Keeping England's future in safe hands

Goalkeeper guru Dave Watson made Joe Hart a loan star and is working his magic on Birmingham's Ben Foster.
Click to follow

A simple twist of fate, or rather an innocuous twist of a knee, launched Dave Watson on the path to become coach and mentor to the modern-day equivalents of Peter Shilton and Ray Clemence whose friendly rivalry means England should be in safe hands for years to come.

Watson, now 37 and goalkeeping coach at Birmingham City to Ben Foster and, before him, Joe Hart, was playing for his hometown team, Barnsley, in 1998 when he made what he calls a "reactive save" from Norwich's Iwan Roberts. "It seemed innocuous," he recalls. "But as I turned, I felt something in my knee and I couldn't get up. It was before half-time and before substitute goalies were allowed, so I had to soldier on for about an hour."

An England Under-21 player, with five caps and a year in the Premier League behind him, Watson played only three more games in the reserves before retiring. "And I should not have done that. It took so long to recover after each one. I could barely walk the next day. It was a tough feeling that everything had been taken away from me."

After a long haul, taking in specialist coaching roles at Oldham, Huddersfield, Northampton and Nottingham Forest, Watson's loss proved to be Birmingham and England's gain. An open, straight-talking character, he talks proudly of "my goalies" and admits he "lives out the career I hoped to have" through them.

At Molineux today, when Birmingham resume derby combat with Wolverhampton Wanderers, he will monitor the 27-year-old Foster's decision-making, positioning and agility in minute detail, just as he did with Hart, 23, during last season's loan from Manchester City.

"Because of Joe's success with us it was clear by last Christmas that we wouldn't be able to keep him," says Watson. "From January, it was my job to find a replacement. Eric Steele, who inspired me when he was my coach at Barnsley, is now at Man United. He gave me an insight into Ben's psyche. His recommendation certainly played a part in my wanting to pursue it. Ben wanted to play regularly. You can train all you want but if you have no platform to performon at the end of the week, it's hard to stay focused and drive on day after day. When you're game-ready and playing, your concentration levels rise and you build an understanding with defenders."

Foster, stuck behind Edwin van der Sar at Old Trafford, has revelled in feeling wanted. Last month, having seen Hart take the third World Cup keeper's slot behind Robert Green and David James, he stepped in when the new No1 withdrew from the friendly against France at Wembley. Karim Benzema beat him on his near post early on, yet Watson believes Foster would have saved it "99 times out of 100" but for his studs getting caught in the turf.

He recovered to be one of England's better players in a 2-1 defeat. "That, for me, is the sign of greatness," says Watson. "That 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 have learned from their mistakes. Neither was an overnight success; Ben had his grounding at Racing Club Warwick and Wrexham, Joe was at Shrewsbury on loan. It wasn't that making errors at those clubs didn't matter, but they both had the temperament to get over them.

"For the rest of the French game Ben was impeccable, even though England struggled. Then, against Chelsea three days later, he showed us that he's exactly what we thought he'd be. He made three or four outstanding saves, and one from Didier Drogba was incredible. When you see the pain on strikers' faces after you've produced a split second of the highest class, you know you've got in their psyche. The forward is faced by a 'presence' between the posts and it can make him do something he would not normally, like rush a shot."

It is the same aura Watson helped to hone in Hart (and is working to develop in the next generation of England custodians, Birmingham harbouring great hopes for "fantastic prospect" Jack Butland, 17). "It was a tough call for the manager when Shilton and Clemence were vying for the jersey, which was the rivalry that helped get kids like me interested in goalkeeping. It's the same for Fabio Capello and whoever succeeds him. I can certainly see Ben and Joe competing for a World Cup place in 2014 and maybe the next 10 years. There's very littlebetween them."

Hart was on the losing side with City at Wolves recently. Despite the lowly status of Mick McCarthy's team, Watson highlights their physical power and the number of crosses players such as Matt Jarvis put in, concluding that Foster will have to be on his mettle this afternoon. "He's got the bit between his teeth and wants to prove ManchesterUnited wrong."

Watson himself is three years David James's junior. Did he ever wonder whether, but for one freakish injury, it might have been him wearing the Three Lions as the pinnacle of a long England career? "I'm not sure I ever had the quality to get to that level," he grins. "But I'd have given it my best shot. I gave 100 per cent as a player and it's the same now. Everything is geared towards my goalies."

Wolverhampton Wanderers v Birmingham is today, kick-off 1.30pm