Neil Forester: pride in the Derry jersey
PERHAPS a tale from when he was a 15-year-old best sums up Neil Forester.
Drafted in for a minor club championship game against Ballerin, a 50-50 ball fell between him and the biggest man on the opposition team.
Three years, several stone and a few inches the junior, Forester wasn’t for pulling out. A night pissing blood was enough to convince him to head for Altnagelvin Hospital.
“A bruised kidney. It wasn’t exactly life threatening.”
A couple of years on the wing for City of Derry rugby club drove any fear that might have existed clean out of him.
“I enjoyed the heavy hits, the physical contact to be honest. Getting stuck into a ruck, I relished that.
“I always enjoyed the breaking ball, and maybe that comes from rugby, going through the ball and getting physical hits. I never really shied away from it.”
Forester’s life revolves around sport, and in particular Gaelic football. He’s been a Games Promotion Officer in Derry city for the five years now, the last three of them on a full-time basis.
That involves him working around the primary schools, predominantly the ones that serve his own club, Steelstown.
It wasn’t always that way for him, though. When he attended Good Shepherd PS, the Waterside native displayed no interest.
Ironically, he didn’t play at all until he moved to Oakgrove Integrated for his secondary education. There, exposed to the good of many sports, he fell in love.
He tried soccer briefly, flirted with rugby, played two games of school hurling even – “there were more Protestants on the team than Catholics” – but Gaelic football truly captured his imagination.
His mates played for Steelstown and being a shy kid, that’s how he ended up there. He only joined in his last year of under-14 but had such natural ability that he was on the Derry under-15 development squad the following year.
Claudy man Conal Donaghy, now vice-principal, taught him the basics and from there, he flourished.
Forester finished his underage as one of three Steelstown players on the Derry minor side that reached the All-Ireland final in 2007.
On the way, Tyrone had their first bite out of him. A phantom Cormac Arkinson point grabbed the Ulster minor crown for the Red Hands.
They’ve had too many chunks out of Derry in recent times, but the meetings back in the early 2000s were part of what stoked the fires of Forester’s soul.
Healy Park in 2006 is a fond memory. A draw in Clones in 2003. But funnily, above all it’s the cameo performance of an icon in the 9-point replay defeat that he loved most of all.
“I remember Derry were getting hammered and Geoffrey McGonagle came on with a real fire in his belly, and I remember thinking ‘that’s class’.
“His attitude when he came on, it didn’t matter what the score was, he just wanted to do his best. He scored a goal at the very end, buried it into the top of the net. Even though Derry lost that day, that sticks out so vividly in my mind.”
It had only been two years since he’d attended his first Derry game, a routine Ulster Championship win over Antrim at Celtic Park in 2001.
He didn’t watch his first All-Ireland final until the following September, cheering on the Oak Leaf minors from in front of the TV and sitting on long enough to see Armagh make history.
Yet despite his proximity to the Donegal border and the relative lack of exposure to it in his formative years, the instinct was always piqued when Derry played Tyrone, as they will at Celtic Park at the end of the month.
“There was always a fire for Derry and Tyrone matches, and I went to plenty of them growing up.
“I remember going to Clones and there was always just a Derry thing that there was never any great love for Tyrone.
“That’s stuck with me since I was young, I don’t know if it comes natural but you’d always look at Tyrone as the rivals, even moreso than Donegal. They were the team you wanted to beat at minor level and up through.”
Now his job is to try and give youngsters around Derry city a push down the same path he’s taken.
He works between Hollybush, Steelstown, St Brigid’s and Lenamore primary schools and a bit at St Columb’s College.
Hollybush is the primary feeder for Steelstown club and they’re at the point now where 50 per cent of the youngsters would list Gaelic football as their preferred sport – a significant leap in a traditional soccer stronghold.
A few weeks back, they were able to field four teams of eight players at under-8 level for games in the Inishowen League.
A life beyond the city has lured away a few of his club’s most talented players of a generation but that doesn’t break Neil Forester’s fixation on leaving a legacy.
“I want to make a difference in Derry city. I want to leave something that people will remember at some point.
“You don’t want to just play a bit of Gaelic and walk away. I’m aware that Derry city hasn’t got a great history in Gaelic football and you want to try and push that on in any way possible.
“If Steelstown win a Championship, that would be a big indicator. Having Derry city boys playing for Derry would be an indicator that we’re making progress.
“I think we are.”
He became the first Steelstown player ever to captain the county when he was given the honour for the McKenna Cup clash with Down earlier this year.
To have done it wearing the number 5 shirt was particularly fitting.
Following the death in 2008 of Brian Óg McKeever, a friend and team-mate of Forester, at just 17 years of age, the club retired the number and was renamed Steelstown Brian Ógs in his honours.
His pride was immeasurable that afternoon. Just as it is every time he pulls on the red and white.
THE Derry that we saw during the National League was barely a distant cousin of what this Oak Leaf generation has the potential to be. You can talk about those that opted off the panel before things began, but a large degree of the absenteeism has been down to injury and Slaughtneilism. Slowly, a lot of them are making their way back to fitness. The Derry team on May 28 is likely to contain Brendan Rogers, Chrissy and Karl McKaigue, Danny Heavron, Ciaran McFaul, Mark Lynch and James Kielt, something which seldom if ever happened through the League. Kielt was the most regular but an injury disrupted him while in a rich vein of form but is available again. Their attacking options are bolstered and in Lynch, Kielt and Emmett McGuckin, they have a ball-winning trio whose physicality is almost unmatched. Given Tyrone’s perceived weakness beneath the high ball, Damian Barton could do worse than utilise the trio inside in a hunt for the goals they need. Danny Heavron was their best player last year and getting some football under him with Magherafelt in recent weeks should have him close to full running power. The timing of his counter-attacking thrusts were a massive resource for Derry and they will need to free him up to produce more of the same.
OFFALY conceded 6-22 in one game against Armagh yet heading into the final day of the National League campaign, Derry had a worse defensive record than even them. The return of the McKaigue brothers and Brendan Rogers tightened it up and they kept two clean sheets in the last two League outings, but the porousness at the back has been an unfortunate hallmark of Damian Barton’s reign so far. But he has been without an absolute wealth of talent that has completely undermined their chances of building on reaching the last 12 of the Championship last summer. From the 21 players that were used against Tyrone last May, they’ll be without Kevin Johnston, Gareth McKinless, Niall Holly, Dermot McBride, Cailean O’Boyle, Eoghan Brown and Gerard O’Kane, while Sean Leo McGoldrick was an absentee that day. They’ve also played most of the League without Oisin Duffy, Brendan Rogers, Chrissy McKaigue, Ciaran McFaul, Danny Heavron, Niall Toner and Mark Lynch. As a turnover of players goes, that is simply remarkable. They’ve been searching for long-term replacements for Fergal Doherty and Patsy Bradley for a couple of years and Niall Holly’s defection from the panel was arguably the most keenly felt of all those that opted out. That lack of a consistent midfield partnership makes it difficult for them to secure enough of their own ball to win big games.