Jordon Forster admits he decided to seek a move away from Hibs the moment it became clear Efe Ambrose would be returning to the club on a permanent basis.
The 23-year-old bears no ill will towards his fellow defender. However, reading between the lines, he recognised that the addition of the experienced Nigerian, who featured regularly during a loan spell at the end of last season, to a pool of senior centre-backs that already included the highly-regarded trio of Liam Fontaine, Paul Hanlon and Darren McGregor would further diminish his own chances of getting the level of game time he craved.
After approaching Neil Lennon last month to discuss his predicament, Forster was eventually granted the chance to leave Easter Road a year before the expiry of his contract, and English League Two side Cheltenham Town duly pounced to secure his services on a two-year deal.
“I think as soon as I saw that the signing of Efe was going to get completed, within myself I knew I had to get out,” Forster told the Evening News. “Last season I made nine starts and had 23 appearances in total, but I’d have liked to have played more. I think this season, with Efe in, it would have been even harder to get games. As soon as I saw that deal go through, in my own head I was wanting to leave, but not for any reason other than wanting to play more games.
“I’d never say I was fifth in the pecking order – that’s up to others to judge – but I knew game time would be even more limited than it was last year. Ultimately, being 23 now, I want to play as many games as I can.
“As soon as I saw Efe was signing, me and my representatives spoke to the manager and told him it would be best if I could get away to play games. Until Efe’s deal was confirmed, the gaffer wasn’t too happy about me moving on but once it went through, he said he wouldn’t stand in my way if I could find a new club, and he stuck to his word and made it as simple as it could be for me to leave.”
Lennon is an admirer of Forster, and ideally would have been keen to retain him, although he recognised that the ambitious West Edinburgh boy had to move on in order to avoid stagnating on the sidelines at Easter Road. “I had a meeting with Neil on Friday when I finished training and he said a lot of good things to me,” said Forster. “I’m sure he would have been happy for me to stay because whenever I played last season, I don’t think I ever let him down, but I have to be playing games week in, week out now. It’s a lot harder when you’re coming in every third or fourth week to play a game here and there. Playing regularly is the priority for me, which is what led me to make the decision to leave.”
After assessing his options over the past month or so, Forster decided that Cheltenham, managed by the experienced Gary Johnson, represented the best move for him. “Another couple of clubs in England were interested but none of them took my fancy,” he said. “I’d been at Plymouth [Argyle] on loan last year and I struggled being away from home, but when my agent mentioned Cheltenham, it interested me a lot more than the others that were spoken about. The manager, Gary Johnson, had worked with Fonts [at Bristol City] so I spoke to Liam in-depth about him and he told me he’s a really good manager and that he thinks we’d work well together. It made a difference that I was able to speak to someone I’m close to about him. I did a bit of research on the internet and the manager also phoned me personally a few times and everything he said was positive and ticked all my boxes.
“I had spoken to a couple of Scottish teams who were interested, and that probably would have been the more comfortable choice for me, but after long conversations with Gary Johnson, I decided to step out of my comfort zone and try something new. After my girlfriend said she’d move down with me, it quickly became the only option for me. I’ll have to work hard, but from talks I’ve had with the manager, I’d like to think I’ll be in contention for a starting position.”
Forster’s only previous experience of English football wasn’t a particularly enjoyable one as he struggled to settle on the south coast. He is confident that having his loved ones make the move with him will make a significant difference this time. “The fact I didn’t enjoy Plymouth was nothing to do with the football – it was more to do with living on my own,” he said. “I was really struggling at Plymouth away from football and I probably carried that into my football. This time my family will move down with me, which will make a big difference to my football. My Mrs and the wee one will come down around the end of July once I’ve got a place sorted out. Having them with me, I think I’ll feel a lot more at ease off the pitch and that should help me on the pitch.”
Forster’s most regular spell of action in the Hibs team came when he first broke through under Pat Fenlon in 2013, and he continued to be a prominent player as Terry Butcher oversaw a disastrous slide towards relegation. He was involved at the start of Alan Stubbs’ reign before a wretched run of injuries contrived to nudge him down the pecking order. Following his loan stint at Plymouth early last year, he decided to have one last crack at salvaging his Hibs career under Lennon. Ultimately, however, there have been too many obstacles blocking the way for a man in a hurry to start making a genuine mark in the game.
“You can look back and say I’ve been injured a few times or that I’ve been up against good defenders, but everything that’s happened to me is part and parcel of the game,” he said. “Good players can take your jersey and you’re going to get injured at times. I’m just happy to be moving on and starting afresh and looking forward to what the future holds. I’d like to think my best years are ahead of me.
“I’m 23, so in terms of being a centre-half I’m still very young. I’ve played over 100 professional games so I’ve got plenty experience behind me and I’ve played in a number of different leagues. I’m a confident lad at the best of times, so I’m just excited about being at Cheltenham.”
Forster joined Hibs as a teenager from Celtic and broke into the team as a 19-year-old following loan stints with Berwick Rangers and East Fife. The defender, who wore the captain’s armband in his last start away to Ayr United two months ago, is in no doubt about the highlight of his four years in the first team. “It would have to be winning 2-1 in the derby at Tynecastle on my debut,” he said, with little hesitation. “That was something special. It was closely followed by winning the league at the end of last season. I’ve had some very good occasions at the club. I signed with Hibs just before I turned 16 and it’s been a good seven-and-a-half years. I’ve really enjoyed it. It’s not always been pretty because I’ve had a lot of downs but there have been a lot of positives as well. I’ve had a lot of managers and I’ve worked well with all of them. I’d never say a bad word about Hibs – I’d like to thank the club for everything they’ve done for me. I’m happy to be leaving in terms of going to play football but I’m sorry to be leaving a club that’ll always have a massive place in my heart.”