It may be a little surprising to talk about player potential after they pass the age of 21 yet 26-year-old Ben Foster can be regarded in the same category as emerging Under-21 stars like Jack Wilshere or Jack Rodwell. Goalkeepers’ careers often outlast their outfield colleagues, and in that respect Foster remains a relative youngster with the potential of a long career, both on the domestic and international stage.
A player’s capability can often be judged by the calibre of club he plays for and they hardly come any bigger than Manchester United. The Premier League and World Club champions rate Foster highly after a string of fine performances whilst deputising for Edwin van der Sar, culminating in a man-of-the-match display in the 2008/09 Carling Cup final win over Tottenham. First team opportunities are likely to remain scarce while the big Dutchman is on United’s books, something which Foster himself recognises: “It’s quite hard to knock on the manager’s door and say, ‘give me a chance please boss’ when he’s kept 14 consecutive clean sheets”. Sir Alex Ferguson is well known for nurturing homegrown talent but record-breaking van der Sar remains Foster’s main obstacle.
However, it appears fate has smiled upon the young Red Devils’ keeper, with his Dutch colleague currently ruled out until the end of September with a broken finger. Foster is odds-on to play in the opening weeks of the season, with Ferguson stating that he genuinely sees him as a successor when the former Stoke keeper signed a new four-year contract in July. Foster’s big chance has come unexpectedly, but he must grab it with both hands, largely because of his England aspirations. Players appearing infrequently for club teams are unlikely to receive call-ups to the England squad with Fabio Capello in charge.
To realize his World Cup dream, Foster must perform from the outset in the Premier League, beginning with the visit of Birmingham. He has in the past made errors due to a lack of concentration, in particular when playing on loan at Watford. A prime example would be the goal his England rival Paul Robinson scored past him from his own half in March 2007. Even as recently as Manchester United’s pre-season trip to Asia, Foster conceded a goal against a Malaysian XI after failing to deal with a simple back-pass. These mistakes must be addressed if he wants to prevent van der Sar from walking straight back into the team.
Hopefully a run in the United first XI will eradicate these blunders, but it is still highly unlikely that a top quality goalkeeper like van der Sar will sit on the bench once he returns to full fitness. It is probably going to be another season with Foster used predominantly as a substitute, meaning this World Cup will probably be out of his reach at least in terms of starting. Potentially brilliant for both club and country, it may be this potential that is in fact holding Foster back right now – Sir Alex wants to keep him for the future, as highlighted with the new contract, but inadvertently damaging his present chances with England.
Foster has chosen to stick it out at United and must aim instead for the 2014 World Cup – providing England qualify – effectively ‘having it all.’ No 1 for Manchester United and England is, after all, an elusive feat. But four years is a long time in football, and nobody can predict what may happen – injury, for example, or the emergence of a new unrivaled goalkeeping talent (Joe Lewis at Peterborough perhaps). Only time will tell if Ben Foster really can make the grade.
Foster remains a talented goalkeeper who has the potential to be a success at the top level, but England aspirations will have to be put on hold until he can nail down that first-team shirt at club level. Strong shot-stopping skills and an accurate, powerful left foot makes Foster and immediate asset in any back-line – his fifth season on United’s books will be his most significant as he looks to make that jump from ‘young gun’ to ‘top-level performer’.