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'Pulling on that green shirt and playing for the senior side? It would be a dream come true'

Limerick’s Anthony Forde is heading for the League One play-offs with Rotherham but he’s not only keen on a return to the Championship.

Image: Martin Rickett

I’VE KEPT ANTHONY FORDE waiting but I know he’ll understand.

When he picks up, I explain that I was busy admiring some lovely photos of him from the European Championships in 2011.

He lets out a loud laugh.

“Oh, Jesus!”

“That’s a while ago now, isn’t it? We got to the semis and we had a really good team. I don’t think there was one bad player, to be honest.”

Forde was a crucial ingredient in Paul Doolin’s Under-19 side that conjured a superb qualification campaign before reaching the final four of the Euros where they succumbed to a Spanish side that boasted the likes of Alvaro Morata, Dani Carvajal, Paco Alcacer and Gerard Deulofeu.

But Forde would soon get used to taking on high-calibre opponents.

At Wolves since he was 15, the Ballingarry native was handed a senior debut by Mick McCarthy in August 2011.

McCarthy started him off slowly, giving him the last five minutes of a League Cup game at Northampton. But, a few months later, as Wolves were losing 3-0 away to Chelsea in a Premier League tie, Forde was summoned again.

A baptism of fire.

“It was like a dream, really,” he says.

“When I came on, Ashley Cole was left-back. That’s who I was up against. I was looking around the stadium and there was a massive sell-out crowd – the same thing against Arsenal in the next game I played. I had a lot of support from Kevin Doyle and Stephen Hunt and Stephen Ward and Kev Foley – all the Irish lads. That made it easier but it was still a shock playing in games like that, when you look back on it.”

McCarthy liked what he saw. The following month he thought little of handing 18-year-old Forde a first start at the Emirates and the Limerick man took a deep breath. He glanced across at the Arsenal players – Robin van Persie, Mikel Arteta, Tomas Rosicky, Alex Song. He puffed out his cheeks and got to work.

Soccer - Barclays Premier League - Arsenal v Wolverhampton Wanderers - Emirates Stadium Anthony Forde challenges Arsenal's Tomas Rosicky during a Premier League game in 2011. Source: Joe Giddens

Wolves picked up a point with 10 men and Forde impressed over 70 odd minutes.

“Because you’re just coming through, you don’t know that much”, he says.

“But if it happened now, you’d be able to enjoy it much more because you’d have had more experience. You wouldn’t be as nervous and could appreciate it to a much higher degree.

But it was unbelievable moment. It was at the start of the career and, looking back, I was so lucky because so many players don’t even get the chance to play in the Premier League. Obviously, I was thinking, ‘Right, things are going to get so much better now’ and then we got relegated. It was a good time coming through but a bad time too because the club ended up getting relegated from the Championship the following season.”

There was a calm before the storm and McCarthy was full of praise for Forde after the Arsenal draw.

“I thought Fordey was brilliant,” he said.

He was so sensible – he kept it and passed it and didn’t lose it in bad areas. He mopped things up and kept hold of it for us and played a few passes and tracked his runners.”

Forde started again in early January – against Chelsea once more – but lasted just 45 minutes as Wolves suffered another loss. By the middle of February, McCarthy was gone, unceremoniously sacked after close to six years in the job. The top brass gambled that a new arrival would stem the bleeding and keep the club up but there was no replacement waiting in the wings. Instead, a litany of names ruled themselves out of the running and Wolves were forced to turn, rather embarrassingly, to McCarthy’s assistant Terry Connor, who stepped up as caretaker boss.

But, it proved an unmitigated disaster. With Connor in charge, Wolves failed to win any of their remaining 13 league games and finished bottom of the league.

Forde featured a further three times that season but inevitable chaos followed when the club dropped to the Championship. Stale Solbakken was brought in as the new manager but barely lasted six months.

Forde started what proved his final game in charge – a humiliating FA Cup loss to non-league Luton – before Dean Saunders arrived and Forde was frozen out. In March, in an effort to see more action, he took in a brief loan stint with Scunthorpe but it wasn’t difficult to recognise the direction the club was heading.

“Things went really well at Wolves early on and I got into the first-team quite early,” he says.

“I had a taste of it and then things change, managers change and I ended up not getting as much game-time. I had to go where I could get more games. I was glad I made the move. I had one more year left at Wolves but I felt that if I stayed I probably wouldn’t have had much game-time. I went to Walsall and played consistently for two years.

Anthony Forde with Gerard Deulofeu Forde gets in a cross despite the close attentions of Spain's Gerard Deulofeu during the Under-19 European Championship semi-final in 2011. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

It was probably a bit of a blur because it (Wolves) was so big. But hopefully I can get back to better things in the future.”

Forde signed with The Saddlers in the summer of 2014 and enjoyed himself under Dean Smith. In that first League One campaign, he racked up 46 appearances in all competitions and grabbed five goals too. But he was hungry for more.

The following season, Walsall agonisingly missed out on automatic promotion to the Championship. Forde was offered a new two-year deal but had set his sights on stepping up. When Rotherham came in for him, a move made sense.

But, the campaign veered off the rails quickly. New manager Alan Stubbs was sacked less than five months after arriving. His replacement, Kenny Jackett, lasted 39 days. The club’s legendary former player Paul Warne was parachuted in to try and salvage the season but relegation was confirmed on April Fool’s Day last year.

Forde’s longed-for return to the second-tier proved a pretty traumatic experience.

“I wanted to be playing in the Championship again this year but things happen,” he says.

Huddersfield Town v Rotherham United - Carabao Cup - Second Round - John Smith's Stadium Source: Richard Sellers

“We’ve got a decent team this season so hopefully we can get back there. And I think we’ll do a lot better with the team we have now. We’ve bounced back and had a strong season. We’re in the play-offs now and looking to get promoted.

We changed a lot of players and that made a difference. The new manager has been very good, the new staff too and we’ve got a good group and a good group makes a big difference. A lot of people wouldn’t have thought that Rotherham – even in League One –  would’ve made the play-offs. So, I suppose, we can be proud of ourselves about that. But I think we know we’re good enough to get promoted so hopefully it works out for us.”

Rotherham are set to finish the season in fourth, it being one of extremes: lots of goals scored but plenty conceded too. Some really big wins and some irritating losses (like last week’s injury-time defeat to Plymouth). But, Forde has impressed again.

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Rotherham United v Shrewsbury Town - Sky Bet League One - AESSEAL New York Stadium Richie Towell celebrates scoring for Rotherham earlier this season. Source: Clint Hughes

As has Richie Towell, who’s enjoying a renaissance while on loan from Brighton.

“I played with Richie once when I was younger but that was it. He was a couple of years older than me so it was just one game for the 21s. But he’s done very well since he’s come into the team. Obviously, being two Irish lads, we room together on away trips. We’re good friends and we’ve both played a good part in the season so far. From his point of view, it’s been a good loan for him so we’ll see where that goes.”

It says a lot about the frenzied competition in the Championship that League One now features a number of high-profile sides that fell asleep at the wheel and suffered the consequences. Wigan and Blackburn may have already confirmed their promotion but Charlton, Blackpool and Portsmouth are still there.

Forde makes a decent point when he acknowledges his side’s achievement in merely booking a play-off place.

“There are some massive clubs here and the league has just got stronger and stronger,” he says.

Before, League One wouldn’t have been that strong but the players and the teams are a lot better now. If we can manage to get to the Champ – the way that the league is now – that would be excellent. Because you’re playing in big stadiums each week. Here, it’s not always the case. Sometimes it’s a decent stadium and a decent crowd but another week it could be 6,000 or something like that. So, you want to be playing in the Championship – it’s a higher level for you to develop as a player too.”

The play-offs are a curious thing. Essentially, after a long, torturous season, the reset button is flicked. After a relentless run of games, players have to dig deep and attempt to peak again.

Forde knows better that most about just how unusual and unforgiving the whole thing is.

“I had it at Walsall when we reached the play-offs too but we’d finished third and played Barnsley who’d come sixth,” he says.

And it literally doesn’t matter where you finish because it can go any way. We lost 3-0 in the first-leg and were pretty much out of it at that stage. Like, we finished third, just one point behind Burton. We could’ve been promoted but it just didn’t happen. And then we lost in a play-off. So, learning from that experience, you need to have a bit of luck but also everyone has to be on their game and you can’t let the nerves affect you.”

“If you just get through that semi-final then you have a cup game at Wembley to look forward to. At Walsall, I played in the Johnson’s Paint Trophy there and that was a great experience but we lost it. And you definitely don’t want to lose at Wembley. So hopefully this year we can get out there and win.”

Later today, Rotherham take on Blackpool in their final fixture of the campaign. They’ll also find out whether it’ll be Charlton or (Forde’s former side) Scunthorpe in the play-off semi-final next weekend.

And as much as the Championship is Forde’s objective, it’s a means to an end. There’s a greater reason why he’s so determined to get there and stay there: a senior international call-up.

Anthony Forde Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

He’s represented the Republic of Ireland at every underage level. In 2013, he was crowned Under-19 Player of the Year. But while his former team-mates Robbie Brady, Jeff Hendrick, John Egan, Eunan O’Kane and Matt Doherty have all made it to Martin O’Neill’s squad, Forde has more work to do.

“It’s one of the best memories I have, pulling on that green shirt for Ireland,” he says.

It feels unbelievable, representing your country. Obviously doing it underage is incredible and I was alongside some players who have gone on to get senior caps. So to get one would be a dream come true and hopefully, one day, I will get it.”

“It’s definitely one of my aims. We’ve had a good season this year but it’s in the lower leagues. So the goal is to get back in the Championship, have a good season there, play as many games as I can, do well and hopefully catch the eye of Martin O’Neill and get into that senior squad.

It’s one of my dreams, obviously – to play senior football for Ireland.”

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