Carl Forster’s Rugby League career hasn’t followed what you’d call a normal path.
He became Rugby League’s youngest professional coach at just 24 when he was appointed to the top job at Whitehaven in 2016.
He became player-coach of the Cumbrian outfit and had two years in the role before continuing his coaching career at Rochdale.
Forster returned to ‘Haven after leaving Rochdale last season, where he secured a league winners medal.
But he has since turned down the offer of a new contract at the Recration Ground to remain in League 1 with one of next year’s favourite for promotion, Barrow.
But Carl’s story begins a touch further south, in St Helens, where he grew up as a supporter of the Saints.
He would go on to join the club as a junior, aged just 11, spending just over a decade with the reigning Super League champions, taking in an Academy tour to Australia and making five first team appearances.
Forster made his Saints debut off the bench in the capital against London in 2011, but gained much of his experience in the years that followed on dual-registration terms with clubs including Swinton, Rochdale, Whitehaven and London.
But that isn’t to say Forster is a fan of dual-reg.
“To be honest, it’s not great,” he reflected.
“I’ve said for a long time that dual-reg can work if used correctly, but I think I played for four different clubs within two to three months.
“But as a young lad at the time trying to prove your worth, you’re just happy to play rugby.
“Obviously having successful spells at Rochdale and Whitehaven made it worthwhile in the end, and I suppose it was just something you had to get on board with if you wanted to play week in week out.”
By 2014, things had finally settled down for Forster and he made 19 appearances for ‘Haven, albeit still on dual-reg terms, before learning that his deal with St Helens would not be renewed.
The success he’d enjoyed in Cumbria appeared to clear the path for a permanent move to The Rec, but a phone call from Salford owner Marwan Koukash offered him another crack at Super League.
“It was a tough call actually because I had given [Whitehaven director] Barry Richardson the thumbs up to stay there.
“But when the call came from Salford it was an opportunity to stay in full-time rugby and I still had the ambition to play Super League, so it was something I just couldn’t turn down at the time.”
Of course, Koukash wasn’t your average Rugby League owner.
The “good doctor” had ambitious plans for the club and wasn’t afraid to splash the cash needed to get there.
The Red Devils always seemed to be grabbing the headlines and Forster admits that made it a fairly unique environment for a Rugby League player.
“It was a very strange place to be if I’m honest.
“The club was always in the headlines for one reason or another, but as a playing squad it was brilliant.
“We had a great set of lads and Marwan was brilliant with us all, it was a good place to be at the time.”
Forster made 13 appearances in his first season with the club but was limited to just three the following year.
“I had a good first year at the club and had a great pre-season following that, but we had a lot of quality in the group.
“And, with everyone being fit come the start of the year, I asked Watto [Salford coach Ian Watson] if I could go out on loan to get some game time as we had no dual-reg or Reserves system.”
Watson would grant Forster’s wish and he would spend the first month of the season with Swinton, before returning to bolster the Salford squad over Easter.
But in his third game back, an away defeat to Wakefield, Forster suffered a shoulder injury that ruled him out for several months, and would ultimately spell the end of his career at the top level.
He negotiated a release from Salford and re-joined Whitehaven, who had struggled in 2016 under head coach James Coyle.
Forster returned to help rescue the club from relegation and would quickly find himself in a pivotal role at the club, forming part of a four-man coaching team that took control for the final five games of the season following Coyle’s departure.
Working alongside Dave Allen, Scott McAvoy and Craig Calvert, Forster helped guide ‘Haven to wins over Workington and Dewsbury, but relegation was confirmed following defeat to Oldham in the penultimate game of the season.
Forster reflects: “It was a testing time for the club on the brink of relegation.
“I probably should have sat out the rest of the season, but I was feeling fit enough to play at the time.
“It was something I wanted to throw myself at, and we nearly survived, but it wasn’t just enough in the end.”
Despite demotion, Forster had made enough of an impression and he was appointed the club’s player-coach at the remarkably young age of 24.
Though delighted to land the role with a club close to his heart, Forster admits he was surprised to be handed the reins.
“I always wanted to stay at the club, regardless of who the next coach was going to be.
“There was a lot of rumours at the time, but I had a contract and was keen to honour that.
“One of the directors, Mark Stamper, rang me and offered me the job and at first I thought it was a wind-up.
“But after talking it through, it was just something I couldn’t turn down, knowing I’d have always questioned myself in the future.
“I used my experience of being at Saints and Salford, and the coaches I had there, and just tried to take in all the information I had received over the years to apply myself in the best possible way.
He added: “Coaching was hard enough, but then to have to play as well and get fit made it all the more difficult.
“But I do believe it worked for me and the group we had at Whitehaven.
“They all bought into what we were trying to achieve and that made my job a lot easier.”
Forster’s first season in charge almost had a perfect ending, but it certainly didn’t start that way.
‘Haven lost all four of their pre-season fixtures and some fans were calling for Forster to be relieved of his duties before the season had even started.
But things would improve on the field and the club secured a third-placed finish in the league, before going on to earn a place in the League 1 play-off final thanks to a dramatic semi-final win against York.
There was to be no fairytale finish, however, and the campaign concluded with a narrow defeat to Barrow in the promotion decider.
Reflecting on his first year as a coach, Forster says: “Pre-season was really tough, but deep down I knew we had the squad.
“It’s always difficult when you’ve just been relegated. We’d lost majority of the squad and we had a busy off-season bringing a lot of new faces in, so we knew it wasn’t going to start brilliant.
“But we kept to our principles and the more we played together the better we became.
“The final was a bitter pill to swallow, and it still is if I’m honest, but that’s Rugby League and we were really proud of our achievements that season.”
Following a challenging first year in coaching, 2018 would throw further obstacles Forster’s way.
‘Haven battled financial difficulties throughout the year and were dependent on a crowd-funding campaign, which raised £60,000, to keep the club afloat.
A failed takeover bid caused further disruption.
“2018 was really tough. We lost a number of important players from the previous year.
“We were just going about our business as usual, as that’s what we get paid to do, but something just wasn’t quite right, so I asked a few questions and then reality hit home.
“As we were pushing for the play-off spots, with about ten games left of the season, we were told we had three weeks left to find a certain amount of money or we were all out of a job, and we could speak to other clubs.
“It wasn’t great, but the lads stuck together and played for one another which I was very proud of, as it it could have so easily fallen apart.”
In the end, Forster and the club would reach an amicable agreement that would see the two parties go their separate ways for 2019, despite the young coach having a year to run on his contract.
Forster would instead move up a division and continue his career as a player coach with Rochdale, where another mammoth challenge would await.
Just two victories in 12 games, including just one win in the league, hammered home the size of the task at Spotland.
“We couldn’t recruit like other Championship clubs due to our financial restrictions, but I thought we got a decent team on the field.
“We had a few issues, but it was just something that didn’t work out. However, I do believe that given time, and with what we were working on behind closed doors as a playing group, we had enough to turn it around.
“But in sport I suppose you don’t get that time anymore.”
Two weeks later, Forster had gone full circle and was back at ‘Haven, although he wasn’t short of options elsewhere in the third tier.
He revealed: “I spoke to the majority of League 1 clubs.
“But I’d had a tough few months and I just wanted to get back to enjoying my rugby, and I knew that would happy at the Rec.
“I always hated the fact I never left the club on my own terms, and I didn’t want to leave at the end of 2018, so that was something that always got to me.
“The chance to come back and get the club back to where it was when I first pulled the shirt on was something I was keen to do, as well as eventually being able to leave the club on my own terms.”
Forster’s return would be a happy one and 2017 ended with a return to the Championship and the club lifting only the second major trophy in its history.
And though he insists the move to ‘Haven was only ever intended to be short-term, he admits that some doubt lingered.
“In my own head I was always going to leave.
“It was always a short-term thing but, as we were winning games and the enjoyment of rugby was coming back, I did feel myself questioning my decision.
“It was hard to walk away after being a part of what was happening and the feel-good factor around the club, but I had to trust my original decision and move on.”
Forster will remain in Cumbria for 2020 after agreeing to join Barrow, who effectively swap places with ‘Haven for this year.
“I have cut my travelling down at least two hours each training session and I already knew a few lads there that spoke really highly of the club.
“I’ve much respect for Cresta [Paul Crarey], we had some good battles as coaches and I’m hoping to learn from him.
“I won’t lie, I really miss the coaching, but I’ve grown to accept that I’m just part of the playing group.
“I need to keep learning from different people and hopefully in the future I can use for my benefit.”
And though he has already experienced no shortage of adversity as a player and a coach, Forster admits that 2020 could represent his toughest challenge to date.
“I do believe the league will be a lot stronger this year.
“A lot of teams have invested well, Newcastle look really strong and Doncaster have pulled off some real impressive signings, so it’s going to be an interesting year.
“But our aim should be to be right up there and hopefully that’s exactly where we’ll be.”
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