Football: Foster undaunted by logic or United: Brighton relish chance to make amends for a defeat 10 years ago. Trevor Haylett reports

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The Independent Online
THIS time round only a swollen ankle could possibly keep Steve Foster from his FA Cup destiny with Manchester United. It will not, of course. You do not spend 19 years swapping bruises with rugged No 9s without learning to make light of pain. Foster can be expected to be in the line-up when Brighton visit Old Trafford on Saturday.

Ten years ago when the same two teams played each other in the '83 final Foster lost the battle before the start. The excitement of Wembley week became instead a courtroom nightmare, the most difficult opponent he had ever faced lining up against him in a dark gown and curly wig.

Asked to grant his appeal against the booking which would force him to miss Wembley, the High Court judge found against him. Then, a second chance. The final went to a replay and Foster was free to play. Relieved to call on their influential skipper and commanding central defender Brighton showed how much they had missed him first time out by going down 4-0.

Applying cold-headed logic there should not be a need for a second game when the sides meet in this year's fourth round. United currently carry all before them as leaders of the Premier League while Brighton are locked in a mid-table struggle two divisions below. Since when, however, has logic applied to Cup football? For that matter since when has logic applied to football full stop?

It did not 10 years ago when Foster's booking in a vital relegation game at Notts County brought a two-match suspension and a ticket to Wembley's shadows. Paradoxically, if he had been sent off, thereby incurring only a one-match ban, he would have been in the clear.

With a succession of fouls and handballs it looked as if that was Foster's intent but the referee refused to punish again and reprieve. 'It was the most ridiculous decision I had seen in my life,' Foster recalled this week. 'I only so much as looked at the referee and he said he was booking me for dissent. He was laughing as he took my name. Ironically I think he was from Manchester, somebody called Eric.'

You might ask what more to expect from an 'Eric'. The Brighton club expected a lot more and were determined to go as far as they could to get it. 'The late chairman, Mike Bamber, a lovely man, said we would appeal against the booking no matter what it cost. We went to the High Court for a ruling that everyone in whatever walk of life should have the right of appeal against a particular decision. But the judge refused to back us because he feared a succession of sportsmen queueing up outside his door to challenge their own rules and regulations.'

So Foster accepted the decision and went to Wembley to sit on it, although his famous headband, used to protect scar tissue, had an outing atop the stand-in captain, Tony Grealish. Brighton played above themselves. Gordon Smith failed to score late on at 2-2 when he should have done (though he did give rise to a clever fanzine title) and back went the teams to Wembley five days later. Cue Foster's belated entrance even if he would not have chosen it that way.

'I had already said that if it went to a replay I would not play because how could Jimmy Melia, the manager, leave out any of the team which had helped achieve a result. As it happened Chris Ramsey was injured and I got in.'

This time the United of Robson, Wilkins, Muhren, Whiteside, Stapleton and the rest proved much too strong. Stronger, Foster believes, than the United of Cantona, Giggs and Sharpe.

'This is one of the better United teams we have seen for a while but for 'name power' it can't compare with the team of 10 years ago. I'd hate to think what an '83 Wilkins, Robson or Muhren would be worth at today's prices.

That season ended in Brighton's relegation from the First Division - 'we would have survived if it hadn't been for Wembley and all its distractions' - the following season saw him sold to Aston Villa. Just 15 games later and he was moving again ('I was last in at Villa under Tony Barton and after he was sacked first out under Graham Turner') and on to Luton.

There they built a team around him good enough to attain notable success in the cups. Littlewoods winners in 1988, runners-up the next season, two FA Cup semi-final appearances and beaten finalists in the Simod Cup.

Financially, however, Luton were heading for the rocks, a similar situation to the one Brighton, pounds 3m in debt and facing a winding-up order from the Inland Revenue next month, find themselves in and why Saturday's visit to Old Trafford is a potential lifesaver.

When Luton finally fell from the First Division Foster had already departed. Two seasons at Oxford followed during which he decided the future needed his serious attention. He tried to involve himself in running a sports centre in Brighton but when the council pulled the plug on the plan it was time to pull on the headband and boots once more with his local club, a three-month contract subsequently extended to the end of the season.

Successive man of the match awards show that at 35 he still has much to offer. 'I've got plans in hand to build my own leisure complex at Shoreham airport with indoor courts, tenpin bowling, an ice-rink etc etc.

'But it won't happen for two or three years so as long as I'm wanted I'll keep playing. I still get great enjoyment out of it and it's lovely now for me to bring the kids along to watch.'

'Lovely', 'the kids', words and images that do not immediately spring to mind with Foster's reputation as a hard man, sometimes, a little unruly. The truth tells a different story. He has never been sent off and if his liking for a glassful led him into one or two scrapes away from the game in his younger days his years as an inspirational captain are evidence of his willingness for responsibility, which also won him three England caps in 1982.

As for the ultimate responsibility, to be a manager, well, Foster believes he could do the job but is more excited about the potential in the leisure sphere. 'People want somewhere decent to go these days, with good facilities, somewhere where they can take the family for the day and find value for money.'

VFM. The initials should be stitched into the headband. Foster has never given anything less.

(Photographs omitted)

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