WE take a closer examination of the role played by Armagh veteran Aidan Forker in their resurgence of recent seasons
By Shaun Casey
THERE are a number of tales that portray Aidan Forker’s ferocious fighting spirit and will to win but perhaps none do the Maghery man justice quite like last year’s club championship quarter final against Ballymacnab.
Forker’s versatility at both club and county level is well renowned and while numbers mean very little in the modern game, the 30-year-old stripped out in the number six shirt as the Loughshore men targeted a ninth championship semi-final appearance in ten years.
Of course, Forker famously played full forward for Maghery when they last captured the Gerry Fegan Cup and picked up the Man of the Match award in the final against Crossmaglen, scoring 1-3, as they earned a second ever championship title in 2020.
But last year, the youngest of four Forker siblings moved to wing back to shadow his county teammate and Ballymacnab playmaker Rory Grugan before a serious looking injury left Forker floored, and Maghery’s inspirational leader limped off the field before the break.
Just as Ballymacnab, who led by two at the interval, were heading out the changing room door for the second half, word filtered through that Forker had reappeared and was lining out at full forward, where he’d chip in with two points in their extra time one-point win.
That game sums up all the attributes that make Forker a born leader. From man-marking the opposition’s best player, to the relentless resolve of coming back into the fray after barely being fit to walk, to kicking huge scores in a game where everything was on the line.
In Maghery, that’s nothing new. He’s been doing that a lifetime. Across the country, people are starting to perhaps get a closer insight into his undying drive for perfection.
“He got carried off, but it ended up it was just a dead leg,” recalled Stephen Cusack, another Maghery stalwart. “I was the last person into the changing room, and I came in and there he was, doing bicycle kicks with the leg.
“He just said he was going back out. He was getting rubbed and getting patched up, but he was talking the whole time, Aidan’s a serious talker and with leaders, sometimes there’s these big speeches of what they’re going to do and what they’re not going to do.
“But more often than not, leaders set an example by actions on the pitch. We knew he was coming back out for the second half, he got a couple of points and continued on through extra time and that’s just the type of him.
“We knew he was going to step up,” added Cusack. “Aidan’s been playing senior football for about 13 years now and he would never miss a game unless it’s a broken bone or something.”
His leadership is key in the Armagh dressing room as well and Forker, over the past decade, has displayed all the main qualities needed to be a top player at inter-county level.
When the Maghery man first broke onto the scene, making his championship debut against Tyrone in 2012, he played a wing half forward and netted a first half goal, although the Red Hands had the final say in a 0-19 to 1-13 victory .
But over the years, Forker has played almost everywhere for Armagh. Nowadays, his most common position is on the edge of his own defensive square limiting the influence of the opposition’s best player.
Whether it be Michael Murphy, Sean O’Shea or Darren McCurry, Forker has been Kieran McGeeney’s go-to firefighter in the defence.
“Aidan Forker for me is, he’s exceptional,” said former Armagh player, manager and coach Jim McCorry, who was Kieran McGeeney’s right hand man for three seasons.
“Aidan Forker in my view would walk onto any team in Ireland currently. People would talk about the older players in the olden days, that those boys wouldn’t cut it in the modern era because of the fitness levels and the style of play and all that end of it.
“Aidan Forker could play in any of those eras and currently he could play on any team in Ireland in my view. And probably in any position, he could probably do what Raff’s (Ethan Rafferty) doing in goals at the minute as well.
“That’s the kind of player he is. He can go up and score for you, he can man-mark, he can handle the big physical players, he can mark the smaller, more elusive type players as well, he can do everything.”
“Aidan’s best position on the pitch? It’s hard to even put a position on him,” added Cusack.
“For us, we feel it’s in full forward because he takes two of the opposition players in there and for Armagh, they have a pretty young team and Aidan has been about ten plus years now.
“There’s no one else that can do the role that he does and players look at Aidan for answers and instructions and that’s probably why McGeeney has him in full back, because he can see everything in front of him and he reads the game so well.”
Forker had a huge impact in Armagh’s most recent win, one of the biggest during the McGeeney era, when they overcame one of the top contenders for the Sam Maguire, Galway, by the minimum of margins.
With Damien Comer sidelined through injury, Forker’s physical strength and man-marking ability wasn’t necessarily required and with the shackles off, the Maghery man jumped at the opportunity to demonstrate his full array of skills.
“I thought Aidan was exceptional,” noted ex-Armagh wing back Aaron Kernan, Forker’s former county comrade and current club foe.
“I thought across the whole game, while there were good performances from Galway with the likes of Sean Kelly and we had a number of good performances ourselves, I thought he was outstanding.
“To be fair, he usually gets the man-marking job and gets left in the full back line isolated to blot out a top player, now he does like to use his fitness to still get up the field, but he wasn’t in the inside line defending against Galway.
“I think that contributed to Armagh getting over the line. It was a switch from management, and it was a positive one because he was always the one who was offering us the outlet to kick from defence to attack.
“With his ability to kick, what that does is, if you have the people ahead of the ball and you have somebody of the quality of him who’s a foot-passer, he’s giving you a good ball, he’s playing it to our advantage.
“Is there a bit of a risk with a kick pass? Of course, there is a bit of a risk, but Aidan is a quality foot-passer, so why not use it?
“That tactical switch of moving Aidan further out the field and playing him in a different role was massive in contributing to how good Armagh were able to play whenever they had possession, because he was able to give quality balls into our forward line.”
Over 100 appearances later, Forker is still doing the business in the orange and white and while he’s driving everyone on the field and off, Armagh have a great chance of another few big days out in Croke Park.
But he’s a Maghery man first and foremost, and while county duty takes up the majority of his time, home is where the heart is and Forker never strays too far from the Loughshore.
“He got ratified there for another year as u-8s manager,” laughed Cusack. “Wee Leo, his son plays, so he’s taking the u-6s as well as the u-8s.
“It’s great having a county man around the club, but especially Aidan because he’s been captain and he’s probably Armagh’s leader along with Rory (Grugan) there too, all the young ones just hang off him.
“You can just see how much the young ones look up to him, plus when he comes back to us from county duty, everything notches up a good 20 or 30 per cent. There’s no bullshit, no messing about, when they come back you know it’s championship time.”
No bullshit. No messing. Forker is a born leader and while he’s been doing it a lifetime, he’ll continue to drive the standards for both club and county for as long as he can.