On Saturday afternoon, almost a year to the day since being savagely struck down by a ruptured Achilles’ tendon, Jordon Forster was back in his element, helping Cheltenham Town grind out a much-needed 1-0 victory away to League Two rivals Cambridge United.
During his darkest and most difficult days on an arduous fightback from one of the most dreaded injuries in football, the former Hibs centre-back craved the chance to battle and scrap for a clean sheet once more. After three previous appearances this month which yielded two score-draws and a defeat, Saturday’s successful outing at the Abbey Stadium gave Forster all the satisfaction and reassurance he needed.
“It felt like I was back where I belong on Saturday,” Forster said in an interview with the Evening News. “After we scored, we showed real determination to hold on to the clean sheet and get our first three points of the season. The game became pretty scrappy, there were a lot of balls into the box and I just felt this was what I’d been missing for so long. That feeling of holding on for three points, everybody helping each other out and then hearing the final whistle, it’s indescribable.”
Forster had some wretched luck with relatively minor fitness issues in his time at Hibs, but both the severity and the timing of his latest injury, sustained against Exeter City on 26 August last year, proved particularly demoralising since he seemed to be making such good progress at his new club after leaving Easter Road in an effort to reignite his career 14 months ago.
“I’ve had setbacks before but this has been the worst,” said the 24-year-old. “Coming away from Hibs was a big thing for me considering how much I loved the club, and still do, and how much I loved my life in Edinburgh. It was a hard decision to leave such a massive club but then I came down here and I was playing regularly, playing well, playing against West Ham in the League Cup, enjoying my football again and thinking everything was brilliant. So to then be hit with an injury like that and told I’d be out for the foreseeable future, it was like getting hit by a train. But at the same time, there are always going to be setbacks in your life, whether it’s a family bereavement or whatever else, so you can’t allow it to overwhelm you or bog you down or you’ll never get through it. As hard as it is, you’ve just got to grit your teeth and get on with it.”
Following seven months of recovery between September and March, and a subsequent period of intense training in order to be ready for the start of the current season, Forster now feels he is over the injury and can look forward with optimism. “When you come back from a long-term injury, you can feel good because you’ve done all the rehab but there’s always that final five per cent you’re lacking until you get back into games,” he explained. “I was back training at the end of last season but it’s only over the last couple of months, since I got back into pre-season and got back into the games, that I’ve really felt 100 per cent ready to go. I got back into training at the end of March so I was hoping to get one or two appearances in last season but after training and playing a few reserve games, my body was feeling a bit sore. I just wasn’t quite ready to play last season. But I’ve had a full pre-season, I’ve not missed a single training session and I’m feeling good.”
Forster insists there’s no chance of memories of the injury, which happened while going for a routine header, placing any self-doubt in his mind in future. “It won’t make me paranoid,” he said. “I don’t know about other players, but, for me, when you’re training or playing a match, you don’t think about anything apart from the situation you’re in. You can have things going on in your life that you can get away from when you’re playing football and it’s the same with an injury – you forget about it when you’re on the pitch. As long as you’ve done all the work you need to do and ticked all the boxes, you shouldn’t be thinking about an injury recurring. If you worry about what might happen, you’re putting yourself at risk of getting injured again.
It’s like any injury – it could happen again or you might never have a problem with it again. It’s just the way you’re built. I’m a big believer that what will be, will be. For me, there’s no worry, no pain, no stiffness – I now genuinely feel as good as I did before I got injured. I’m not going to say it’s like it never happened because I know it did, but as far as I’m concerned that chapter’s closed and I’m over it.”
Forster can take inspiration from the way John Souttar has recovered from the same injury. The Hearts defender contacted his former Edinburgh rival to offer support and advice when he was struck down last year. Souttar returned to action just over a year ago following his own ruptured Achilles and has since enjoyed the best season of his career and earned a Scotland call-up. “I spoke to John quite a lot when it first happened – I was very thankful for him getting in contact,” said Forster. “He’s come back really strongly from his injury and he’s not had any setbacks. He’s a good player and he’s playing really well.”
As if Forster’s time at Cheltenham hadn’t been rocky enough, his return to the team coincided with manager Gary Johnson being sacked last week, just four league games into the season. Assistant Russell Milton is currently in caretaker charge. “That’s football, isn’t it?” Forster said of the departure of the man who signed him last summer. “The end of last season had a part to play in the manager’s exit because we didn’t finish last season too well. I think the manager was under pressure from the start of the season and then we lost a couple of games. Football’s a cruel world. It’s the same for players. If you’re not playing well, you’re dropped or released. I send the manager my best regards but we just need to get on with it. Russ has been brilliant over the last few days – the boys have really taken to him. As players, we don’t know what’s going to happen. Whether Russ becomes the manager remains to be seen, but the boys are fully behind him.
“People say we’ve had a rocky start, but if we win on Saturday it takes us right up the league. Anyone can beat anyone in this league, but, when you’re playing Saturday-Tuesday-Saturday, two or three wins in the space of a week can take you ten places up the table. As a club, we should be looking to get into the play-offs.”