From Melwood and Liverpool with Stevie Gerrard to Clones and Croker for Aidan Forker

The last time Armagh won an Ulster Championship, skipper Aidan Forker was more of a soccer man. That was before he had his ‘road to Damascus moment.’

It’s funny how times change with the Maghery man now the main driving force in Armagh’s bid to bridge that divide to their last Anglo-Celt Cup, which is now in its 16th season.

Forker’s memories are hazy of that 2008 Ulster decider, which Peter McDonnell’s Armagh won after a replay against Malachy O’Rourke’s Fermanagh. It was the year after current Armagh boss Kieran McGeeney, now in his 10th season in charge, retired from playing at 37.

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Paul McGrane and Steven McDonnell were still there. But Armagh were on the slide following the most glorious era in their entire football history when they landed an All-Ireland title and six Ulsters in eight years.

Last year’s penalty shoot out defeat by Derry was Armagh’s first Ulster final since 2008, with Forker leading the charge.

It could all have been very different for the double All Star nominee, who turned 32 earlier this month.

He spent time at Liverpool as a teenager and trialled for Northern Ireland alongside Shane Duffy.

That was before Gaelic football took over: “(I have) some memories of it (2008 Ulster final,” says Forker.

“But nothing deadly clear because I wouldn’t have followed the Gaelic that much at that age.

“I was more of a soccer man at that point. You'd have had to drag me to Gaelic matches at that age.

“It's funny how things come full circle and what it means to me now.”

Forker was just 14 when he went to Liverpool and as “a bit of a homebird” he found it hard.

At the time his oldest brother, Paul, was at Preston North End.

“It was daunting,” he says. “My brother went and played (in England) when he was 16, spent a few years over there and ended up coming home again.

“I was able to sort of bounce off him when I felt a wee bit weird. I was on my own, but you wouldn’t change it - a great experience.

“I got to meet all the players at that time, the Gerrards and Carraghers. Sami Hyypia was playing and Djibril Cisse was there.

Steven Gerrard -Credit:(Peter Byrne/PA Wire)
Steven Gerrard -Credit:(Peter Byrne/PA Wire)

“I think Peter Crouch was there. It was nice. I got to play with the academy guys and see the level and see the youth set-up.

“It was a case of here’s your training jersey. It is good to see youse out lads and that was it.

“They (first team players) were in having a coffee and then heading out to training.

“We were able to watch from the balcony, them getting ready for a Champions League game. It was Melwood (training ground) at that point.

“I wasn’t a Liverpool fan but it was great to see. I always loved Gerrard.”

Forker had other trials, including a spell at Tranmere Rovers with former Derry City manager Kenny Shiels, who was head of youth at the Merseyside club.

“All good experiences and good exposure to the high performance setups and it would have wetted my appetite a wee bit,” continues Forker.

He made final squads with Northern Ireland but never got a full cap. Forker’s first trial was memorable though, lining out alongside future Ireland centre half, Shane Duffy.

“There was maybe 44 players trialling and I was put in centre back, which I was raging about,” says Forker.

At the time he viewed himself as an attacking midfielder who could score goals and “a good passer of the ball, good vision and I suppose aggressive in the tackle.”

He continues: “Who was beside me? Shane Duffy. Me and him lined out at centre back in trials.

“He was the same size he is now when he was 14 so I think that helped him along with heading the ball.

“He was a great communicator and talked very well, chatting beside me and keeping me right.

“Winning headers I suppose. That was my only real recall. I think I was the footballer between the two of us (laughs).”

Forker believes a professional career in England is attainable for players that are focused on what they want and prepared to continually practice their skills.

“I think with my more adult eye, it was just the fact those boys were playing football every day,” he says of his peers in England when he was a teenager.

“Just technically they were a lot better because they were tidier and used to the pace and the quick thinking and decision making.

“Look at Conor Bradley. He was a Dungannon player and look where he is at now.

Photo showing Conor Bradley in action for Liverpool
Conor Bradley in action for Liverpool -Credit:Robin Jones/Getty Images

“I was probably a little bit overawed and it felt like maybe boys were a wee bit ahead of me.

“I’m not going to knock a person at that age who doesn’t have maybe the resilience or the toughness to say, ‘Look, that's just because they’ve had a wee bit more practiced than you.’

“It was brilliant to be exposed to it. A good experience

“Obviously it didn't come off. I’m lucky that I have played at an elite level for most of my life.”

Forker says Armagh’s 2009 All-Ireland minor triumph was a big moment in his conversion to GAA.

“There probably was a road to Damascus moment, a conversion moment - maybe two moments.

“I had been asked into that (Armagh minor) team but said no. I was focused on soccer and was in the first team for Dungannon (Swifts - in the Irish League).

“(I) still had aspirations of doing something in that regard at 16 or 17 and they (Armagh minors) went on to do their thing.

“It was tough to watch because it would have been really nice to be a part of it in some capacity.

“They had a real top top team there so I always said if Armagh came knocking again I wouldn't say no.”

All the while Forker was watching his older brother Stefan, a prodigious forward talent, who came in at the tailend of Armagh’s golden era.

“Stefan was in 7th year in school and Armagh were heading over to training camps in La Manga,” he continues.

“It was mad that our Stefan was going with the McGrane and the McGeeneys at that time.

“Stefan was a very good minor and under-21. A big lad, very accurate and very aggressive and powerful like - didn’t miss too much.

“He played a fair bit and then dropped away a wee bit, but a massive servant for the club as well, and he is still playing.”

Forker’s chance was coming. The phone rang one day, a strange number.

It was the Armagh manager and 1991 Down All-Ireland winning captain, Paddy O’Rourke on the other end of the line.

Forker was a first year student at St. Mary’s teacher training college in Belfast.

“Paddy asked me, ‘Do you like to do a bit of training yourself?’

The rest is history. Forker made his debut in the O Fiaich Cup against Meath in Navan.

He has one stand out memory for that day, an unusual one.

“It was a windy night, raining and I travelled down with Stefan and I was thinking, ‘What am I doing going down here?’

Armagh's Aidan Forker
Armagh's Aidan Forker -Credit:©INPHO/Leah Scholes

“In Navan the changing room hooks are real high up on the wall and I was thinking, ‘Jeez, there must be big men around Navan.’

“So it was a real baptism of fire, but I loved it and I embraced it. I think we got a good lesson that night.

“I was probably one of the better ones and never looked back after that.

“The opportunities came and I was fortunate to play in the Championship that year and get a start.

“Thankfully I’m still here, what, 13 or 14 years later?

“It’s funny. I am a completely different person now than what I would have been.

“It probably just meant so much to me, it weighed on me a wee bit that I wanted it so much.

“I probably performed better when that was the case and I wasn’t putting pressure on myself to be what I wanted to be in soccer and I probably held myself back.

“That’s a personal thing that I am grappling with in my own head, but it’s interesting.

“The Gaelic was a wee bit more freedom. (It’s) ironic that the game, Gaelic, that came a wee bit easier meant a wee bit less at that time.”

That’s certainly not the case any more.

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