Considering he spent 12 years at Ipswich, won promotion with Ipswich, was named fans’ and players’ player of the year at Ipswich and made more than 200 appearances for Ipswich, you would think that Craig Forrest would regard Ipswich as the best period of his career. But you would be wrong.
‘Not a day goes by when I don’t think about something that happened in my five years at West Ham – it was a joyful time and I had the best years of my career there,’ the 52-year-old Canadian goalkeeper told Blowing Bubbles.
Forrest joined the Irons in summer 1997, in the aftermath of a far too close for comfort flirtation with relegation from the Premier League.
Although the following campaign was the only one of his five at West Ham where he was first-choice stopper, Forrest played a key role in what turned out to be a transition period from the end of the Billy Bonds-era squad of John Moncur, Ian Bishop and Tim Breacker into the Harry Redknapp era of Rio Ferdinand, Nigel Winterburn and Paolo di Canio.
Although he gave great service to Ipswich for more than a decade, his departure from Portman Road was on less than perfect terms.
‘Richard Wright was coming through at Ipswich as first-choice keeper, and I was 30, so Ipswich let me go out on loan, first to Colchester and then to Chelsea, where I was playing with the likes of Gianluca Vialli,’ he said.
‘Ruud Gullit wanted to keep me there, and that year they’d reached the FA Cup final, so there was a chance that I might get to be part of that, but Ipswich stood in my way, which I thought was disappointing after so long, so when the chance to join West Ham on a permanent deal came along, I jumped at it.
‘I’d experienced playing at Upton Park as an away player and knew how hard it was, so I was excited to play there as a home player.
‘I was 30, which is approaching peak years for a keeper, and I could see that Ludek Miklosko was getting older, so I really didn’t need to think twice. It turned out to be a fantastic move, with a great group of players who finished in the top 10 every season I was at the club.’
In the middle of that season, Miklosko lost his spot as West Ham’s first choice stopper, and Forrest got his chance.
‘You know you’ll get one at some stage, and you just have to be ready for it, so I was keen to play every game that I could,’ he said, and that is exactly what Forrest did, playing in 13 Premier League games, as the team finished 8th in the table, a significant improvement on the previous season.
One of the main reasons for the improvement that season was the emergence of West Ham’s greatest crop of homegrown youngsters in years, and to the experienced Forrest, there was one player who stood out head and shoulder above the rest right from the start.
‘Frank Lampard was possibly pushed into the first team a little bit early, in my opinion, but even when he was so young, having Rio Ferdinand playing in front of me in defence was brilliant,’ he said.
‘With his touch, his authority and his presence, he was a total game changer of a player. He always wanted the ball in any position.’
It was not just on the pitch where the youngsters impressed. Off the field, they held their own as well.
‘That dressing room had characters like Julian Dicks, John Moncur and later Paolo di Canio in it, but Rio, Frank and Joe Cole had plenty about them – they were street smart and could handle the dressing room. It was one of the best team atmospheres I’ve ever known.’
The 1997 season was the run-up to the World Cup in France – not a concern for the Canadian international, but a major issue for one of the rivals for his starting place, French keeper Bernard Lama.
Lama joined West Ham on a short-term loan in December 1997 in the hope of getting match practice ahead of the World Cup, but found Forrest in his path.
‘He’d come to West Ham to try and regain his place in the French squad but he wasn’t getting matches because I was keeping him out,’ said Forrest. ‘He was always knocking at Harry’s door, trying to get games, but at that level there’s always someone trying to take your position.’
After a decent showing in his first season, Forrest’s hopes of making the West Ham goalkeeping role his own must have been high. But fate had other plans, as Shaka Hislop turned up from Newcastle on a Bosman free transfer.
‘it was great business for the club and obviously Harry was happy to have him at the club, but the only problem for me is what happens when a team brings in a player like that, you know that at some point they’re definitely going to give them a chance, to justify them being there,’ he said.
‘You have to play at your best all the time because if there’s any excuse to replace you, you’ll be out of the team. As a ‘keeper, though, you deal with it, and in fact Shaka and I became extremely good friends.
‘If I was 22 it would have bothered me a lot more, but at my age, I could handle it. I was happy for him to play so well because I was happy at the club, and when he won Hammer of the Year, even though he had my spot, I was happy for him.’
Another new arrival who left an impression on Forrest was Di Canio, who signed in January 1999 when Redknapp took a punt on him following the completion of his 11-match suspension for pushing over referee Paul Alcock in what turned out to be his final game for Sheffield Wednesday.
‘Paolo was amazing, you never knew what you’d get from him and Harry used to massage his mood every day,’ he said.
‘I remember his first training session. Harry was on one side of the pitch, Frank Lampard Sr was on the other and Paolo did some amazing piece of skill and Harry shouted across “Frank, I think we got ourselves a ****ing bargain”.’
Di Canio was someone who played by his own rules, on and off the pitch. ‘He was an amazing individual, the stuff he’d pull out on the pitch was hilarious, and he was the same off it,’ said Forrest.
‘Once we were flying to a game up north and just ready to take off at Luton Airport when Paolo stood up and refused to sit down again, saying “I can’t fly, I’ve had a dream”.
‘He wouldn’t do what he was told so eventually the plane had to taxi back to the terminal and let him off, so he could drive to the game instead. One of the directors had to get off and drive with him, he wasn’t happy. But that was just what Paolo was like.’
Over subsequent seasons, chances for first team games remained thin on the ground, as Hislop retained the number one spot, and was then followed by England ‘keeper David James.
‘I did feel I was going sideways a bit, but you deal with it and focus on making sure you’re number two so if any chances come your way, you’re ready. Anyway, I was happy at the club,’ he said.
‘It did cross my mind to move a couple of times, but I was enjoying my time at West Ham and that was really important to me. Sometimes it is better the devil you know.
‘I was battling my way, I was always itching to be playing in the first team, I was happy to keep working and trying to get in the first team.’
Then, out of the blue, Forrest’s career, and life, changed, when in October 2001, at the age of 34, he was diagnosed with testicular cancer.
‘I felt absolutely fine, nothing was wrong, but one day I noticed a lump, so I told the physio right away,’ he said.
‘A couple of days later I had a scan and within 24 hours I had the operation and it was out. It was scary and you switch off from football at times like that, to deal with more important things and the new reality in your life, but you’ve got to be as positive as you can, and it’s amazing how many people in football have had it and recover from it.
‘There were some tough times, and I was out for four or five months, but when I came back, I was in the last year of my contract and keen to get things sorted out.
‘Before it all happened, the club had offered a one-year deal, which was understandable at my age, but my agent and I were angling for two years.
‘When I came back, we went to the club and said we’d accept the one-year deal, but at the end of the previous season, Harry had left the club and been replaced by Glenn Roeder, who told us that offer was no longer on the table.
‘That was very disappointing, there’s no way Harry would have not given me the one year deal, and now I was a free agent but in those circumstances, you’re seen as damaged goods and not worth taking a risk on, so eventually I decided to call it a day.’
After 17 years, what turned out to be the final game of Forrest’s professional career was a 1-1 draw at home to Coventry on February 12, 2001, with Joe Cole putting West Ham in front before a late Christian Dailly own goal denied them all three points.
Nearly two decades on, Forrest’s links to West Ham remain as strong as ever.
‘I was there for the final game at Upton Park, and I’m still in touch with Steve Lomas and John Moncur, and Richard Hall, who moved up near Ipswich, so we used to travel together a lot,’ he said. ‘And one of my best friends, who isn’t West Ham related, is my former Canada team-mate Paul Peschisolido, Mr Karren Brady – but that hasn’t changed my friendship with him!’
Now based back in Toronto, Forrest spent several years as a Premier League pundit on Canadian television, before the rights were signed exclusively to a subscription channel, and he is now involved in coverage of the new Canadian Premier League.
Although the way his contract situation was handled may not reflect well on the decision makers at the club at the time, the response of his team-mates speaks volumes.
‘When they got wind of what was happening, they were really disappointed about how the club behaved so they put a lot of pressure on by refusing to do corporate signings and co-operate with commercial activities for the club – they said they wouldn’t do it until I was sorted out,’ he said. ‘Guys like Nigel Winterburn and Ian Pearce really stood by me.’
And the way some people at West Ham rallied round to help him in his hour of need is reflected in Forrest’s affection for the people who hold the club together.
‘Players come and go but it’s the people who don’t get the attention who are really the fabric of the club,’ he said.
‘There are people who are still there now at West Ham who’d been there 10 years before I joined. They’re the heart and soul of the club, so it’s important to look after them properly.’