THE Dr McKenna Cup may be considered no more than a warm-up for the National League campaign, but for Neil Forester it means much more than that!
Indeed, for the 25 year-old Steelstown half-back it was the competition which first launched him into Derry’s senior inter-county panel when he made his debut against Jordanstown back in 2012 when John Brennan was at the helm.
Coming on against Galway in the Championship last year and scoring that point - I’ve not had many better feelings in my life than that, to be honest.Neil Forester
And he also featured in the Oak Leafers’ McKenna Cup Final defeat to Tyrone in 2012 before missing the cut under Brian McIver the following year.
A two-and-a-half year absence from the inter-county panel has given him added motivation going into 2016 and under new boss, Damien Barton, Forester’s determined to hold onto the Derry jersey this time around.
His All-Ireland championship debut in the qualifier defeat to Galway last summer, when he came off the bench to register a point, was the highlight of his football career so far. But with that behind him, he’s set himself ambitious goals going into the New Year.
And as a ‘fresh faced’ Derry squad embark on the 2016 campaign this Sunday when they take on Antrim at Owenbeg in the McKenna Cup opener (throw-in 2 p.m.), Forester is hoping to make an instant impression on the new management team.
“I’ve been fortunate enough to play in a McKenna Cup Final and I had a good game against Down in the semi-final so I’ve always enjoyed the competition,” said the Waterside man.
“It’s been a bit of rollercoaster ride for me to be honest,” he said. I played under John Brennan which was fantastic and then I missed the cut under Brian McIver only to come back. I played a Championship match and scored a point against Galway which was pretty special.
“So to be back in, it feels like it’s my first time involved. I’ve come in totally fresh. It’s a whole new environment, different players so it’s very new and fresh.
“My motivation is very high even though it’s December and with the cold nights, but I’m still motivated to go out and train.
“You have to prove yourself in training,” he continued. “Damien is very passionate and knows what he wants from his players. He has a good team about him with Brian McGuckin and Eoin Bradley and Mickey Conlan. So he’s surrounded himself with very clever football people.
“His love of Derry just shines through and it can be quite contagious for the rest of the team. You want to represent that jersey well because you’re in a privileged position.,
“You realise that when you’re away from it. In my case I was out for two and half years and then came back and it means more because you know what you’re missing.
“It becomes harder to let go. Coming on against Galway in the Championship last year and scoring that point - I’ve not had many better feelings in my life than that, to be honest.
“It was a consolation point and didn’t mean a lot in the grand scheme of things but personally it almost felt like the end of a journey and I achieved something I wanted for a very long time.
“It’s good that I have that behind me going into this year because I just want to build on that.
“I just want one more game, one more game. You’re always worried it could be the last one so you want to make the most of it. I just hope it keeps going.”
So if it’s devotion to the Derry jersey, hard work and a freedom of expression Barton is looking for then he need look no further than Forester who works as a Games Promotion Officer for Steelstown Brian Og’s.
Following the disappointing 1-18 to 0-10 hammering at the hands of Tyrone in the O’Fiaich Cup semi-final last month, Barton claimed his side needed to find pace which could match that of Tyrone and Forester has it in abundance.
He’s set himself short terms goals for 2016 with both Derry and Steelstown and has his heart set on being included in the league panel, but he’s taking nothing for granted.
“For me personally I want to play at least one more match for Derry and make the league panel if possible.
“That’s a short term goal. Naturally I want to play another Championship match but I can’t look past making that final cut for the league.
“And anything else than a championship win for Steelstown would be disappointing to be honest.
“That’s how ambitious we have to be at this stage.”
Turning his attentions to Antrim on Sunday, Forester is expecting a steep learning curve against the Saffrons.
“At this stage it’s about learning our style of play but most importantly we want to win going into a very interesting early season match against Tyrone. You want that bit of momentum going into that game.
“There’s a lot of new faces about so it’s about getting used to each other as a team. Getting used to the style of play. Against Antrim will be a steep learning curve. We’ve played Tyrone in the O’Fiaich Cup and it was still ‘getting to know you’ exercise. So it will be the same for the Antrim game. It’s more or less the first competitive game of the season and it will be about trying to implement a certain style of play.”