WHEN he was on the N84 from Galway to Derry, David Forde could hardly have guessed the carriageway would double up as his redemption road. For back then, his head was torn between his profession and his family. Part of him wanted to jack his football career in and “play a bit of GAA around home”. And another part of him reminded him to stay true to his dream.
“The thing was that I always felt I could play for Ireland,” says Forde.
And last summer, at the age of 30, he did, becoming Ireland’s oldest debutant since the Second World War. This summer, he will do something even better, namely travel to the European Championships as Giovanni Trapattoni’s third-choice goalkeeper, quite a turnaround for a man whose early career was defined by moves to big clubs that didn’t work out and brief spells at smaller clubs where he built a cult status among the die-hards but wondered where life’s journey was taking him.
Now, all his doubts have become certainties. He earns a good living – “that’s a change because there were times when I played for peanuts” – he plays at a good level (which is also an upgrade from his Galway United, Derry City, Bournemouth, Luton Town and Barry Town days) – and knows which direction his career is moving in.
“Hopefully upwards,” he says. “I’m 31 but all around me are keepers who have stayed fit and stayed in the game until they were 40. My long-term aim is to play in the Premier League and I think I’m ready. I’ve hit form and the Ireland call-up really boosted my confidence. I kept 20 clean sheets in the Championship last year, made my debut for Ireland and played my part in the 2-0 win over Italy. So I feel my time is coming.”
Yet there were moments when he wondered if it would ever come. Released by West Ham at 24, he came back to the League of Ireland after listening to the sales pitch of Derry City’s then manager, Stephen Kenny. “If one man can be credited with turning my career around, it’s him,” says Forde. “He believed in me. He was there when no one else was.”
Yet after so many disappointments, Forde refused to take anything for granted when he hooked up with Kenny and Derry in that winter of 2004, so he made a point of hedging his bets, by continuing to live with his family in Galway and setting up a home base there, putting in an eight-hour round-trip to Derry twice a week. Those road trips proved character building.
“As I’d pass through one small town after another, getting tired, knowing I’d be away from my wife and child, of course I asked myself, ‘why am I doing this? Why not play GAA and get a job in Galway and be with my family all the time. And I know now why I stuck at it – because I believed in myself, my dream and my career and I knew how important it was to hang in there at Derry.”
Derry’s greatest importance, says Forde, was that they “opened the door to the big leagues.” By signing for a club on the up – they went from the relegation playoffs to a home-and-away Uefa Cup win over Gothenburg within two years – they made a name for themselves. And soon enough the scouts came looking, Celtic spotting Pat McCourt, Cardiff identifying Forde.
Not that a move to the Welsh capital brought an immediate return. He was more out than in of that team and loan moves to Luton and Bournemouth ultimately proved crucial. It was at Bournemouth where Kenny Jackett spotted him for Millwall and from there his journey’s speed intensified.
And now it’s near its end point.
Forde says: “I always knew I’d unfinished business in the UK. So when I played for Derry, I never let my self-belief dip. I got myself in the correct shape so that if a scout was looking at me, I’d be ready to make the move up.
“The hard work has paid off – as it has for so many of us from that era in the League of Ireland. Seamus Coleman [Everton from Sligo], Stephen Ward [Wolves from Bohs], Damien Delaney [Ipswich, ex-Cork] and Sean Dillon [ex-Longford], who won a Scottish Cup with Dundee United.
“Then in midfield, you’ve got Wes Hoolahan [Norwich City], Keith Fahey [Birmingham from St Pat’s], Niall McGinn and Paddy McCourt [Celtic from Derry] and a choice of Kevin Doyle or Shane Long in attack. That team would take some beating.”
His Millwall team are also hard to beat.
Forde says: “The Millwall motto is ‘No one likes us and we don’t care’. As a team, we’re like that. We’re big, strong men who never give up. We don’t stop for 95 minutes. We don’t make it easy for anyone. As a team we are in keeping with the club’s tradition.”
Transfer that attitude to Ireland. Like Millwall, they will go to Poland without much outside love, with a team whose sum is superior to its parts, whose style of play is attractive to its fans but appalling to neutrals but whose determination and humility is endless in its appeal.
Forde says: “As a squad, we’ve had a lot of criticism but it seems to spur us on.
“It means so much to play for your country, means so much to just be the fifth team to qualify. It means so much that we will be part of Irish football’s history, a history which dates back to a qualification attempt for the 1934 World Cup. Since 1934, we’ve entered World Cups. Since 1958 we’ve entered European Championships.
“And now we’re going to the finals of the Euros. That’s a brilliant achievement in the historic context I’ve spoken of. I’m so proud to be a part of it. And I’m glad too. I stuck at this game. I persevered. I’m proud of myself for doing that.”
He has every right to be.