad from Galway emerging as Ireland's number one 'keeper. It's a great boost to any kid in the west of Ireland."
David Forde has had more than a glimpse of how it could have been.
"A mate said to me once, 'I don't want to be sitting with you in a bar when you're 50 in Galway with you saying what you could have done or what you should have done'. I've just gone and done it."