‘We have the best players in Armagh...’ Aidan Forker still chasing glory with the Orchard County

“You don’t always get what you want but that’s not my plan,” says ambitious Armagh skipper

Aidan Forker and his Maghery team-mates clash with Clan na Gael next Friday
Aidan Forker made his debut for Armagh back in 2012 and retains his love for the game

WHEN you’ve soldiered on as long as Aidan Forker has, some things are bound to change along the way.

In 2012, when he started out with Armagh he was a half-forward with a brilliant left foot and maybe not the longest fuse in the world.

There were more scores and more cards back then before he reinvented himself as the teak-tough, disciplined, man-marking defender he is today.

Yes, some things have changed but some have stayed the same.

He still wants to learn and test himself and his hunger for success still powers his engine - every year without the Championship title he craves is another shovel of coal into the boiler. Success has been elusive but the Armagh skipper loves football as much as ever and, despite disappointments as the Orchard county pushed to the brink of glory over the last two seasons, he retains the belief that someday he’ll get there, although he does reluctantly accept that his career “isn’t going to last forever”.

“I’m feeling really good physically,” says the Armagh captain.

“No major knocks or bangs and training hard and I got a good pre-season so I have no excuses. We’re playing against top teams and we’re in the mix like we were last year in the Ulster final - which was extremely disappointing - but I’m enjoying football as much as I ever did.”

Yes, he enjoys his football but ultimately he plays to win things, to be the best - that’s what drives him. He makes no bones about it: If he doesn’t get a Championship medal he’ll shuffle off the stage disappointed.

You might say he deserves one for all his dedication and his many years of service but he knows better than most that deserves doesn’t come into the equation.

“I do have a sense of perspective that when I look back on it I’ll have enjoyed it and enjoyed the journey but it won’t be completely fulfilled if we don’t win a Championship medal for me and the boys around me who I want to win one for as well and who I’ve soldiered with,” he says.

“There are loads of elite people who have soldiered with their county for years and you don’t always get out of it what you want but that’s not my plan and that’s not our plan.”

Himself, Rory Grugan, Stefan Campbell, James Morgan, Mark Shields… There are a few of them in, or close to, the veteran bracket. They’ve all hung in there through thick and thin and Forker says that’s testament to the environment created by Kieran McGeeney, his coaches and the players themselves.

“Boys want to be there,” he explains.

“To be honest we have attracted the right people into the group in terms of players.

“I think we have the best players in Armagh, I don’t think there’s anyone in Armagh who should be in our panel who isn’t.

“There’s a real appetite in the county to come and play for Armagh and once you’re in it’s very hard to step away because of the group and the set-up, the level of coaching, the level of professionalism and how we are challenged and engaged every night.

“We are rocking up to training and there’s Conleith (Gilligan), ‘Star’ (Brendan Donaghy) is up one night a week, Ciaran (McKeever) is setting up defensive stuff, ‘Geezer’ is overseeing it and chatting to boys…

“How would you not want to suck that up if you are in any way a high-performer? I love it and I’m probably speaking for the majority of boys who love going in, soaking it in and trying to be better and taking it to your club. It’s great.”

Richie McCaw lifts the Webb Ellis Cup after New Zealand's 2015 World Cup win
Richie McCaw lifted the Webb Ellis Cup twice and played 22 games at the World Cup (David Davies/PA)

MIND you, it’s not all sprints, weights, tackle grids... There’s the grey matter to look after as well – training the brain - and for the psychological side of sport “anything All Blacks” does it for Forker.

“I love (Richie) McCaw (legendary former New Zealand skipper) and any of the guys from that era,” he says.

“It’s probably cliched at this point because they are overused. I just finished (Dan) Carter’s new book on performance and it was good. It was reassuring he was doing a lot of similar things we would do as a group or individually. It’s good I enjoy that aspect, I think life is a performance to be honest.”

He follows the teachings of former England and Australia rugby coach Eddie Jones too. He admires the Aussie’s “edginess” and the way he sets his teams up and challenges his players.

However, for inspiration he doesn’t have to go outside the Armagh camp.

“The most impressive people are the people who, the more you find out about them, the more impressed you are by them,” he says.

“To be honest, I’m thinking of Kieran McGeeney. The more you find out about Kieran, the more impressive he becomes because maybe you learn something and you find out he (already) did that.

“I’m in a leadership role in school and I think you can bring it to all parts of your life, sport and football teaches you about life in general and I say that to the children to about sport in school. “So I enjoy it and I’m always learning I suppose.”

Armagh manager Kieran McGeeney has had six weeks to prepare his players for their next Championship assignment Picture: Margaret McLaughlin.
Armagh manager Kieran McGeeney has the best players in the county at his disposal says Aidan Forker. Picture: Margaret McLaughlin.

DESPITE not having won an Ulster title in 16 years, Armagh are never far away from any discussion on the Anglo-Celt favourites. Some of that profile, Forker agrees, comes from having McGeeney as manager but he insists it’s also because of the style of football the Orchardmen play.

“Number one, people like to watch us,” he says.

“I think we play a decent brand of football or try to play. If anyone came to watch our training there’s very little chat about defence or kicking backwards, it’s all forward as much as possible and that’s Kieran’s philosophy.

“He wants to play forward and score and I think, with the people (coaches) we have in, supporters are fascinated to see the impact on the group so that maybe gives us a wee bit more spotlight.

“But when you’re inside a group that’s neither here nor there - boys don’t tune into that really. It’s probably worth saying that Kieran has come under a wee bit of unfair criticism at times and everyone has the right to talk about how long he has been here of course but I think if the players are happy with what’s happening and the way Kieran does things.

“I think there should be no chat about it.”

The criticism of McGeeney would have dried up over the last couple of seasons had Armagh been able to get over the line in penalty shootouts against Galway (2022 All-Ireland quarter-final) and, last year, Derry (Ulster final) and Monaghan (another All-Ireland quarter-final). From a players’ perspective, Forker says the Orchardmen can practice spot kicks all winter long but the reality is that all three games could have been won in normal time.

“From a group perspective it’s hard to put too much into a penalty from a preparation point of view,” he says.

“I think that’s a very individual thing whether the ‘keeper is looking at things or the people taking them being a wee bit more refined in their practice.

“We’d be looking at the things we could fix as a group or could have done better as a unit be that defensively or looking at improving our accuracy in front of goal of efficiency in attack.

“But from being better and a performance point of view there are things we can look at in normal time to try and get over the line in those games.”