The timing of Sir Alex Ferguson's disclosure, five days ago, that he believes Edwin van der Sar is playing his last season for Manchester United could scarcely have been more miserable for Ben Foster. The 27-year-old lines up against his former club at St Andrew's today when he ought to be contemplating the prospect of being within their ranks, preparing for his succession to Van der Sar.
It is a mere 18 months since Ferguson proclaimed the Dutchman's heir to be Foster. "He is seen as one of the best young keepers in England and we genuinely see him as a successor to Edwin," Ferguson said at the start of last season. The United manager actually hadn't seen that much of Foster before deciding that what he observed in the 2005 Leyland DAF Trophy final – where the goalkeeper lined up alongside Ferguson's son Darren for Wrexham in the 2-0 win over Southend United – was enough to warrant a £1m signing.
Foster, on loan to the North Wales club from Stoke, was immediately sent out on another such deal by Ferguson at Watford for two years but a 34-year-old Van der Sar had also arrived at Old Trafford, for £2m, in June 2005 and the message seemed clear: the Englishman was an investment for after the Dutchman left.
It was when Foster's 10 games filling in for Van der Sar at the start of last season went so badly wrong that his future took a different course. Foster could hardly leave quickly enough in May when sold to Alex McLeish for £6m.
The rehabilitation at Birmingham has come quickly and, it might be argued, is more commendable than Joe Hart's – on loan from Manchester City last season – considering that the defence playing in front of him has looked far less impermeable.
Foster has revelled in what he feels is a less stressful fight for places at St Andrew's and formed a close relationship with the goalkeeping coach Dave Watson, who believes that Foster's struggles at Old Trafford have helped his maturity.
Watson cites the display he put in after Karim Benzema beat him on his near post early on in France's 2-1 defeat of England at Wembley last month. Recovering from that error to become one of England's strongest competitors that evening reveals a mental durability, Watson believes. "Greatness may be too strong a word, a bit premature. The best keepers all have great ability, but mental toughness sets them apart. Ben and Joe [Hart] have learned from their mistakes," he said.
Ferguson has certainly found the goalkeeping position one of the hardest to resolve over the years. Tomasz Kuszczak may also leave United next summer while both Anders Lindegaard, who has signed for £3.5m from the Norwegian club Aalesunds, and Ben Amos have long journeys ahead. David de Gea of Atlético Madrid and Schalke's Manuel Neuer are now seen as possible successors.
Foster will hope to prove that Ferguson was mistaken when, on the basis of 12 games in five years, he called time on a United career which had seemed so bright after the Carling Cup final shoot-out win over Spurs two years ago. "He's got the bit between his teeth," Watson said. "He wants to prove United wrong."Reuse content