Ben Foster

UTD Unscripted: Learning from the best

It’s always an enjoyable feeling to come back to Old Trafford.

There are still loads of people at the club who were there when I was. Kitmen, people in the players’ lounge, the doctors, even a lot of the security guards are the same, so it’s always enjoyable to catch up with old friends. I’ve always found the supporters have been great to me too, which is really nice.

I was at United for four or five years and you don’t ever want to go back to a club and feel like the fans didn’t take to you, so it’s always a nice feeling to be back.

When I look back on my time at United, there are absolutely no regrets whatsoever. It’s still mad when I sit back and think about the start of my football career, because after I left school at 16, my first job was as a chef for two years. That was class, to be fair. It stood me in good stead for the rest of my life because you learn so much. A kitchen is a busy place to be and it is hard work being on your feet 12 or 13 hours a day, sweating your tree off. When you then get to be a professional footballer and realise that somebody is going to pay you to play football most days, it’s like… Wow. When the chance to be a footballer came along, I grasped it with two hands and thankfully I’ve made a career out of it.

Then when the chance came to join United, my thinking was: this can’t be real. They’re going to realise at some point. I think they call that imposter syndrome, don’t they? But honestly, the first few training sessions I literally thought they were going to pull me at the end and say: “Listen, I think we’ve made a mistake, mate.” 

Ben Foster says

“I really did learn a lot from him, and he was a pleasure to work with day in, day out.”

It was mad to be training with all these massive legends, but you’ve just got to dive in and get used to it. It was the cream of the crop, maybe the best ever United squad, the likes of Scholesy, Giggsy, Ronaldo, Rio, Wazza and all the rest. Scholesy was the one that always stood out, not just for me but for everyone. He was the one. You all get to see glimpses on a Saturday, but we got to see it every day in training and it was effortless for him. The most natural footballer you’ll ever see. It was a pleasure to watch and be part of. 

Horrible to be a goalkeeper again, mind. He’s got big, fat tree trunk legs, honestly. So strong. He had everything. He could belt a ball so friggin’ hard and he was ruthless as well. He’s such a quiet, unassuming bloke but my God, he was just a winner and he was so ruthless with it. If the chance came to put the ball in the back of the net and he was taking you with it, he was doing it. He didn’t care. That, for me, is class. I love that.

I was also buzzing that Edwin van der Sar arrived at the same time as me. I knew I was going to be going straight out on loan to Watford to cut my teeth in senior football anyway. I wasn’t ready to play for United, I’d only played 20-odd first-team matches in my whole career up to that point, so I wasn’t going to walk in as no.1. The whole premise was that they were going to sign me and send me straight out on loan, so Edwin arriving at the same time didn’t impact on me negatively in any way. Just the chance to go out on loan was incredible. Then, after coming back from that and Edwin was there, he’s just the classiest bloke you’ve ever met, honestly. The way he was on the pitch was literally the same as how he was off it: so calm, so cool, so chilled, so respectful. He used to breeze into training every day looking absolutely lovely. Great bloke, everybody loved him. Just to learn from him growing up, as a young goalie – not just as a player but as a person – for me was one of the biggest pluses. The way he dealt with situations, I really did learn a lot from him, and he was a pleasure to work with day in, day out.

When you’re a young footballer, you don’t have that many life experiences. You do have some, but it’s not the same as real life, is it? You’re not in the same weird, crazy situations you get in real life, and you don’t know how to deal with certain things. This is something you learn as you go along and as you get older and more experienced. Edwin knew that and he was great in dealing with me. He’d explain: “Listen, I know I’m no. 1 at the minute, but my days are numbered, I’ve only got a few years left and you just need to be doing…” and he’d tell me what I needed to work on. Unfortunately, that never worked out for me at United, but I still never, ever bemoan the way things happened for me. It’s all just experience. Everything in life is. Whether it’s good, bad or indifferent, you’ve just got to take something and learn. I learnt so much stuff from Edwin van der Sar and my time at United that it really did set me in good stead going forward.

There were highlights of my time at United, obviously. My debut in 2008 was one that I didn’t see coming. I’d come back from two loan seasons at Watford and come back from a really serious knee injury where I’d done my cruciate. I was out for nine months with that because it was the second time I’d done it in my right knee, so I was literally just coming back from rehab. It was an FA Cup game against Portsmouth where Edwin came off injured, then Tomasz Kuszczak was sent off, and the next game was a league match at Derby. I’d been training for, no joke, less than a week on the back of a nine-month layoff, so to go into my United debut in those circumstances was a properly bewildering, daunting prospect. I remember looking bewildered, actually. I had a green jersey on and it was massive on me, I had a massive haircut and I looked an absolute state. But they had faith in me, chucked me in and it worked out well. We won 1-0, I made a couple of saves from Kenny Miller and that was one of the big highlights of my time at United.

Unfortunately for me, Edwin and Tomasz were soon back available, but you can’t expect to just keep your position in the team, especially when you’ve got someone like Edwin, so I knew that’s what it was, just a case of getting myself back to full fitness and try to crack on in the following season. Thankfully for me, that involved playing in the League Cup final against Spurs.

It was a nice game, that. I got off to a really bad start, I think, where Aaron Lennon was played through, I pushed him a little wide but he took it around me and thankfully we had someone there to clear the pull-back, but it picked up from there. The saves I made during the game were ones that I probably should have made and people do talk to me about the penalty shootout, where I saved one, but our lads were absolutely ruthless that day. Heurelho Gomes went on to become a really good friend of mine at Watford, but he had no chance with any of those penalties, they were all absolutely pinpoint.

Ben Foster says

“It was a great feeling to be man of the match in a cup final.”

There were highlights of my time at United, obviously. My debut in 2008 was one that I didn’t see coming. I’d come back from two loan seasons at Watford and come back from a really serious knee injury where I’d done my cruciate. I was out for nine months with that because it was the second time I’d done it in my right knee, so I was literally just coming back from rehab. It was an FA Cup game against Portsmouth where Edwin came off injured, then Tomasz Kuszczak was sent off, and the next game was a league match at Derby. I’d been training for, no joke, less than a week on the back of a nine-month layoff, so to go into my United debut in those circumstances was a properly bewildering, daunting prospect. I remember looking bewildered, actually. I had a green jersey on and it was massive on me, I had a massive haircut and I looked an absolute state. But they had faith in me, chucked me in and it worked out well. We won 1-0, I made a couple of saves from Kenny Miller and that was one of the big highlights of my time at United.

Unfortunately for me, Edwin and Tomasz were soon back available, but you can’t expect to just keep your position in the team, especially when you’ve got someone like Edwin, so I knew that’s what it was, just a case of getting myself back to full fitness and try to crack on in the following season. Thankfully for me, that involved playing in the League Cup final against Spurs.

It was a nice game, that. I got off to a really bad start, I think, where Aaron Lennon was played through, I pushed him a little wide but he took it around me and thankfully we had someone there to clear the pull-back, but it picked up from there. The saves I made during the game were ones that I probably should have made and people do talk to me about the penalty shootout, where saved one, but our lads were absolutely ruthless that day. Heurelho Gomes went on to become a really good friend of mine at Watford, but he had no chance with any of those penalties, they were all absolutely pinpoint.

Ben Foster says

"It’s a great thing to be able to say I played in Alex Ferguson’s last ever match, his first ever 5-5 draw, and it was class. Wicked."

That was lovely to watch and it was a great feeling to be man-of-the-match in a cup final, but for United it came during a time when everything was just relentless. We had League Cup finals, Champions League finals, Club World Cup finals, games every three days guaranteed, no matter what competition, so it was amazing for about a day and a half! Then it was: “Thanks for doing that, Ben. Right, Edwin, we’ve got a Premier League match, get ready.” It was almost a given that you were going to win trophies, so you just had to enjoy it for a day and then move on. That was incredible to be a part of. Well done, park it, we’ve got a big Premier League match in three days.

That said, it honestly wasn’t a big call for me to leave the following year. For me, the writing was on the wall. I’m very much a realist in life and in football, and you can gauge where you are at a football club. You can feel it, how much they think of you and want you, and I knew I wasn’t exactly what United were looking for. They needed somebody of the Edwin van der Sar mould where, if you played the ball back to him, he could be as good as an outfield player. At that time, there was nobody in the world as good as Edwin for doing that for United; they literally couldn’t have had a better guy doing it. They needed to try to find somebody like that and I kind of knew that, and it’s not really my game. If you give me a ball, I’m happier putting it as far away from my goal as possible. I ain’t trying to clip it to someone 10 yards out, sod that! I kind of knew, really, so I remember towards the end of the 2009/10 season, Sir Alex called me into his office and went: “Listen mate, Birmingham have come in for you and made an offer. We think it’s a good deal for you and for us. What do you think?” Straight away I just said: “Yeah, I think it’s a really good idea.” I’m from the area anyway so for me it was done from there. Honestly, it wasn’t a big choice. It was a chance for me to kickstart or refresh my career, so the chance to go to a lesser club and be the bigger fish was really quite appealing, especially being nearer home. It was a no-brainer and it turned out to be a good decision for my career.

I can’t believe it’s been over 10 years since I left, and I’ve obviously faced United a number of times with different clubs down the years. There have been some great games in there and one that really sticks out is Sir Alex’s final game in charge when I was at West Brom. We were 3-0 down after about 25 minutes and I honestly remember thinking: s***, this is going to be about 12. United had just won the league, they were still flying and after that start it was just a sense that the scoreline could be anything. We pulled our finger out, scored a couple and after that it was just carnage, everything was kicking off, absolute craziness. It’s a great thing to be able to say I played in Alex Ferguson’s last ever match, his first ever 5-5 draw, and it was class. Wicked.

One of my personal favourites was winning 1-0 at Old Trafford with West Brom when Darren Moore was manager, and we were trying to stay up. We had a plan of staying tight, Jay Rodriguez went and nicked a goal near the end and we managed to hold on for the win. It’s always a tough occasion though, especially going up to Old Trafford – I think that’s currently my only win there as a visiting player!

Ben Foster says

“Everything goes out of the window for an FA Cup match because everybody loses their inhibitions a little bit, so it should be an enjoyable game.”

Certainly, I’ve come up against a lot of great United strikers over the last decade. Rooney, Berbatov, van Persie, Ibrahimovic, Lukaku… They’re all quite different strikers when you think about the names. Rooney was everything, like an animal. He embodied everything about United. Van Persie was just a pure goalscorer – my God, he was a goalscorer, you just knew it was a goal when he had the ball – and Berbatov was lovely. Even in training he would sit you down. He’d come through one-on-one and you’d think: s***, here we go. He’d go to shoot, fake, stop, you’d sit down, he’d just take the p*** out of you and score. Proper legends.

Rooney always managed to score past me, often with penalties, and because I obviously know Wayne, he would make a joke of it and take the p*** and I would hate it. I was always second or third choice goalie for England, so I would have to do the practicing of penalties and free-kicks and so on. He’d always grab me for practice. You’d pick up a few tells from what he might do, then when it came to a match, he’d put it the opposite way!

United have some really talented forwards in today’s team too, and the one that stands out is Mason Greenwood. A massive thing for a striker, which p***es a goalkeeper off more than anything, is where they shoot without you even thinking they’re about to kick it. They’re running with it and suddenly, with no backlift, BANG, like Jermaine Defoe… They pull it out of nowhere and catch the keeper by surprise. Greenwood has got that, but with both feet as well, which is special. He cannot only kick it really well and really hard with both feet, but he’s so accurate, too. For a young lad to be able to do that at that age is very, very promising. The goal he scored against me last season was a thing of beauty. He just took it down and BANG, goal. I was thinking: Woah. Fair enough. Fair dos lad. I’ve played the game a long time and there’s not many players who can do that.

I’m looking forward to going back to Old Trafford again this weekend for our FA Cup tie. I’ll be vlogging about the trip on CyclingGK, my YouTube channel, to offer a behind-the-scenes look at what’s going on, and I’m hoping for a really good spectacle with both teams giving it a go. Everything goes out of the window for an FA Cup match because everybody loses their inhibitions a little bit, so it should be an enjoyable game.

Whatever happens, personally I’ll be enjoying myself. Like I said, it’s always a great feeling to go back to the club where I learnt so much at such an important stage in my career.

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