Affleck's Angle: Phenomenal Foster
Kevin Affleck assesses Ben Foster's inspired performance against Brighton & Hove Albion...
It wasn’t a save he made during his initial two-year loan spell – although there were some top ones against Plymouth and Wigan – but something he did behind the white line that marked Ben Foster out as an individual of real substance.
Foster was only 24 – a baby in goalkeeping terms – and he had just suffered the complete and utter ignominy of seeing Paul Robinson, his rival for the England shirt at the time, lob one over his head from 75 yards at White Hart Lane. It could have crushed some. Look what happened to Jack Bonham, a keeper who looked to have all the tools, after that fateful substitute appearance against Leeds United at Vicarage Road in 2013.
But Foster tackled it head on and dealt with straight away. Instead of scurrying, with his head down, onto the team coach that day in North London and hiding at the back of the bus, he emerged from the dressing room and did a series of mature media interviews, buying him some instant respect among the influential opinion-formers on Fleet Street and tackling the issue head on. It felt like he put it to bed before his hair had even had time to dry following his post-match shower.
He didn’t miss a beat after the concession of the goal to a fellow goalkeeper and ran away with the club’s Player of the Season award, demonstrating as much about his glove work as his DNA. How the club would have dearly loved to used a slither of the Premier League pie to make his move permanent that summer, but Foster was destined for bigger things at Manchester United and the relegated Hornets didn't stand a chance of landing him.
It says much about how the the club has moved on under the ownership of Gino Pozzo and the chairmanship of Scott Duxbury that they are the ones now able to offer a player of Foster's pedigree Premier League football, an escape route from the Championship. Foster wouldn't have left his cosy life in the Midlands for any other club.
“Originally I had no intention of leaving,” Foster said in an interview with The Daily Telegraph in August. “I had been there seven years, it was home and that was as simple as that.”
Watford didn't just sign a goalkeeper of international class, someone who knew the club inside out and understood its traditions, but a good egg. A football dressing room needs as many of them as they can get.
Foster is the player who won’t turn down a media request – he’s been on talkSPORT and 5 Live’s Monday Night Club this season – he’ll happily make an appearance at a community event and he was there wishing fans a Happy New Year in a social media message and a Happy Republic Day to the club's followers in India. They may seem small things, but you wouldn't believe the amount of arm twisting that goes on at clubs to get players to do simple duties like this. Foster is a dream for the marketing, commercial and media departments.
But Foster wasn’t signed to boost the club’s social medias followers, to elicit those all-important likes and retweets: he was recruited to keep the ball out of the back of the net and he’s doing that with such aplomb that he deserves to be in the melting pot when any talk of the club’s greatest ever goalkeeper takes place. He certainly produced the sort of performance on Saturday that Andy Rankin, Tony Coton, David James, Kevin Miller, Alec Chamberlain and Heurelho Gomes would have been proud of.
“Ben Foster was in inspired form,” said Derek Payne on BBC Three Counties Radio. “It was an outstanding performance from him. That was one of the best performances I’ve seen from a goalkeeper in a long, long time.”
The range of unlikely saves was the most impressive aspect. He leapt high to his right to keep out headers from Jürgen Locadia, produced a sliding tackle that left-back Paul Robinson would have been proud of to prevent an overhead kick from Shane Duffy sneaking into the bottom corner and then was quick off his line, stood up and stayed big to smother an effort from Florin Andone four minutes from time. Even when he slipped following a back-pass from Craig Cathcart, he managed to get enough purchase on the clearance with his sledge-hammer of a left foot that the ball sailed into the stands.
“Watford had to rely on their goalkeeper again,” said Geoff Doyle, the sports editor at BBC Three Counties Radio. “He was simply magnificent.”
The fact he has been so busy this season is probably a debate to be had on other pages, but it will not be lost on Javi Gracia and his goalkeeping coach Iñigo Arteaga that Foster has already made 78 saves this season, including seven in games against Huddersfield and West Ham. He only made 99 in the whole of last season in a West Brom side that finished rock bottom.
“He's having a special season,” said Jermaine Jenas on Match of the Day. “He’s easily Watford's player of the year.”
Jenas feel Foster’s form warrants an England call-up, but that ship has sailed. He last played for his country at the World Cup in 2014 when he kept a clean sheet against Costa Rica. Foster turns 36 in April and has made no secret of the fact his “knees are made of glass”. He has suffered three cruciate knee ligament ruptures, one after playing tennis with his brother at 19. He doesn’t get anything like the same level of treatment Ledley King did at Spurs, when the defender didn’t train all week only to play like a Rolls Royce on Saturday, but Foster certainly has to be managed to make sure the Hornets get two seasons out of him and possibly a third.
“He's having a fabulous season,” said Gary Lineker. “He retired [from international football] a long time ago, but you could argue he’s England’s best goalkeeper.”
Gracia played with Santiago Cañizares, the Real Madrid and Spain great, for his country’s Under-21 side so he knows a good keeper when he sees one.
“I like his attitude,” said Gracia. “Players with his experience know perfectly when you can smile and laugh, but when you play you have to do your best, you have to work hard. It’s important for the team to have players like Ben. He’s something special and it’s very good to work with him.”
Chris Hughton, the Brighton manager, worked briefly with Foster when he was at Birmingham. “I’ve always known the quality of the keeper and he’s been outstanding this season,” he said. “He's not only a fine goalkeeper, but he’s exceptional with his feet. I hoping he wasn’t going to be so good today.”
You know how good you’ve been when your fellow goalkeepers, the ones who desperately want your spot, run onto the field to celebrate with you at full-time. Heurelho Gomes picked him up and hoisted him into the air while Pontus Dahlberg gave him a high five and the biggest of bear hugs.
You sometimes wonder if Dahlberg, 20, would have been better served going out on loan this season, but what an experience and an education to be able to watch someone like Foster train, prepare and perform on a match-day. You can imagine, in years to come, Dahlberg talking about Foster with the same reverence as Watford’s No. 1 does when discussing the impact Coton and Chamberlain had on his career. The treasured goalkeeping jersey at this great club looks to be the safest of hands for years to come.