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Forester to add some Steel to the Oak Leaf challenge

 

By Declan Bogue

Knowing the man, it was intended as a joke. But seven days on from Derry's crushing defeat to Tyrone in the Ulster Championship last year, Joe Brolly's 'Death Notice' of Derry football was never going to go down well.

One year on, you ask Derry defender Neil Forester how he felt about he and his team mates being made fun of in such fashion. The Steelstown man's voice gets slightly reedy and he swallows a little anger down into the pit of his stomach.

"It does hurt a wee bit," says Forester. "Joe put in the death notice of Derry football after the Tyrone game last year. And ah… we went on, we beat Louth, Meath and Cavan.

"That death notice… one game! We were judged on one game last year!"

The team and management, Forester insists, didn't address it collectively.

"It was just something I took away and… it didn't sit well with me," he recalls now.

That defeat precipitated a run in the backdoor, the wins like building blocks and getting more impressive by the week as they dismissed Louth, Meath and then Cavan.

After the Cavan win - which required coming back from three points down with 20 minutes left in Breffni Park - Forester took to Twitter, posting a picture of the death notice with the accompanying text: 'Rumours of our death have been greatly exaggerated #Character #Passion #Doire.'

He was glad he did so.

"I take great pride in playing for Derry. Maybe it's because I come from the city and there's not that many have done before," he states.

His childhood hero was not Paddy Bradley, Enda Muldoon or Kevin McCloy, the established faces of the Derry teams of the noughties. It was Paul O'Hea, a Steelstown clubmate who became the first clubman to play for his county in 2007, the same year Forester played on the Derry minors All-Ireland runners-up team.

His day job is captured perfectly on his main Twitter bio pic - coaching as a Games Promotion Officer who travels around the schools in the city spreading his gospel. The other picture on his account was his proudest moment when he became probably the first man from the city to captain Derry in January's Dr McKenna Cup match against Down, lining up against Darren O'Hagan.

His work is bearing fruit. At present, Steelstown are an Intermediate side, second in the table and heading back to senior ranks, where they played for a few recent years.

"In certain areas of the city, like the Steelstown area, there are a lot of real true Gaels that really push the promotion of the games," he maintains.

"It's a slow process. We are a young club. We are only 30 years old this year and it's only really been in the last five or six years that we are starting to see a wee change in perception from working in the schools.

"Kids are picking Gaelic football as their number one sport now. Maybe dabbling in a wee bit of soccer on the side. In certain areas there is a strong Gaelic influence."

The 28-year-old first came into the Derry squad for the chastening 2012 Championship campaign under John Brennan.

When Brian McIver took over, he dropped Forester from the squad, but he departed with the advice that his shooting had to improve. By McIver's final year, Forester's form demanded he was called back into the squad.

"It hurt at the time and it stung," says Forester.

"But it got me right and I got back onto his panel. I scored a point against Galway on my first game back and I got great satisfaction from that."

However, the performance of Conor Lane as referee that day left McIver admitting he couldn't take any more dubious decisions. He was getting out.

Derry went in search of a new manager and got Damian Barton, with Forester an ever-present since.

This year brought relegation to the third tier for the first time since Barton (above) himself was in his early playing days. The final game against Fermanagh showed incredible resilience from Derry to dig out a win, despite trailing for most of the game, with a late point from Carlus McWilliams.

"We were pushing hard for that victory and we went crazy when Carlus scored that point and the whistle went," he recalls now with a wry smile.

"We spent two minutes in absolute heaven thinking we had gotten over the line, done what we had wanted to do, and then obviously the results came through on the speaker."

Down's Jerome Johnston clipped a '45' over with the last kick of the season against Cork, earning them a draw and sending Derry down on scoring difference.

This weekend Tyrone are in town and, despite evidence to the contrary, Forester believes it still stirs something in Derry blood to see the Red Hands coming with their tails up.

"It's up to us to be really strong-willed and show that wee bit of character now, be in the mix at the end and then try to get over the line," he says.

"You know what - it's Derry-Tyrone. I was asked if it was Derry-Donegal for me, as a Derry city man. But no, growing up it was always Tyrone for me. No matter what, even if it was a McKenna Cup match or a Championship match, this was blood and thunder stuff. Unfortunately last year we didn't show the fight that we should have showed."

Derry city has had some tough times over recent months, the untimely deaths of Martin McGuinness and Ryan McBride creating an atmosphere that hung like a pallor over the mouth of the Foyle.

"It's been a very strange couple of weeks, two high-profile deaths in such a short space of time. Definitely it affected a lot of people in Derry city, there was a dark cloud hanging around the place, a sombre mood," he adds.

It's time to part those clouds.

Belfast Telegraph

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