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BLIND, STUPID AND DESPERATE
 
Gone but not forgotten:
Ben Foster
 
Position: Goalkeeper
From: Manchester United - Loan - August 2005
Record: Played: 48(0) Scored: 0
To: Manchester United - end of loan - May 2006
Career stats: Soccerbase
He was: Pretty bloody good in the end.

It's hard to recall now but last summer Watford looked, for all the world, rubbish. Our green-behind-the-ears manager had got shot of the three highest scorers from the previous season, as well as our leading assist maker and a central midfield lynchpin. We'd signed a Spanish geriatric, a pretend Brazilian, an Australian centre half that no-one had heard of and some bloke called Devaney had come in to make the tea. Then, for no apparent reason, we let our own highly-rated young goalkeeper go out on loan for a year, and replaced him with somebody else's highly-rated young goalkeeper. To say we were baffled and bemused by the move would be an understatement.

First thoughts on Ben Foster were favourable. Alex Ferguson is not the sort of bloke to pay big money for a turkey and in that first game against Preston, which now seems like a game of football played in some weird, parallel universe, our gaggle were impressed as we watched this huge lump of blue kitted keeper run into and fill the Rookery goal with his mighty frame. "He looks like a goalkeeper," mused Bateson, and he was right. Ninety minutes later, a different story as the loanee from Man U gave an unconvincing display. While he wasn't helped by a shabby defensive showing, the portents were not good. "He looks like a lump of shit," opined Bateson, as he recalled Massimo Taibi and Fabien Barthez to pour scorn on Fergie's ability to spot a keeper.

The calls to bring back Alec Chamberlain or Richard Lee started almost straight away, but with a belief in his players we've come to know and love, Aidy Boothroyd stuck with his man while Lee rotted in Blackburn's reserves and the revered Chamberlain gathered splinters. Foster's foul-ups were a regular feature in those autumn days but while Watford's results kept coming, there was no change between the sticks. As September turned to October, Watford's first sticky run began and the calls increased. The bright start had given way to some turgid displays.. 1-3 at Coventry, 1-2 at home to Leicester, and all the while, fingers pointed at Big Ben. "Drop Foster!" screamed many a sage on WML, not knowing he was about to turn his and Watford's season on its head.

The home game against Wolves at the end of October is rightly viewed by many as a turning point in Watford's season, and this was Ben Foster's finest hourů

"Ben Foster versus Wolves, then. He's taken some stick, the young keeper, and I remain unconvinced, to put it very politely, about the wisdom of packing Richard Lee off to Blackburn. But those arguments belong to another day, for this was astonishing. Once Wolves had got into gear, we spent half an hour being played off the pitch. We were getting absolutely slaughtered, chasing shadows. With a little help from fortune but precious little from his colleagues, Ben Foster somehow kept the scoresheet blank, somehow spared our blushes, for this might easily have become embarrassing."

Ian Grant, BSaD match report, Watford v Wolves, 29 Oct 2005

Watford went on to record a resounding and highly amusing 3-1 win, thanks in no small part to a series of super stops from Foster. "All the other scores have gone our way!" yelled Richard Short upon the final whistle, as Watford hit third spot and grew roots in the play-off positions from that day on. As the season progressed, Watford got better and so did Ben Foster. The mistakes were eradicated from his game and as his confidence grew, so did his ability to organise his back four. His booming kicks started many an attack, while his command of the penalty area also impressed. Throughout Watford's best spell of the season during January and February, he was in supreme from. Between Boxing and Valentines Day, on which he got a red card at Leeds, Foster conceded just eight goals and Watford won all but three of their ten games.

The early comparisons between Foster and Lee were starting to look a bit daft. Yes, Foster had made mistakes, but so did Lee and maybe in that early spell, much of the flak directed at Foster was, like much of the criticism of Watford last summer, a symptom of the unhappiness some fans felt with the way the club was being run. Lee, like Gibbo, was a Watford man discarded with little thought, or so it seemed at the time. With hindsight, the fact remains that while Richard Lee was and still is a promising keeper, watching Ben Foster grow in stature with every game was one of the highlights of what was fast becoming an astonishing season.

As we know, it finished with a bang in the play-offs. If these were Ben Foster's last games in a Watford shirt, then what a way to go. He excelled at Selhurst, pulling off some great saves to keep the tie scoreless, then another classic finger-tip effort just after Marlon King gave Watford the lead. Onto the second leg, and Foster was calmness personified as he rushed from his goal to thwart Andy Johnson, and thus extinguish any hopes Palace had of mounting a comeback. At Cardiff, while relegated to the role of spectator for much of the game, he stayed alert, handled well when needed and grabbed a medal to remind him of a superb season.

I'm sure I'm not the only Watford supporter who's been hoping that Scott Carson or David James pulls a muscle, allowing Ben into the World Cup squad from his standby role. What is certain is that Foster is a future England keeper, we've watched him grow into that. How great it would be if he returns for another year and a deserved crack at the Premiership before he returns to Man U for good to displace Van Der Sar. If he doesn't, he's sure of a warm welcome whenever he returns to these parts.

Dave Messenger