Friday, 4 March 2011

Turning Heads

It was said by many that it would take someone big to replace the gaping hole left by Joe Hart after his phenomenal loan spell last season, but Alex McLeish can have no qualms about the man he chose to fill the gap that was vacated by the current England number one. After picking up his third consecutive Carling Cup medal last Sunday, Ben Foster can reflect upon his Summer transfer to Birmingham as, arguably, a career-defining move which has seen him go from bench warmer to first teamer in the blink of an eye.

As Ben walked up to collect his winners medal after the 2-1 win over Arsenal, he also received another accolade which he was more than happy to collect: his second Alan Hardaker Man of the Match trophy in three years. A remarkable achievement for any player, but for someone who was sitting on a bench this time last season, it should be deemed an even greater achievement. And as Foster waited to lift the trophy for his new club, England manager Fabio Capello congratulated him with a beaming smile, knowing that what he'd just witnessed was a performance by a player who deserves not only to be number one for his club; but maybe for his country as well.

That's not just to say the final was his only stand-out performance this term – not by a long shot. In the first home game of the season he pulled off a world class penalty save which sparked life into the rest of his team and they ran out 2-1 winners against Blackburn. Against West Ham he again argued his case for the number one spot with his national team, producing a number of saves to keep his team in the game – most notably his save from Carlton Cole where he palmed the shot onto the post, which then remarkably rolled across the line before being cleared by a defender. The game against Chelsea at St. Andrews notched up another notable performance for Foster, in which he produced save after save to deny some of the worlds best; with some equally brilliant saves himself. And the list goes on. Not even his unfortunate mistake in the first leg of the Carling Cup semi-final was enough to bring Ben Foster down this season, and it did nothing to detract away from the rest of the games he has played in this season; as his outstanding performances certainly outnumber his mistakes by a large margin.

After his move from Manchester United in his quest to seek regular first team football, Ben really hasn't put a foot wrong, and while the country looks to Joe Hart as the future of England goalkeeping; maybe it would be a better idea to look at the more experienced figure in Ben Foster.

Under the guidance of Dave Watson, Foster has undoubtedly improved in all areas this season. Like he did expertly with Joe Hart, Watson has carved Foster into the model goalkeeper but more easily than he crafted Hart who, being younger, had a few more rough edges to even out. Foster had those edges shaped a while ago whilst he was at Old Trafford, being coached by the best and playing for the best, in not only the Premier League but in the Champions League too.

His man of the match performance in the penalty shoot out of the 2009 Carling Cup Final – with a little help from his iPod – helped Foster reap the rewards from team mates, the media and many others in the world of football. However, he still couldn't cement a place in the starting line up for the Red Devils and a year on found himself at Wembley once more, again walking up the steps after victory – this time against Aston Villa – but with the difference this time being that he was an unused substitute in the 2-1 win.

After being left out of the World Cup squad after lack of first team football, the Leamington-Spa-born shot-stopper then realised that he needed to search for a move elsewhere in order to resurrect his career somewhat. Being just 27 – a baby in terms of goalkeepers – he was quickly snapped up for 5 million pounds by Alex McLeish from former manager Alex Ferguson, and neither Foster nor McLeish have looked back since.

Arguably, however, his career never needed resurrecting; simply because his undeniable talent never went away. This is justified by his performances throughout the season so far and after Sunday's magnificent Cup Final performance, it seems that five million for the England International was a bargain, and a great coop by Birmingham who have called on Foster to save them many-a-time so far this term.The only doubt in any one's minds about the England International was whether he could replicate the form that dipped a little in his last season at United, and it is safe to say he has proved all his critics wrong so far.

The keeper himself may try to brush some of these compliments aside, claiming that a lot has been down to the defenders in front of him, who “just love defending.” But the recognition for his solo performances he has received so far playing for Birmingham suggest otherwise, and try as he might, Ben Foster simply cannot deny himself the praise he has so rightly received.

His cool head, his willingness to go in for the ball in any situation, and his magnificent shot-stopping have turned more than a few heads this season, and after being named in all the England squads since the seemingly disastrous World Cup campaign in the Summer, he seems to have turned on of the most important heads: that of Fabio Capello's.

Performances such as Sunday's can only help his chances of claiming the coveted England number one spot, and with Joe Hart not fully living up to the standard he himself set last season, I have a feeling the number one spot is left open to the man who performs the hardest. But, even with tough competition from Hart, I can see Ben Foster turning out at Wembley as the number one for not just his club, but for his country too.

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