Old Folks XI: We start with goalkeeper Ben Foster

Date published: Tuesday 7th January 2020 9:11

Football is a young person’s game, which means there’s a special place in our hearts for the aged ones, those who keep their place while all around them turn pundit, pitchman or pub owner. So today we start a new series, profiling the oldest players in each position who are still a clear first choice for their Premier League side. Put the false teeth away, get settled in your rocking chair and follow along with Football365’s Old Folks XI.

Fittingly we’ll start with the granddaddy of them all, an evergreen keeper who played for two Premier League title winners, started in the Champions League, was in goal for two League Cup final victories, started for his country in the World Cup, was relegated with three different clubs, had three cruciate ligament injuries – and was just nominated for Premier League Player of the Month. Of course you’re familiar with…

Ben Foster was born in Leamington Spa, Warwickshire, and must have taken the waters from an early age. He’ll be 37 in April, and if he’s slowing down, only his family knows about it. A couple of weeks ago he just happened to make the save of the season off John Fleck of Sheffield United…

Top that, anybody with gloves.

Not that Foster himself would brag about it. He’s famously modest: most recently he chose not to be interviewed about a noted act of charity, when he pulled a dementia-suffering Watford fan from a ditch, brought him home, invited him for Christmas dinner, and offered to pay for his future season tickets. In fact, the incident would never have been made public had not the fan’s family posted about it on Twitter.

But you could forgive Foster for feeling just a bit satisfied at his longevity, because his career has always been defined by being second, third or even fourth best. He played for Manchester United when Edwin van der Sar was the sheriff and Tomasz Kuszczak the deputy. He missed out on the 2010 World Cup when Joe Hart received the third GK spot. Even when he got to start a World Cup match, at Brazil 2014, it was the 0-0 draw with Costa Rica after England had been eliminated with Hart in goal.

It’s entirely typical, though, that he made the best save of that match, a nifty leap to deny a Celso Borges free-kick.

In fact, it’s time to redefine Ben Foster’s career as a resounding success. True, back in 2009, when given the chance to take the starting spot at United, he wasn’t ready, and it has to be said he failed. But that was the very last time.

For from United he went first to Birmingham City, where he served with distinction in 2010/11, winning the club’s Player of the Year award despite relegation. He was too good for the Championship, so the next year went on loan to Roy Hodgson’s West Bromwich Albion, where he started the first 37 matches in one of the Baggies’ finest recent seasons. He won the Player of the Year award there, too.

That was the start of a most distinguished career at Albion: seven years in the Premier League, with no less than four club Player of the Year awards. In 2016/17 he was even a nominee for the Football Writers’ Player of the Year league-wide. It ended in tears, as these things tend to do, with West Brom relegated to the Championship after 2017/18. But Foster publicly announced that he was ready to play in the second division to help the club back to the top flight.

As before, though, he was too good to go down, and Watford snatched him up. And as you already know, he’s doing just fine there. He was the victim of that 8-0 mauling by Manchester City, but even with that to his account, he ranks comfortably in the top half of the league in the shot-stopping ratings. (Joe Hart, incidentally, is four years younger -remind me, where’s he right now?)

Let’s also talk about those two League Cup Final victories. The first was in 2009, when he played for Manchester United against Spurs. It was a 0-0 draw, won by United on penalties.

One reason it got there was Foster’s excellent save from Aaron Lennon [starts at 6:06], and one reason the cup went to Old Trafford was his save from Jamie O’Hara in the shootout. [same video, starts at 10:03].

Foster’s second League Cup win came for Birmingham City, in their famous 2011 defeat of Arsenal. It was City’s first major trophy in their 136 years of existence. If you saw the match, no doubt you recall the fatal injury-time mix-up between Wojciech Szczesny and Laurent Koscielny. But unless you’re a Blues fan, you might not recall Foster’s several good saves, so take a look here…

He copped the trophy for man of the match – just as he had for United two years before.

We should mention an earlier final as well, the 2006 Championship play-off final between Watford and Leeds. Foster was in goal because he’d been the Hornets’ regular keeper for the season while on loan from United. Naturally he emerged victorious there as well: he was a bit lucky not to have conceded a penalty, but he also made six saves as the side won 3-0. Watford were outclassed the next year in the Premier League, finishing last by some margin, but – you guessed it – our Ben was named the club’s Player of the Year.

Still, for all his quality, you wouldn’t have bet on Foster flourishing in the year 2020. That’s because he’s suffered no fewer than three anterior cruciate ligament tears, just about the worst thing that can happen to your knees. The first came when he was only 19 while playing tennis, and the others in 2007 with United and 2015 with West Brom. He was out for more than nine months with each of the latter two injuries. Even now he takes only limited training to preserve his knees, saving the intensive action for game time.

Obviously a healthy knee is essential to all keepers, but Foster’s style puts exceptional pressure on that part of the body. He’s not a stay-at-home keeper in the manner of Hugo Lloris or David de Gea: he’s one of the most aggressive in the league going for crosses, and excellent at claiming the ball high. He might be even better when charging out to deny an attacker. Every time you see him come off his line, or for that matter every time you see him walk around, remember this is a guy who’s suffered more serious knee injuries than roughly 99.99999% of human beings.

Three Champions League starts for Manchester United, plus eight caps for England, only two in competitive fixtures, are hardly the stats of an all-timer. But you don’t have to be an all-timer to be an old-timer, and we’ve got some other numbers to prove it. Who made the most Premier League saves in the just-completed decade? Ben Foster with 996, 171 more than De Gea. Who’s made the most Premier League saves since 2006 (the year they started keeping track)? Ben Foster with 1130, 125 more than Petr Cech. The man has richly earned his greybeard status. You can check out several compilation videos on YouTube to see how he’s done it.

I’ve never been to Leamington Spa, but my wife (nearly 70 and lovelier than ever) spent 12 years of her adult life there, and she tells me that if Foster was born in 1983, he was almost certainly born in Warneford Hospital. Wikipedia tells us, appropriately, that it was a venerable place, opening its doors all the way back in 1834. Its long and storied career ended in 1993, and the building was subsequently demolished – but don’t expect that to happen to Ben Foster any time soon.

Peter Goldstein

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