THE Underdogs will be vying to become top dogs when they take on All-Ireland champions Dublin in Parnell Park next Friday (October 19).
Kiltimagh native Blake Forkan has been journeying with the Underdogs for the TG4 show along with fellow Mayo man Cormac Doohan, from Ballaghaderreen. And he's chomping at the bit to get back to the capital for some football action having previously played for his county in an All-Ireland junior final in Croke Park.
Blake's story isn't just about playing football. It's a tale of suffering serious injury, a dip in his mental health, and a fight back to fitness.
Now living and working in Letterkenny, Blake plays with St. Eunan’s GAA Club, but his love of GAA grew with his home club in Kiltimagh. Like many young players, his aspiration to play in the county colours was always to the fore.
Last May, while scrolling through Facebook, Blake spotted the Underdogs logo on a joe.ie article and the adventure began as he clicked through out of curiosity. The show was returning to TG4 for the first time since 2009 and having vague but fond memories of watching it, the nostalgic feeling he got convinced him to complete the linked application form and click 'send'.
Contacted to attend for trials, there were four goalkeepers at the first session. Playing outfield for part of it, Blake, who had been a full-back for over 10 years, caught the eye of the mentors (Ray Silke, Paul Galvin and Valerie Mulcahy).
The next camp had seven 'keepers and having played outfield and in goal in the matches, the nod came later that evening after a 'nerve wrecking' wait. Unexpectedly, Galvin saw him as a corner-back going forward in the show and he was through on a keeper/defender hybrid.
Said Blake: “That moment in the meeting room was huge for me personally. The satisfaction at having proved myself to these three GAA legends was immense.
“I'd gone for this show initially to prove a lot of people (and sometimes myself) wrong and this was vindication of sorts. I'd come a long way in the previous six years or so and this felt like the pinnacle (pinnacle at that time, I'm not finished yet!).”
In 2009, while training with Kiltimagh ahead of an All-Ireland club final in Croke Park, Blake suffered an injury that put him out of football for over two years.
“I fell into a rut,” he said. “My mental health went downhill, I isolated myself and in a relatively short space of time I put on a shameful amount of weight. I was up over 17 stone in 2012.
“Fortunately, I was able to give myself the kick, I found an attitude change in myself, and I got the weight off with a lot of sheer determination and hard work. I got back into football by playing in goal with Kiltimagh GAA Club.
“The injury means my Achilles' tendon is only ever going to be at 80% mobility, so playing outfield can be difficult. But I love playing in goal to be honest. Everything happens for a reason and this unbelievable opportunity wouldn't have come for me had I not been forced to play in goal by an injury.”
Squad selection was followed by a series of three-day training camps, with one player eliminated at the end of each.
Over the summer the television cameras visited his home village of Treenkeel. “It was great to share the experience with my Mum (Eileen), Dad (Martin) and family – I had only told them I was taking part a few days before!”
But it's not all been fun – a weekend under army rules in the Curragh will stay with him. “It's burned into my memory. I hated it, every minute. But I'm so grateful for having had the experience. It forced me to grow as a person and a leader.”
Recently added midweek training in Dublin has been hectic, but he wouldn't have it any other way.
Looking ahead to match day, he said: “We all know the opportunity that stands before us on October 19 when we take on Dublin, so we don't mind putting the miles in to give ourselves the best possible chance. That's the thing about this group, we're all like-minded men. It takes a certain type of person to put themselves forward for this show. We're all there to be shot at.
“We’ve all had our fair share of negative comments, hurlers on the ditch who love to have a pop, someone who has a go at something they'd never have the courage to try. Most of the boys have ambitions to play high level football and aren't afraid to say it.
“This is our big chance. If we fail, we fail. But we won't die wondering.”
If you're in Dublin on October 19, pop over to Parnell Park to support the Underdogs for what promises to be a great evening. Tickets - €10 each (Under 16s are free) - are available on https://bit.ly/2Pua96w.
The game is also being broadcast live on TG4 on Friday evening. Coverage starts at 7.20 p.m., with throw in at 7.30 p.m.