Ben Foster has gone from bottle washer to England's No1 goalkeeping prospect
06 August 2009 05:36
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Wembley and the Community Shield await the Manchester United goalkeeper on Sunday, raising the curtain to a season's show that could climax with Foster as England's No 1 in the World Cup.
Now 26, Foster's potential has long been acknowledged, not least by Sir Alex Ferguson who describes him as Edwin van der Sar's natural successor and England's best. Van der Sar's unfortunate finger injury, leaving the 38-year-old Dutchman on the sidelines for two months, opens the way for Foster to live up to Ferguson's expectations and prove to England's coach, Fabio Capello, that he is ready to add to his two caps.
With David James, 39, prone to mistakes and Joe Hart only 22, Capello could do with Foster seizing his chance at Old Trafford. United and England may just be staging the changing of the old guard.
A popular individual, Foster has risen the hard way, keeping down a job in a pub while playing non-League before being spotted by Stoke City. He became the lord of the loan, going everywhere from Racing Club Warwick to Bristol City, Tiverton Town, Stafford Rangers, Kidderminster Harriers and Wrexham before Ferguson, watching his son Darren turning out for Wrexham, was so impressed he bought him from Stoke for £1 million in 2005. Ferguson promptly sent him out on loan to Watford.
After a well-received stay, including a promotion campaign under Aidy Boothroyd, Foster returned to Old Trafford in 2007, establishing himself as Van der Sar's understudy. He fully came to the nation's attention with some sharp goalkeeping in last season's League Cup final, including a superb save from Jamie O'Hara in the shoot-out win over Tottenham Hotspur. Foster's attention to detail was highlighted when he used the moments before penalties to watch footage of Spurs' likely takers on his iPod.
Being named Alan Hardaker Man of the Match was a particularly sweet moment for Foster, whose career has been a game of snakes and ladders because of injury. Whatever challenges this season throws at him, Foster's character will not be in doubt. He absorbs adversity's punches, overcoming constant and frustrating acquaintance with injury. He has damaged everything from knee to finger to ankle, often at an inopportune moment with United. Foster could be forgiven for feeling that Lady Luck smiled on him.
He deserves this chance. Even when he made his first real high-profile howler, letting a kick from Paul Robinson bounce over his head and drop into the Watford goal, Foster refused to duck a press conference the following day (as many footballers might have done). With Robinson coming under criticism for mistakes with England, Foster knew he would be asked whether he felt he should replace Robinson but he deflected the inevitable bouncer with a neat joke. "Paul's got the slight edge over me on goalscoring!'' Foster laughed.
Having been employed in a pub and seen something out of the outside world before making it as a professional, Foster can keep the vicissitudes of his gilded craft in perspective. Not having risen through the academy system, where players can be protected from the rough and tumble, Foster has remained "rounded and grounded'' in the words of one who knows him. When attending a sponsorship launch for his glove-manufacturers Sells at the National Space Centre at Leicester, Foster brought along his father, who is equally interested in sci-fi.
A popular figure at Old Trafford, where staff appreciate his polite demeanour, Foster is also totally accepted by the senior pros because of his commitment to training and obvious aptitude. A good shot-stopper, Foster is confident at coming for crosses and few keepers kick the ball further, a weapon that United and England could use to catch opponents out. Having to face the hard-shooting Wayne Rooney and Paul Scholes in training every day has also developed Foster's game.
Recently awarded a four-year contract, Foster knows how highly regarded he is by Ferguson and he now has to impress Capello, who regularly voices concerns about his keeping options. England's coach prefers his players to be competing in the Champions League and Foster now has his chance with United, starting in the Community Shield on Sunday when Capello will be watching.