People often say that goalkeepers are a different breed. It’s a unique position, and carries a level of responsibility far beyond the outfield positions. It’s a role where a player is expected to dominate his area, to lead the defence, and to keep mistakes to an absolute minimum. Positioning is key, and experience in a goalkeeper is seen as vital. It’s certainly not a position which you’d want to be learning from scratch, as a seventeen year old, in a professional youth system – but that’s exactly where the Met Police’s Rhys Forster started out four years ago. With live football at a premium, I sat down with Rhys (over an appropriately social distancing Zoom call, of course) to talk about his journey as a footballer so far, the challenges he’s faced and his ambitions for the future.
Like many children, Rhys grew up more a fan of the game than an active participant. Football was a social activity, something to talk about and watch with friends and family, but certainly not an ambition. At the age of sixteen, when considering what to do once his school career came to an end, Rhys hit upon the idea of a football BTEC, and found one run locally by Brentford FC. A successful trial followed, and under the stewardship of Nathan Phillips, Dan Senda and Maidenhead Town’s assistant manager Ryan Peters, Rhys took up a position as a right back on the BTEC scheme. A squad player, the youngster from Hammersmith started the season on the bench, and it’s entirely possible to imagine him gaining his BTEC, and then drifting away from the game. But then fate intervened.
In a match away at Staines Town, the Brentford goalkeeper went down with an injury, with no substitute available. Keen to get off the bench, Rhys volunteered to take over. He was offered a pair old, holey gloves, and elected to keep his woolly subs gloves on underneath (a habit he continues to this day…). Thrust in at the deep end, the young right back proceeded to save a penalty, and in his own words, “have a worldy”. Pleased with his performance, Rhys headed home thinking nothing of it, but Dan Senda, the manager, had seen something he liked. Back in Hammersmith, getting ready for the next week of training, Rhys received a call from Senda: “Get a pair of gloves and bring them in on Monday. I want to see how you get on.” By the end of the week, Forster was the new number one.
This was 2016/17, and followers of Brentford FC will remember that it was around this time the Bees shut down their academy, preferring to focus on the first team and a B team. This decision has been vindicated by their transfer and on-pitch success, but when international call ups rolled around, the B team were often short of players for training. After around three months of being the BTEC team #1, Forster was given a chance with the B team. It’s at this point of our conversation that Rhys’s refreshing openness comes through. How, I ask, did he find it as a seventeen year old learning his position in a professional environment? “As a goalkeeper, it was very beneficial, but mentally, not so much.” Playing in the same team as players who had been trained from a very young age, here was a boy who had only played his first match in this position three months ago. Seeing the likes of Ellery Balcombe, and others with years of high quality coaching under their belt could be demoralising, and Rhys says there were definitely times where he felt out of depth. He would find himself making mistakes they others didn’t, and questioned how he was perceived in the dressing room – “I would think, do they look at me and just see the BTEC kid, and wonder what I’m doing there”.
It’s clear that Rhys is grateful for the opportunity he was afforded at Brentford, and that his game and technical skillsets developed immeasurably in that time, but this was always accompanied by the self-doubt about how he was perceived and how he had come about his place in the club. However, even those difficulties were not without benefits. Fast forward to October 2019, and three months into the season, a twenty year old Forster had just been picked up by the Met Police from the Combined Counties League, two divisions below. The Met had been struggling to replace Berti Schotterl following his return to Germany, and turned to a young ‘keeper recommended to them by Barry Chapman at CB Hounslow United. Without even a training session, Rhys was thrust into the starting XI, and once again found himself walking into a changing room, wondering about perception, not knowing who the big characters were or how he would be judged. Those experiences at Brentford though, had stood him in good stead – “I don’t think about those things now, I just try and let my performances on the pitch talk for me, and try and build the trust through that.”
Barry Chapman is a name which crops up again and again during our call, and it’s clear he’s had a huge impact on Rhys. It was Chapman who gave Rhys his first opportunity in first team football, at the age of 18 for CB Hounslow United against Walton & Hersham. A crucial mistake followed, and Rhys, the young goalkeeper on debut, ended up responsible for a potential draw turning into defeat. Gutted about his error, Rhys was consoled by Chapman, who made it clear that he’d seen enough to know that he wanted to persist with his new ‘keeper, and the manager’s confidence spurred Rhys on to a new level. In the next match, against Westfield, Forster ended as man of the match, and earnt himself the number one shirt for the remainder of the season.
Now a scout for Bournemouth, Chapman has previously been associated to Brentford and QPR, and youth development is a huge part of his philosophy. He’d seen something he liked in the admittedly raw Forster, and he wanted others to see it to – arranging a loan for him at Colchester United. Again, however, Rhys’s doubts came back into play. Living in digs in Colchester, separated from his friends and family, he struggled to show his true potential, and a month into the trial the Us brought in another goalkeeper from Watford, two years older, and in Rhys’s own words “a much better ‘keeper than me at that point”. His confidence suffered, and again it was down to Chapman to pick him back up.
Another unsuccessful trial followed in summer 2019, this time with Bournemouth, but the circumstances couldn’t have been more different. Once again, it was Chapman’s faith in his goalkeeping protégé that led to the opportunity, and Rhys found himself going from a Step Five changing room to a Premier League academy. Bournemouth knew he was raw, and as a 19 year old he trained with the U18s. The experience was beneficial, and Bournemouth’s approach was a world away from what he’d seen before. Whilst the Cherries decided against taking him on, they gave productive feedback, and highlighted areas of his game he should look to develop in order to capitalise on his natural ability. They also made one more recommendation – look for a club higher up the leagues. Bournemouth’s U23 goalkeeping coach felt that Forster needed to be testing himself against players at Step Three in order to develop the potential they saw. After his trial, Forster set himself a target of playing National League by the age of 25.
More conversations with Chapman followed, and a newly focused Forster started into the 2019/20 season, whilst Chapman went around identifying a club for Forster at Step Three. A Thursday evening trial match for the Met Police U23s followed, where Rhys impressed the Met’s manager, Gavin MacPherson, and was quickly called into the first team. MacPherson told him to come along on the Saturday and meet the team at the Weston-super-Mare match. On the bus to Imber Court, Forster received a phone call – you’re starting. Clearly the manager saw something he liked, because Forster has played every match he’s been available for since.
As a club, there aren’t many at Step Three which can offer better prospects for an ambitious young footballer. From the first team where MacPherson is ably supported by goalkeeper coach Scott Tarr and Jon Nurse, right through the youth system, the Met have a great track record for developing youth. In the last two years, they’ve seen Lucas Ness move to Charlton, Nesta Guinness-Walker to Wimbledon, Ethan Chislett to Aldershot and Renedi Masampu to Chelsea. On top of that, MacPherson prefers to play an attractive, technical style of football. And this suits Forster just fine. As a player, his distribution stands out as a strength, and with the likes of Jack Mazzone and Max Blackmore up front next season, Forster will have plenty of opportunity to display his accurate kicking game.
Another aspect which has helped Forster at Met Police is the community feel. Throughout his short career so far, he has always performed best when he’s part of a close-knit, supportive environment, and that is absolutely the case at Met Police. So, has following Bournemouth’s advice helped? Absolutely. Forster rattles off the names of teammates, such as Ollie Robinson and Junior Eldstal, and how much their experience and communication has helped him develop. And the opposition are more testing – with the greatest of respect to clubs at Step Five, they simply can’t provide the test which the likes of Tyler Harvey, Matt Wright and Joe White can.
Before we wrap things up, there’s one subject you have to discuss with Rhys – TikTok, and social media. He has a legitimate claim to being the most watched footballer at Step Three, with his various TikTok videos having over two million views. Whether it’s a rabona volley through a basketball hoop, top corner saves or a side volley through a tyre, there’s something about his social media which has appealed to many. I ask Rhys if that was the plan when he started filming himself playing, and his answer gives a clue as to why he’s made such rapid progress since first donning the gloves. It’s quite simple, he started filming himself training, so that he could do his own video analysis, looking to make marginal gains in footwork, positioning and other technical aspects.
To finish, what does the future hold for Rhys Forster? Last week the Met Police announced that he had signed for next season, along with a few other key men, such as Ollie Robinson, Louis Birch, Rudy Allen and Jack Mazzone, not to mention the returning Max Blackmore. With that squad, Forster thinks that the Met will be challenging at the right end of the table, and it’s difficult to argue – especially considering their form towards the end of 2019/20. I wouldn’t want to bet against Forster achieving his ambition of playing in the National Leagues within 18 months – or against the Met Police being the club he does it with.