Eighteen months ago it was a well-informed student of gaelic football indeed who knew of Wexford's Matty Forde. Today he is recognised as one of the best forwards in the game of the past ten years, a man credited with bringing his county, almost single-handedly, to the brink of national success.
The 2004 GPA Player of the Year has done so on the back of a number of high-profile displays encapsulating all that is most spectacular about his sport, and in a style that bears comparison with anyone of his era, all while playing with a traditionally unfashionable team.
He has achieved this too while playing at corner-forward, a position where you are naturally dependent on one's team-mates to supply you with a constant supply of possession. All that seems to be of little concern to Forde though, whose economy in front of goals, his supreme balance, his languid, elegant style and ability to kick off either foot, recalls Maurice Fitzgerald of Kerry in his pomp. And this weekend could see him and his teammates take the biggest scalp of their careers when he leads them into a Leinster semi-final clash with a resurgent Dublin side.
It is not difficult to pinpoint the exact date when Matty Forde was first brought to the attention of the wider GAA public. On 21 March last year Wexford travelled to Tuam, the spiritual home of Galway football, for a League Division 1B game. Although Galway's star has waned somewhat since, at that time the home side were still ranked among the top five teams in the country and were warm favourites to win.
Wexford's 5-12 to 1-7 victory stunned the country, but the real talking point was the display of their No 15, who shot a personal tally of four goals and five points, with just two of those points coming from placed balls. That also included a hat-trick scored in three first-half minutes that effectively ended the game as a contest. The following day The Irish Times described it as "one of the great individual extravaganzas of modern times."
John O'Mahony, then the Galway manager and now a pundit on RTÉ's The Sunday Game, has painful memories of that day. "He ran riot. He did it every way that day. He scored from frees, from open play, with left and right, and he laid on scores for others. It was a particularly bad performance by Galway, but before that game I described him to our team as a Maurice Fitzgerald-type figure and the more I saw of him that day, the more I felt that it was a good description. He's deceptively fast and he's very skilful on the ball and he can use both left and right."
If Galway were caught with a sucker punch that day, everyone else had been given due warning of Forde's potential. But he quickly went about proving that was no flash in the pan. Although Wexford missed out on qualification for the league semi-finals, Forde ended the campaign with a personal tally of 8-36. He followed that up by finishing the championship's top scorer, notching up 3 goals and 38 points in just five matches.
That included a one-man destruction of Offaly in an All-Ireland qualifier in which Forde accounted for 2 goals and 10 points, with 2-7 from play, 2 frees, and an outrageous effort from a sideline ball. It was that display, perhaps even more than the game against Galway, which confirmed Matty Forde's place at the very top of his sport.
Footballers don't score 2-10 against respected, established teams in the championship. It simply doesn't happen. Forde had run riot to such an extent that, even if none of his team-mates had scored, his own personal haul would have been enough to beat Offaly by a point.
The fact that he has come to the fore in a team of honest triers rather than a multi-talented outfit like the present Kerry side has both plusses and minuses. He is a marked man without a shadow of a doubt, but he is also the fulcrum around which the entire side revolves. Everything goes through him. In that respect it could be argued it's easier for him to rack up such impressive tallies, but even taking that into account, his scoring rate is quite simply outstanding.
However, there are still unanswered questions about his temperament. His sending-off against Westmeath in last year's Leinster championship semi-final defeat was telling on a number of levels. Despite hitting 0-8 (including four frees), by the end of the game Forde had been visibly frustrated by his marker John Keane, who largely on the back of this display was chosen on the All-stars (although conceding eight points to your direct opponent is not usually a good way to ensure end-of-year consideration).
He got involved with a Westmeath player 'off the ball' and was dismissed in the closing moments for a second yellow card. He had dipped below the – absurdly high – levels of expectation he had set for himself and had lashed out in frustration. A similar incident occurred in this year's league semi-final against Tyrone. He had taken the Tyrone defence for 1-3 in the first half, but the Northerners had effectively snuffed out his threat when he was the central figure in a 15-man brawl late in the third quarter. This time he escaped censure but when he feels things aren't going his way his temperament can be suspect, and this is not a weakness which other teams are going to be shy in attempting to expose.
Forde is 25 and works as a carpenter. He plays his club football for Kilanerin, for whom he scored 13 points when they last won the county final in 2003. He has been quite a prominent figure in advertising campaigns organised by the GPA (Gaelic Players Association) in recent times and has already appeared as a poster-boy for Adidas, in their latest GAA promotional drive. He has also excelled in hurling and was called up to the Wexford hurling panel this year by new manager Seamus Murphy. However, after toying with the idea, he decided to stick to the football.
This Sunday's match against the Dubs represents the greatest challenge of Forde's career. The match will be played out in front of a near capacity Croke Park crowd, after the first semi-final between Kildare and Laois. The stage is set for another virtuoso performance... and Matty appears to be clearing his throat if the style with which he hit his 1-6 against Carlow last time out was anything to go by. Dublin will have a plan in mind to stop him, but it is Forde's glorious unpredictability which is perhaps the most fascinating subplot to Sunday's Leinster double-bill.