A superficial glance at Ben Foster's CV would suggest his progression to a place on the bench for England on Wednesday night followed a typical career path: Racing Club Warwick, of the Dr Martens Western Division, Stoke City, of the Football League, Manchester United. Look closer and it becomes clear that Foster's route to Steve McClaren's first squad has been anything but ordinary.
His first employer was Cafe Rouge. He has never played for Stoke or Manchester United. And he was called up for his country despite not appearing in the Premiership.
That omission will be rectified today when he keeps goal for Watford at Everton. It will be the latest step on a journey which began conventionally enough but then took some unexpected diversions.
"I started off like a lot of goalkeepers do," the amiable 23-year-old said as we sat at Watford's sodden training ground on Thursday. "I had two older brothers and when we were kids they used to stick me in goal. Then when I was at school my mate played for a team, he said they were looking for a goalie and it's gone from there."
He joined Racing Club Warwick, was quickly catapulted from youth team to first team and, proving that not many players slip through the net for long, was spotted by Stoke after "about 16 games".
All fairly typical, except by then Foster had a parallel career. He recalled: "When I left school I wanted a job. My mate Luke worked at Cafe Rouge. One night I was about to go bowling and he gave me a call and said 'the pot washer has walked out, do you fancy washing some pots?' I thought it would get some money in. I spent two years there. By then I'd done a college course and was working as a chef doing starters, mains, whatever came up."
As anyone who has watched the various television shows focussing on Gordon Ramsay, himself a former Rangers reserve, would appreciate, this proved useful experience for a budding goalkeeper.
"There are a similarities to professional football. It is all about preparation. If you haven't got your prep done you're in trouble. If one person hasn't done it for their station, say they are on starters or something, it affects the whole service because he is going to have to make everything again and there isn't time.
"On a Friday or Saturday night there is a period when you are really running around, you're sweating like mad and tempers flare. A bit like the dressing room. You also need to have a strong personality because there is so much noise going on you have to rise above it and make yourself heard. Communication is vital. And as in football you have to concentrate. It was good grounding for goalkeeping because many of the same principles apply."
Unsurprisingly Foster regards his ability to dominate his box, and let "my defenders know I am there", as one of his strengths. Another is the level-headedness honed both in the kitchen, and at various footballing backwaters. Stoke, having signed him, sent him to Tiverton Town, Stafford Rangers and Kidderminster Harriers before he was posted to Wrexham.
One of his team-mates at the Racecourse Ground was a certain Darren Ferguson and, when Wrexham reached the LDV Vans final Darren's dad came to watch.
"Fortunately I had a good game. Sir Alex then sent his scouts to watch me, they must have been impressed, and I think Darren put a good word in for me." Cue a £1m move to Manchester United without even playing a game for Stoke.
Ferguson senior also farmed Foster out on loan, to Watford, where he became an integral part of the Hornets' unexpected promotion campaign. He returned to United for pre-season but, a week ago, in the wake of Tomasz Kuszczak's acquisition from West Brom, was sent back to Vicarage Road for another season.
"This was the first chance I had to get a feel of how Alex Ferguson works, and I can see he gets a lot of respect from his players, but I thought it would be better for me going back out on loan. I want to play football and having helped Watford get promotion I would have been a bit gutted not to help them in the Premiership. I'm looking forward to it. I hope we can do some good things."
At Vicarage Road he has come under the wing of ebullient manager Adrian Boothroyd. Before we speak Boothroyd has told me he believes Foster "has the potential to be the best goalkeeper in the world" adding: "He has the personality, the presence, the hunger to come in and better himself every day. He can cope with the big occasion - it doesn't faze him when he is called up by England - and he has the technical skills. He is also two-footed, I haven't seen a goalkeeper with the ability to do what he can with his feet. He can be the best. The only thing missing is experience. It all depends how he deals with what comes along."
It is a big accolade, albeit typical of Boothroyd. When I pass it on Foster smiles and looks mildly embarrassed. Earlier he has described how he drove himself back from Manchester the previous night, breaking his journey in Stoke, as he did not feel he was "entitled to the [Football Association's chauffeur-driven] car yet".
"That is a massive compliment, it really is," he says. "Adie is a brilliant manager, the best I've worked under, given I've not really worked under Alex Ferguson. Coming across him at this stage of my career has been a massive influence for me. He gives every player the confidence to go out there."
Ray Clemence, England's goalkeeping coach, is understandably more circumspect, if still admiring. "Managers like to praise their players as much as possible but I wouldn't like to put that pressure on Ben," he said. "He has come on a long way in 18 months, he wasn't even in Stoke's first team. Now he has the chance to play in the Premiership on a regular basis and I'm sure he'll cope. He was a very big part of Watford's promotion. He's a dominating goalkeeper and good distributor of the ball. When we brought him in to the squad he was very comfortable."
That Foster has reached the England bench without playing in the top flight appears a worrying indication of the foreign dominance between the Premiership sticks but Clemence believes the tide has turned. "We will have six goalkeepers in the Premiership this season, all capable of playing international football: the three at Old Trafford on Wednesday (Paul Robinson, Chris Kirkland and Foster) plus Rob Green, Scott Carson and David James."
Ironically, Wednesday was the closest Foster has come to playing at Old Trafford, nominally his home ground. Indeed, the only way he will play there this season is with England as under Premiership rules he cannot play against United.
He has, however, noticed that merely being associated with the world's self-styled biggest club affects the way some people respond to him. "Some people change but I've got mates who treat me the way they did when I was at Cafe Rouge, my parents [his dad is a picture-framer, his mother a housewife] are just the same, and my girlfriend Kate, who I met at Stoke, is brilliant for me. She's bossy and I need that."
Kate has not done too badly out of the deal either. Not many women find themselves living with a 23-year-old male who knows his ratatouille from his risotto. "She's useless so I take control of the kitchen," Foster said. "She's struck lucky hasn't she? I enjoy it, it is a bit of a pastime for me outside football, getting the ingredients, doing the preparation and rustling something up."
Back in the day job two other key influences have been the hugely experienced goalkeeping coach Alec Chamberlain, who remains registered as a player, and Keith Mincher, Watford's psychologist.
"Last season I did a lot of work with Keith," says Foster. "He has given me so much more confidence in myself as a goalkeeper. He helped me deal with mistakes better. Now I feel if I make one, and all goalkeepers do, I can move on. I can deal with it and learn from it."
His early experiences, outside and inside the game, have also helped. He was at Wrexham when they plunged into financial crisis and remembers older players worrying about their families and mortgages when they went several months without pay. At Tiverton he recalls being able to hear that "one nasty person in the away end saying horrible things about me, my mum, my girlfriend" and a game abandoned "with the pitch a bog". "That was non-League football, but I loved it."
With Foster likely to get a lot of work this season, starting today when Andy Johnson and James Beattie, £14.5m of strikers, are in opposition, this sense of perspective is going to be important. Rob Green is still recovering from the drop of form he suffered in Norwich's Premiership campaign, Ben Watson, another bright young goalkeeper, never came back from the batterings he received with Barnsley (and, later, a serious injury).
The heat is on, but at Watford and Manchester United they are confident they have a goalkeeper who will not be getting out of the kitchen. Not this time.Reuse content