Forrest on his 5,000-mile journey into the unknown, glory under Lyall and helping the coronavirus fight in Canada
- Credit: Archant
Craig Forrest made nearly 300 appearances for Ipswich Town during 13 seasons with the club. In part one of this interview ANDY WARREN spoke to the popular Canadian goalkeeper about his journey from Vancouver to the Premier League.
Every interview with former Ipswich Town players begins in the same way at the moment.
The idea is to talk about football, of course. The highs, the lows, the relationships and the controversies of the past at Portman Road.
But, first, we discuss how we and our families are dealing with the coronavirus crisis. For athlete and journalist alike these conversations have served as a welcome distraction from what’s going on in the world, where so many are suffering and left wondering what the future holds.
This one with Craig Forrest is no different. And the Canadian, a popular figure throughout his 13 years at Ipswich, is doing his bit to help.
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“I’ve been working with a group put together really quickly of former athletes and others here in Toronto, including the actor Ryan Reynolds, who have been trying to help the hospitals,” he says.
“I’ve been delivering things and we’ve been given some great support. The response has been amazing and we were trying to help bridge the gap. It’s any kind of equipment from baby monitors to gowns and protective shields, things like that.
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“We’ve had requests from just about every area of the healthcare service as well as the fire and police departments too, so it’s been hard to keep up.
“But to be able to do something to help people at this time is the least we can do, really. There are so many doing so much and to play a small part like this helps you feel like you are contributing. Sometimes the worst can bring out the best in people.”
Where it all began
Rewind to 1984 and a teenage boy has arrived at Ipswich Station, before jumping into the back of a car and driving up the hill, along Nacton Road and to his new home.
He’s there because a Vancouver-based fireman named Phil Trenter, born-and-bred in Ipswich with links to the club, has got him a trial.
He’s travelled 5,000 miles to get there and, little does he know, it is here he will become a man and forge a successful football career spanning the best part of two decades.
“I basically grew up in Ipswich because I was a 16-year-old who was a fish out of water,” he recalls. “I have very fond memories of being there and I had so many people who supported me along the way and it was an amazing time. I didn’t really realise how tucked away Ipswich was but it’s a special part of the UK.
“Foreign players were very rare at that time, in 1984, and many were seen as not being up to the standard in terms of physicality. You can see from Sir Bobby Robson and his time with Arnold Muhren and Frans Thijssen that Ipswich had a belief that it doesn’t matter where you’re from and that you can prove anybody wrong.
“They were ahead of the game a little bit and had open eyes to a guy from Canada who they knew nothing about and the prospect of giving him a chance.
“I remember the very first game I watched, my first taste of it, when Ipswich played Manchester United at home. The stadium was full and it was amazing. Paul Cooper and Gary Bailey were the two goalkeepers and the standard of play was something special to watch and I was blown away by that.
“Obviously at that point I had a lot of hard work ahead of me but I knew that I wanted some of that for myself.”
Four years later, following a brief loan stint at Colchester, the phone rang.
“I was at home in Vancouver in the summer of 1988 and I got a call from John Duncan and they told me I was going to be in the first-team at the start of the next season. I was thinking ‘holy s*** what an amazing opportunity. I made my debut away at Stoke and the atmosphere was great and it went well. I held that position for quite a long time from then.”
To the promised land
The No.1 shirt was Forrest’s throughout much of the next four seasons. It wasn’t always an easy ride but, in the last of those there was a golden ending as the Blues won promotion back to the top flight in 1992.
“It was an amazing season,” Forrest reflects.
“We were a few years removed from relegation and a few more years past the golden generation and Ipswich fans were beginning to ask ‘what’s going on with our club?’ So it was great to bring something back to Ipswich.
“I played in every game of that season, all 46 games, and there was a lot of pressure coming down to the end of that season.
“We had Bristol City away late on in the season, which we lost 2-1, and because we hadn’t got it done the bus journey home was hard and the pressure was started to build. We got the job done a week later at Oxford though and that was such a special day. Relief.
“There were so many characters in that squad with people like Jason Dozzell and Simon Milton and even some of the guys who came in on loan, like John Moncur (from Tottenham). Then there were people like Warky, David Linighan and Neil Thompson. Some absolute gems.
“Most times when success comes it’s because the team has worked together and fought for each other. We had a good blend in there that’s for sure.
“Warky’s experience and confidence in himself was so big. He obviously wasn’t a young Johnny Wark at that time and he was moving further and further back on the pitch all the time, all the way to centre-back. I remember him playing there at Old Trafford against Manchester United when we drew 0-0 (in 1993). He had Ryan Giggs in his pocket and I remember Sir Alex Ferguson saying to John Lyall ‘we have the fastest player in the league and all he had to do was get it past Wark... and he couldn’t do it.’ He was something else, just brilliant.
“Milton came in from Bury St Edmunds and even though that was a very big jump for him, he did it seamlessly and you’d never have known. He didn’t miss a beat and spent so many years at the club. He was a great character that’s for sure.”
But for all of those characters, there was one man above all who made a real mark on the 52-year-old Canadian.
“John Lyall was an amazing manager and was the best I ever worked under,” he said.
“In the most part the managers get too much praise when things go well and too much criticism when it isn’t, but John Lyall was so special. His ability to recognise the strengths of individuals and put a team together that way was unique, I’d never seen anything like it.
“He was this tough, East London guy who grew up at West Ham with Ron Greenwood back in the 60s and learned so much from him. He had an incredible personality and the lads loved speaking to him.
“I remember Chris Kiwomya, when he was just a young guy, speaking to John and confronting him with all sorts of questions before John beat him back down and put him in his place. But everybody loved him.
“We’d sit around in groups with him in the hotels on Friday nights before away games and just speak with him about his experiences, his knowledge of the game and why certain decisions were made. No other manager I played under could rip a group of players like he did. Bobby Robson could do it I’m certain but I obviously arrived after he left.
“Frank Yallop would tell me about how Sir Bobby would take these youth players’ parents out for dinner and assure them he would be responsible for them and make sure they would be ok and help them build a career in the right environment. He did it, too.
“I know a lot of the players, like Frank, felt like that took them a really long way.
“The way it ended was crushing, so disappointing,” Forrest said of Lyall’s sacking in 1994. “You have these massive ups with promotions and then staying up but there are some real lows as well. When John was fired we all felt so disappointed because it wasn’t his fault, that’s for sure, but you live and die by results.
“He is someone I’ll remember forever.”