Forrest on Town’s great escape, drunken golf inside Portman Road, relegation pain, an odd loan move and that Old Trafford drubbing
- Credit: Archant
In the second and final part of this interview, former Ipswich Town keeper Craig Forrest discusses life in the top flight, the Blues’ great escape, relegation and that infamous day at Old Trafford.
An exclusive club
Peter Schmeichel, John Jensen, Jan Stejskal, Anders Limpar, Andrei Kanchelskis, Robert Warzycha, Eric Cantona, Ronnie Rosenthal, Michel Vonk, Gunnar Halle, Roland Nilsson, Hans Segers. Craig Forrest.
An exclusive club indeed. Forrest was one of only 13 foreign players to take to the field on the opening weekend of the inaugural Premier League season in 1992.
It was a new dawn for English football and for Ipswich Town, although it took time for the scale of the change to become apparent.
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“The fact it was the Premier League didn’t mean much to us, other than as a group of players going up a league and the name of the competition being changed,” he said.
“But it evolved into something really special, even in the years we were playing in it, and we probably didn’t see it coming at the time.
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“There were 13 foreign players in the Premier League in 1992, of which I was one, and in my last game for West Ham (in 2001) there were 17 different nationalities within the two squads. That shows you the change.
“Being one of those first 13 foreign players made you part of a pretty select club, although I didn’t really see myself as a foreigner because I’d been in Ipswich for eight years.
“It was a fun time. The game went through a spell during the 80s where it wasn’t particularly attractive and maybe a bit direct. Everybody had a big target man at the start and the style wasn’t always great but it certainly evolved.”
The great escape
“Wow. The pressure. I think I lost 15lbs during that game at a time when I couldn’t really afford to lose it.”
Forrest’s describing the events of May 7, 1994.
Ipswich are at Blackburn, staring relegation in the face. But their point, coupled with Sheffield United’s defeat at Chelsea thanks to Mark Stein’s brace, meant it was the Blades who were relegated and the Blues, Southampton and Everton all survived.
It remains one of the most dramatic conclusions to any Premier League relegation battle.
“We were going to Blackburn at a time when Blackburn were on the way up with Shearer up top,” Forrest said. “We needed at least a draw but felt like we probably needed to win. Thankfully Blackburn weren’t playing for anything, though, because they had already finished second.
“It was a different time and communication wasn’t so easy. We had people on the bench making phone calls to find out what was happening in other games. I was going up for corners because we needed to win then sprinting back again. I could hardly breath. Then we got another corner, looked over to the bench and told me to get back. That was so confusing.
“Then the final whistle blew and we had no idea what was going on. Mark Stein had scored for Chelsea against Sheffield United and we were staying up. Mad.
“We stopped at an off-licence somewhere around Blackburn and Lyall told us to go and load up with alcohol. We got absolutely s***-faced on the way back to Ipswich and could hardly get off the bus when we got back.”
That wasn’t the end of the celebrations, though.
“We went into the stadium and were smashing golf balls around, hammering them into the stand off the first-team pitch and it was so much fun. We certainly hit the clock and broke that a bit, meaning it had to be repaired. But it was dark and we had no idea where the balls were going.
“I’m not really sure who had that idea. Probably Warky, that seems like his kind of thing. He isn’t a golfer but I think a good few of us got involved. Nobody said anything to us about it afterwards.
“Over time the memories start to fade but what remains is the connection you have with the people you were there with. It’s amazing.”
‘Lambs to the slaughter’
The reprieve was only brief.
Relegation followed a year later as the Blues slumped to the bottom of the table and finished 21 points from safety.
Forrest ended the season with the player-of-the-year trophy in his hands, but it’s fair to say that award isn’t one he’s particularly fond of.
“There were so many brilliant people around the club and that’s where the real heart is,” he said.
“We always felt like we had a responsibility to those people so when we got relegated the biggest disappointment is that we felt we had let them down and that things around the football club would become tight and people would lose their jobs.
“You feel responsible for that somewhat and it feels hard.”
“We didn’t have a large squad and after you pick up a few injuries you get to a point where you are beaten down and that’s how the team felt. It was lambs to the slaughter and there was no way we could get ourselves turned around and going in the right direction again.
“I got the player-of-the-year award that year and I remember being injured for the last match of the season. They put me out on the pitch to get the award and that felt surreal because we’d been relegated – there wasn’t much of an appetite to celebrate the best player of that season.
“I was under so much pressure and had a decent season because I was making 10 saves a game or something like that but I obviously conceded lots of goals too. They handed me the mic and told me to say a few words but that isn’t really what people wanted to hear.”
The darkest day
We’ve put it off long enough, nearly an hour in fact. So here we go.
“This comes up a couple of times a year, probably,” Forrest said, when talk finally arrives at the events of March 4, 1995.
“People mention the 9-0 loss at Manchester United every time a big score comes up. You think ‘here we go, here we go’ and then it doesn’t quite happen.
“It happened earlier this season when Southampton lost by nine at home to Leicester and I figure that had got to be worse than losing 9-0 away at Old Trafford. It has to be, doesn’t it? I only turned that game on when the ninth one went in and I knew my phone would have been busy afterwards. It was.
“It was a tough one of course, although I do sometimes think all these years later that I doubt I would be remembered for anything at all if that hadn’t happened!
“The floodgates were open and normally when teams score four, five or six they sit back a little, but United needed to improve their goal difference compared to Blackburn so we knew they would keep coming.
“I remember George Burley’s team talk before that game and he said ‘they won’t expect us to attack’ which makes me laugh so much all these years later. It was terrible. What were we doing? They were leaving four up when we had corners or free-kicks because they didn’t expect us to score.
“We were 7-0 down and I was thinking ‘get back behind the ball now and let’s stop this rot’. It was just terrible and it just got worse and worse. It wasn’t a lot of fun.”
Twenty five years may have past, but there’s one thing still nibbling away at Forrest.
“I should only have been eight, though. Graham Poll, f*** me that guy was a really bad referee that day. I think he enjoyed every goal going in and he looked happier than hell. I came out and was penalised for a handball, got booked and as I was running back Paul Ince put it over my head. That was ridiculous.
“It should ‘only’ have been 8-0!
Changing of the guard
You get the impression Forrest always knew who his successor would be.
As Town tumbled out of the top flight, an injury to Forrest meant the season finished with a certain Richard Wright between the sticks, aged just 17.
Forrest had the gloves as the new season began but, before long, the young pretender had ousted the experienced pro. And like Forrest had done all the way back in 1988, Wright made the position his own.
It may look a little odd on his career resume, but losing his place at Ipswich also led to a dream loan move to Chelsea and so nearly an appearance in an FA Cup final.
“Mick McGiven (former Ipswich Town head coach) was there at Chelsea and they needed a goalkeeper because Dmitri Kharine and Frode Grodas was injured so they needed cover.
“That was cool. There was Ruud Gullit, Vialli, Zola. The quality of the five-a-side was unbelievable so to be a part of that was incredible.
“I was on the bench at Newcastle and Frode showed signs of hamstring injuries after 20 minutes and he was out. In I went. We were 3-0 down so there wasn’t an awful lot of pressure.
“It was such an unusual situation and I’m so glad I had it. It was a bigger club for sure and a really cool experience. I played three games in all and we won in my two starts, which was really good.
“I had an international game with Canada and the timing wasn’t great. Chelsea were playing in the FA Cup final and I’d been in the team and there were talks about me staying full-time.
“The call was made to Ipswich and I was being primed to play the cup final when I came back from international duty. Ipswich played a little hard with them and said they wanted some money for it and, at that time, Chelsea weren’t going to pay that.
“Gullit said he’d make a move in the off-season to come and get me and Ed De Goey ended up signing instead of myself. That all fell through and then I ended up moving to West Ham.
“I was pretty upset with Ipswich at that time after playing there 13 years. The way they played that towards someone who was loyal to Ipswich and never really wanted to leave meant I felt like it was time to go.
“I had so many happy times at Ipswich so it was hard to leave but I loved my five years at West Ham as well.”
Calling it a day
Forrest never planned on retiring in 2001 – he felt he had a few good years left in the tank – but being diagnosed with testicular cancer ultimately brought an early end to an impressive career.
It’s a subject he’s discussed many times in the past and, thankfully, his story has a happy ending.
“For years I was having check-ups every three months and then that changed to every six months before, after 10 years, I was given the all-clear,” he said.
“There’s been nothing too major since then and it knocked the stuffing out of me at the time, as well as forcing me into retirement a little bit.
“There was a new contract on the table at West Ham and I wanted to stay so my agent, Jonathan Barnett, was negotiating a two-year deal for a bit of security. The club were offering just one but I thought we’d get there in the end.
“Then the cancer comes and that’s obviously taking my time over six or seven months. During that time Harry Redknapp had left and Glenn Roeder took over, who told me there was nothing on the table for me anymore.
“I thought ‘wow, really?’ and coming out of the cancer situation I was trying to find another club, which became really difficult. I was damaged good and there were insurance issues and things like that.
“That felt a good time to call it a day. I felt like I had some good years left in me and those were left on the table, but I was very thankful to have my health and to have had an 18-year football career.”
There will be plenty of football supporters up and down the country who can relate to one of Forrest’s recent activities.
“When I first got into the team I started keeping hold of all of the programmes from every game I played in, which I kept doing until the end of my career,” he said.
“I had boxes and boxes of them which I sadly had to go through recently and purge some of them because they just take up so much room. What was I going to do with all those programmes?
“I wanted to keep the special ones but then as I went through them I found most of them were special and most of them had a meaning to me and it was hard to get rid of some of those.
“There would have been three or four hundred programmes in there. I got rid of some but it was pretty hard. They were pretty heavy!
“It was great to go through them because they brought back some memories, even though most of those games were 25 years ago or so. For pretty much all of them I had at least one memory of the day or the game.”