Melton footballer targets MLS after Coventry City heartbreak

Jordan Forrester EMN-151029-160547002
Jordan Forrester EMN-151029-160547002
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Supporters of a certain age will often be heard grumbling that England’s best young talents are ruined by too-much, too-soon.

Their edge worn smooth by astronomic salaries and limitless luxuries before they come close to fulfilling potential.

Jordan Forrester in his Coventry City academy days EMN-151029-160514002

Jordan Forrester in his Coventry City academy days EMN-151029-160514002

Drive and hunger drained by access to previously unimaginable rewards without the need to actually earn them first.

This will apply to a tiny fraction of the endless supply of young hopefuls filling club academies.

But not Jordan Forrester.

Released after six years with Coventry City, the Melton footballer soon discovered not every street in London was paved with gold.

A 14-year-old Jordan Forrester shows off his poise and balance EMN-151029-160525002

A 14-year-old Jordan Forrester shows off his poise and balance EMN-151029-160525002

“It was very stressful. When you’re searching for a club the phone is forever ringing, “We have got you this and got you that”.

“There was a club from London that offered me something, but only for £150 a week with no accommodation. How do you live in London for £150 a week?”

While still only in the foothills of a four-year degree in finance, Forrester certainly didn’t need to be a mathematical genius to realise those sums didn’t add up.

His story is a lesson that excellent stats and unquestioned ability at 16 or 17 hold no guarantees in the cut-throat culture of English professional football.

Forrester’s quicksilver speed and ability marked him out from a very early age with local junior clubs Mowbray Rangers and Melton Foxes.

Towards the end of a particularly prolific 70-goal season he was offered a six-week trial at Leicester City, but soon his head was turned by startling interest from the other end of the M69.

For a lifelong Foxes supporter, a move to Coventry City went against the grain.

But the Sky Blues were offering a four-year contract, an almost unprecedented commitment for a pre-teen.

“A four-year contract at 12 is a massive statement. Coventry said they wanted to invest in me, but I didn’t want to sign my life away so I just signed for two years.”

He continued to play a year above his peers, even scoring a hat-trick as a 13-year-old in an under 16s game against Crewe.

“Nowadays if that got out someone would want to sign you for £2 million.”

He was taken on full-time at 16, and there were rumours Liverpool were interested.

But the smooth, serene path towards football stardom began to develop its first bumps.

“From the start I was doing really well and playing second year apprentices, but I hit a brick wall midway to the end of the first year.

“I was a winger and had scored five goals in five games, but I wasn’t being played.

“I didn’t get much game time, but they told me they wanted to look more at the second year apprentices.”

The arc of a career in sport rarely matches a precise equation or follows a neat set of building blocks.

To take that first big step into professional football, talent is almost always indebted to a big slice of fortune and a huge portion of right-time right-place.

Forrester was indeed the recipient of luck at a critical time in his Coventry scholarship.

But crucially for him, it was the wrong kind.

“The second year was probably the most heartbreaking.

“I started pre-season and got concussion and was out for about three weeks.

“And then came the big injury. I had only played about four games by October and at another training session I went up for a header and went over the top of someone.

“As I went over, I stretched my arm out to cushion the impact. It hurt a bit, but I didn’t think anything of it. Then it started killing.”

A month passed before an MRI scan confirmed his worst fears.

“The ligaments had shattered. I had been going around for a month with my shoulder half-dislocated - the ligaments were torn and shredded.

“By then we were in November and I’m thinking ‘Oh God, I’m in my second year, l’ve already missed a month of football and now I need surgery’.”

Another vital month was lost waiting for an operation before the long programme of rehabilitation to rebuild lost muscle and fitness could begin.

“Everyone was impressing and I was stuck inside with my arm in a sling.

“During the time I was having surgery they also brought in new academy staff who had never seen me play before.

“Around the end of April, I was fit again, but that’s when they were making decisions.

“I played three games for the under 21s and scored two goals, but then they put me in a room and told me, ‘sorry, but no thanks, we don’t think you are right for us’.

“It was heartbreaking because I’d been there for six years, but at the same time I could understand.

“It would have been a huge risk to take with someone they had never seen play before.”

Overnight a world of promise had been transformed into an insecure and uncertain landscape.

Suddenly he was thrown into a huge pool of academy cast-offs all clinging frantically to waning dreams of professional football.

For many, football was the only avenue they had prepared for.

City helped with a search for trials and there was interest. There was a game with Bristol Rovers’ first team, a fortnight with Brentford Under 21s, a match at Chesterfield.

And of course the aforementioned ‘offer’ from an unnamed London club.

Forrester soon discovered a daunting competition for places in a market flooded by the Premier League’s unwanted.

“Football is probably the toughest environment in the world. You are up against hundreds of lads.

“You tend to find the Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea lads who get released are signed first by Championship, League One and League Two clubs.”

It was a daunting immersion into a real world familiar to most callow school leavers and university graduates.

Only mental strength and strong family support prevented Forrester being lost to the game for good.

“There was a point I did feel a bit down and thought is there really any point, but it’s my drive to carry on.

“At 12 to 16 I was deemed one of the best they had so I had the ability. I just needed the application and the right chance.”

An offer worth taking finally came along towards the end of 2014, albeit from a source he would have been hard pressed to imagine. Or find on a map.

“One day this guy contacted me from a Swedish Second Division club and said they would like to bring in young English lads. They said, ‘Do you want to come over for half-a-season and get us promoted?’

“I was a bit wary at first, but I flew there on the Monday, trained for three sessions and straightaway I was in the starting XI.”

Ange IF were assembling the tried and tested formula of steady old professionals and young talent for a late thrust towards promotion.

The seasoned old heads included a former Finnish international, Pekka Lagerblom.

From scrapping around for a place in the lower ladders of the Football League, and below, Forrester was drafted straight into the first team alongside a Champions League veteran.

With Werder Bremen, Lagerblom had faced Zinedine Zidane and Brazilian superstar Ronaldo and had exotic tales to tell.

European football opened the Leicestershire lad’s eyes to a new style of football, perhaps better suited to his technical ability. It wasn’t La Liga or Serie A, but the tempo was nevertheless far removed from the frenetic English brand.

“It was an amazing experience. Their training drills and the way they play is more about passing and possession.

“They care more about a misplaced pass than shots on goal - it’s why the European teams are massive on possession.

“Four months gave me a different mindset on how to play and made me a bit more streetwise. I would love to see more young lads from England put into foreign academies - they would get a massive surprise.”

Armed with a new way to play, Forrester’s four months in Scandinavia also broadened his horizons.

There were alternatives. Better and infinitely more sensible opportunities than the overcrowded confines of the English domestic scene.

Once back in Blighty the League Football Education partnership pointed him towards the Pass4Soccer agency and trials for American university scholarships.

Forrester was savvy enough to spot a chance to join one of football’s emerging markets.

Even the trial at Bisham Abbey, in front of about 50 US university coaches, was liberating.

Suddenly the rigid shackles of an English system, which traditionally eyes flair and maverick invention with grave suspicion, were off.

“At Coventry I never really had the chance to express myself - everything was structured and disciplined.

“They never really liked to let the flair players like myself roam and do their own thing.

“But the trial day was every man for himself and gave me a chance to show off.

“There was lots of tension - everyone was trying to impress.”

Everyone was given two games to make their mark. The lucky players who caught a coach’s eye stayed behind, while the others trudged home to hit the phones once again.

A solo goal, caught on video and replayed in our interview, helped Forrester attract the most curious coaches.

It was thrilling and brash. A run from inside his own half past several players into the opposition 18-yard box, crowned with a tidy finish.

Right time, right place.

Having earned his pick, he plumped for James Madison University, in Harrisonburg, Virginia, whose team, the Dukes, play top flight college soccer in the NCAA Conference Division One.

By joining the reigning champions, Forrester would have the chance to improve his game against American under 19 and under 21 internationals in games beamed live on ESPN.

In the high-risk, low-return sports arena, the offer was a no-brainer.

English football is trying harder to encourage actual academia within their academies.

Yet many young players will arrive at D-day with most of their chips still stacked on a career in football and with little or no back-up plan.

But in America, young hopefuls are not allowed to gamble.

By bringing budding professional footballers through universities, education is an essential rather than a side order.

“It’s a safer option. You have to have a good level of education behind you or a top uni won’t take you.

“I will either progress into football in the MLS, or maybe somewhere else.

“Or in the worst case scenario I have a finance degree under my belt from a top university in America. It’s not the worst thing in the world.”

To an average Joe coming off the parks without a football pedigree and scholarship, the degree would cost about $500,000 over four years.

It’s an indicator of how seriously the Americans are taking their latest stab to steer soccer into the nation’s mainstream sporting diet.

In the 1970s and 80s, ageing global stars like Pele, George Best, and Franz Beckenbauer failed to give football a lasting foothold alongside the big hitters of basketball, baseball and American Football.

Persuading Americans to fall in love with the beautiful game was never going to be easy.

But the improvement of the national team on the global scene, twinned with the mass appeal of David Beckham, is helping Major League Soccer’s latest reinvention stick.

“There’s a lot of money being pumped into US football because they did so well in the World Cup.

“There’s going to be a time in the next two or three years when something major is going to happen in American soccer.

“At the minute, a college kid could get drafted into New York City and be playing with a World Cup winner (Andrea Pirlo) and a Premier League legend (Frank Lampard).

“By December I could be put in the draft - it could be in six months or two years.”

Dom Dwyer is a perfect example of what can be achieved.

Released by Norwich City as a schoolboy, Dwyer has since forged a lucrative career with Sporting Kansas City.

Kicking around the non-league circuit, he went to college in Texas and moved to the University of South Florida where he was spotted by the MLS club.

He has since scored more than 30 MLS goals, was named in the 2014 All Star team alongside Thierry Henry and this year earned a guaranteed annual salary topping £300,000.

But where Forrester (19) is concerned, you can take the boy out of Leicester, but not the City fan out of the boy.

Jamie Vardy’s spectacular rise remains Forrester’s reference point, and the basis of advice for other football castaways.

“Just because you’re not in the academy side of a professional club, don’t think that’s the be-all and end-all.

“Don’t think because you are 18 or 19 and not in professional football it’s not going to work out for you.

“Look at Jamie Vardy. Only a couple of years ago he was playing non-league football and was a builder – now he’s playing in the Premier League and is an England international.

“Don’t give up if you still have that passion and drive. Hard work does pay off in the end.”