MillwallSport

David Forde’s moving tribute to Millwall owner John Berylson – a cigar-smoking, strong-willed mentor who bonded Millwall elements together

BY RICHARD CAWLEY
richard@slpmedia.co.uk

John Berylson’s impact as Millwall owner was huge and David Forde’s recollections of the American, who passed away on Tuesday, show the bond that he formed.

So many of the players who passed through the Den door during Berylson’s reign simply called him Mr Chairman.

All of them have tales which reflect the fact that the 70-year-old, from Boston, struck up strong connections – whether they were a Lions legend or one that never managed to scale the heights.

Berylson would celebrate  the club’s successes with a cigar. Forde joined him in doing so after Millwall’s 2010 League One play-off final win at Wembley – and also when they clinched Championship survival in 2014.

Forde stopped talking midway through his first answer – apologising for getting emotional – at the mention of that latter image.

“We had many cigars together – especially when we won at Wembley Stadium,” said the former Republic of Ireland international, 43. “We were absolutely elated, over the moon – after the heartbreaking year before (losing to Scunthorpe) we came back and did something really extraordinary – a first win at Wembley for the club.

“There was John’s enthusiasm, desire, passion and love for Millwall – we went down to the new Wembley and there were 55,000 Millwall fans, the highest attendance from a club.

“I remember him coming into the changing room a year before. As a Marine he loved their mantra ‘improvise, adapt and overcome’. He said: ‘Look, we’re in the trenches – we’ll do it again next year’.

“He came down after we won, gave me such a big hug on the pitch and said: ‘Jeez, we did it.’ A year earlier I’d said we would crack open the champagne and cigars next season, and he didn’t forget that. He pulled two Cubans out of his pocket. We just lit them up.

“Security came in and said: ‘Jeez, you’re going to burn the place down’. John turned around and said: ‘I don’t care. If it happens I’ll build it newer, bigger and stronger’. We just started laughing. It was a really, really special moment.

“He was a mentor when times were difficult. I can’t remember who we played but my form and confidence were lower than a snake’s belly – I was thinking I’m going to get nailed by the fans again.

“He came into the changing room and started talking about his netminder and goal-tender – we were in stitches, trying not to laugh. He’d be using all kinds of American  sports descriptions. He loved the art of goalkeeping, he was very fascinated by it – plus my connection, being Irish. His wife Amy had an Irish connection.

“He asked where the name Forde came from. I told him it was Irish and he started talking about his Norwegian descent and asked if I knew there was a place out there called Førde? We got chatting about that.

“I’d gone in the toilet before the game, I was a bit nervous and was washing my hands. He must have seen me and very subtly, not in sight of anyone else, he followed me into the bathroom, put his arm around my shoulder and said: ‘You’re my number one. There is a reason we brought you to the club. You’re a fantastic keeper. Your confidence might be a little low but I believe in you. Get out on that field and show what I know you can do’.

“I must have grown 10-feet tall. I went out and had one of the best games I’ve ever played.”

Forde left the Lions in 2017 after 339 appearances. Berylson invited him back to the club to have dinner with him.

“It meant so much to me,” said Galway-born Forde. “The contracts that we did and signing for the club, over that nine-year period, and what he did for me personally – what he did for my family and what he did for me professionally – means I have gratitude and appreciation.

“When I speak about him it is why I definitely feel it in the heart. I feel that level of grief.

“We’d speak every month or six weeks.

“On Tuesday morning, after my meditation, I sat outside having a cup of coffee because it was sunny and John popped into my mind.

“I thought I must ring him but then I went to dads’ football, up in the cages, and then I got a message afterwards from the friend. I looked at it and it was black-and-white (a Twitter post by Millwall) – initially I thought it was Zian Flemming, getting his move to Burnley or whatever else.

“I found it very hard to take in. He used to say his family line lived until they were nearly 100.

“He was a great philanthropist. He was a great philosopher, a great policitian, a fantastic businessman  and a beautiful soul and a beautiful, beautiful person – he’d spin a different perception of what we’d been seeing.”

Berylson, whose investment in Millwall surpassed £100million, is survived by wife Amy and his children – Jennifer, James and Elizabeth.

“His big thing was about his family – how much they meant to him,” said Forde. “How proud he was of his nation.

“Whatever his belief was, he brought that to the situation – whether it was right, wrong or indifferent. He owned that part of himself.

“Often times we’d catch up about how business was going and the next thing he’d be telling me about Irish, American and British politics. I said to him once: ‘John, you’re my best history teacher’. He was an avid scholar.

“He was a keen golfer and he loved his sport. He loved the Boston Celtics and the Boston Red Sox.

Millwall goalkeeper David Forde

“He felt Boston’s energy was very similar to Millwall’s – we fear no foe – and that they were always on the periphery, on the outside. I think that’s why he connected so fondly. There were a lot of parallels in what he was seeing in Boston to what Millwall represented.

“I got to see the structures that he implemented over 15 years. With such a safe and strong foundation, he was building to get Millwall to that place.”

Forde was at the final match of last season – a 4-3 defeat to Blackburn Rovers that ended their play-off hopes. Berylson walked around clapping supporters.

“Everyone was so stricken and you can only imagine what John was feeling, because he was so close to getting to that promised land of the Premier League,” said Forde. “I do believe Millwall will get there one day.

“Unfortunately John won’t be at the helm but what he has put in place – like the work on the training ground – was done in a very strategic and innovative way.

“He was always concerned that we’re going to do this right and not just throw everything at it and struggle for years afterwards.

“We bounced about trying to establish ourselves as a Championship club – we were yo-yoing between there and League One. Then he consolidated that. What he and the manager have done over the past couple of seasons has been beautiful to watch, as an ex-player. I look at Millwall as my club.

“We’ve always had that sense of family with the players, the directors and with the board.”

TRIBUTES FROM FORMER LIONS

“John was, without any doubt whatsoever, the best club owner I have ever worked with, and I would argue strongly that he was the best chairman of any club in this country.

“What he did for Millwall over so many years was both extraordinary and exemplary. He trusted his staff to get on with the task at hand but was always unwavering in his support in so many ways.”
Millwall chief executive Steve Kavanagh

“I’m shocked and saddened to hear the news of John’s passing. He was a great chairman and an even better friend to my family and myself.

“What he achieved at Millwall has been incredible. I’ll always have the image of him smoking the cigar at Wembley after the play-off win. Rest in peace. He will be sadly missed.”
Ex-Lions manager Kenny Jackett

“It is a really sad day, we have lost a good man in John.

“I still spoke to him after I left. I was captain in my last year there, I met John at the end of that season at the Grove Hotel for lunch.

“He was interested in not just the club, but the fans and community. Like Steve Morison said in a radio interview this week, no-one had a bad word to say about John.

“He wasn’t one to panic. He never made rash decisions and the club is in a better position for that. A lot are too quick to change things or get rid of things. But in tough times he would always back you.

“He has invested, invested and invested in the facilities, in the players, in the infrastructure, in the community – in the people and in the staff. The time and energy he put into that means the club has grown on to the map.

“Millwall is a huge club that has had so much success, look at how many times we’ve been to Wembley? John brought stability to us. I can’t think of another club where the fans respected an owner so much.”

Former Lions captain Alan Dunne

“At every promotion final we won, he was there in the dressing room after. That’s how he was with us.

“He knew everyone’s families and kids.

“He was a real personal person. He was someone that you had so much time and love for.

“They are the most stable club in the Championship, bar a couple. He just ran it fantastically.

“I just can’t believe it – it’s absolutely heartbreaking.”

Steve Morison, Millwall’s third highest all-time goalscorer

“Every time I ever saw him, he greeted everyone individually. He was such a warm character, he always had a smile on his face. He had time for absolutely everybody.

“You knew when he was in the room because he had a presence about him. He is going to be a big loss to the club and everyone that knew him. I’m in shock still.

“Every time I spoke to him, you just knew you were in good hands and that he’d always have a story to tell.”

Shaun Williams, who played 290 matches for the Lions

“Such a kind, warm, caring man.  I’ll never forget how he treated me after two serious injuries in my time at Millwall. RIP Mr Chairman.”
Ex-Lions full-back Danny Senda

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One thought on “David Forde’s moving tribute to Millwall owner John Berylson – a cigar-smoking, strong-willed mentor who bonded Millwall elements together

  • RIP John, you were a true footballing Yank and were true to your word with MFC, out of sight but not out of mind, Sth London Gooner x

    Reply

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