The man who solved Pompey’s biggest headache

Pompey goalkeeper coach John Keeley, right, with newly-established Blues No1 David Forde Picture: Joe Pepler

Pompey goalkeeper coach John Keeley, right, with newly-established Blues No1 David Forde Picture: Joe Pepler

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The need was glaringly obvious, yet it escalated into the biggest challenge of Pompey’s summer.

Paul Cook desperately required a goalkeeping addition for his first team, although, frustratingly, the position remained unfulfilled.

Fratton Park welcomed eight new arrivals before the opening pre-season fixture – but still no stopper.

It was a familiar face residing at Chinese club Guangzhou R&F who delivered the solution.

In July, John Keeley returned to the Blues for a second spell as goalkeeping coach – crucially under instruction to bring Cook the player he long craved.

‘I always like to make my own choices and, as a goalkeeping coach, have always been given that choice,’ said Keeley.

‘I watched Stephen Henderson play on loan at Yeovil and the next day told Steve Cotterill “Gaffer, I’ve found someone you are going to like”.

‘But when he arrived he wasn’t fit, whereas Jamie Ashdown had just enjoyed his best-ever season at the club and was excellent.

‘So with me overseeing the goalkeeping work and Chris Neville working on strength and conditioning, you could see what could be achieved in three months.

‘Stephen turned into an excellent goalie and we’re still friends to this day. I was gutted to miss his wedding as I was working in China.

‘Recruitment-wise, I wanted Stephen and got him. You live and die by it in football and so far I haven’t done too bad.

‘I’d rather have someone I think is good enough and his presence is entirely down to me.’

The answer this summer, of course, was David Forde – the Millwall keeper who would land on a season-long loan.

But before his arrival nine days before the League Two kick-off, Pompey fielded five different keepers in eight friendlies as exasperation crept in among concerned supporters.

In addition to contracted duo Paul Jones and Alex Bass, there was game time for triallists Michael Crowe, Eric Grimes and Chris Konopka, while Jamie Ashdown trained for a week.

Keeley added: ‘Every time I saw Paul Jones play he had done alright, but suffered a few injuries at Pompey.

‘When I met up with the squad in Ireland he wasn’t there, instead at home getting treatment. So I had Alex Bass, Michael Crow and Eric Grimes.

‘Unfortunately, Grimes wasn’t anywhere near the standard we were looking at. Crowe looked okay in a few games but I wasn’t so sure on his ability to come and catch crosses – and in League Two there’s going to be a lot of balls coming into our box.

‘Alex has a fantastic chance. He’s on loan at Salisbury at the moment and, hopefully, the experience will enable him to come back a man.

‘He’s built like David De Gea when he first came to England, very slim, and we have put him on a strength and conditioning programme. Once he gets a bit more power he can be as good as he wants.

‘When we returned to England, we had Chris Konopka, recommended by another goalkeeping coach, but unfortunately not good enough for us.

‘I knew from his first game at Salisbury he wasn’t for us, you could also see it in training. For such a big man he couldn’t catch crosses and couldn’t move his feet.

‘Then Jamie Ashdown arrived on trial, organised by someone else before I even returned to the club.

‘I love Jamie, we always got on well and he’s a top, top player, but unfortunately at the time we were not in a position to offer him anything.

‘It would have taken a little bit of time to get him fit, he needed to lose a little bit of weight, and we needed someone who could play the first match against Carlisle.

‘It was hard telling him, but the best policy is to be honest, people respect you more for that. I explained and he understood.’

The turning point in the search arrived on the day Cook’s men travelled to Bognor for their eighth pre-season fixture.

The Blues cruised to a 4-1 victory, yet Jones, in his first summer appearance following a thigh problem, was at fault for the hosts’ goal, dropping the ball from a second-half corner.

Afterwards, Cook, Keeley and chief executive Mark Catlin stood on the Nyewood Lane pitch and made a decision.

Keeley said: ‘On that day we were handed the chance to get David Forde.

‘I had a lot of agents ringing offering goalies, but I’ve known David for years and had tried to sign him when Blackburn’s goalkeeping coach.

‘I like him, he plays on the front foot, he’s very good at coming for crosses, talks well, has great starting positions for through balls and can make really good saves.

‘Also, I wanted a leader at the back, someone good in the dressing room, not frightened of saying what he wants – and with a youngish back four I felt we really needed that.

‘Once his name came up he was first choice.

‘When David stands up he is 6ft 4in, you look at him in the tunnel and do you want to run into him? I don’t think so! Also, he is quite an aggressive man, I won’t deny that, but just what we needed.’

Forde has now made eight Pompey appearances, collecting four clean sheets, and emphatically impressing.

Problem solved by Keeley – although he wasn’t yet done.

He added: ‘Once we got David in the door we then needed a number two – and Liam O’Brien’s agent called me.

‘I had Liam before at Pompey and, fair play to him, he has worked so hard and shown he’s changed his ways. I believe someone deserves a second chance and he has done well.

‘He had been given a lot of money too early, living the dream without actually doing anything. Now his mental attitude to football’s changed.

‘Every goalkeeping coach has their own idea of what they want. I don’t know how many coaches get the choice, I couldn’t tell you.

‘Luckily, the gaffer here said “John, it’s down to you” – and that’s great.’

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