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Monday, 22 November 2010

Foster Makes St Andrews Home

As we all know, it doesn’t take a lot for Didier Drogba to prostrate himself on the turf in the penalty area, arms aloft, looking beseechingly at the referee like a dog that’s just shat in his kitchen and can’t work out why the newspaper’s being rolled up. On this occasion, midway through Chelsea’s game with Birmingham City, he hadn’t been shoved, kicked or pushed. He just couldn’t believe he hadn’t scored.

This feeling had transmitted through the entire Chelsea XI by the time Mark Halsey blew for full time. Despite starting the day in the relegation zone, Birmingham held on for a trademark 1-0 win, secured with the help of some trademark defending from messrs Johnson, Dann, Carr and Ridgewell and a not-really-that-much-of-a-trademark performance from Ben Foster.

When Foster signed for Birmingham in the summer, the parallels between his situation and that of Joe Hart seemed obvious enough. ‘Will he fare as well as Hart,’ everyone speculated; ‘he’s young, English, eager to prove himself’. Birmingham fans meanwhile, could have been forgiven for wondering: ‘He’s only made nine league starts in the last 12 months and he doesn’t appear to be able to kick – what the hell are we going to do without Hart?’

In actual fact their situations were quite different. Hart was a relatively untested signing, whereas Foster, at 27, had been at United since 2005 and made 73 appearances on loan at Watford between 2005 and 2007. Mistakes in matches against Arsenal, Manchester City and Sunderland ultimately scuppered his United ambitions as he fell behind the world’s most patient man, Tomasz Kuszcak, in the pecking order.

Nevertheless, he would have been hoping for a Hart-style flourishing. Comparing their records at this stage of the season suggests it could be on the cards. After 14 games with Hart in the side, Birmingham had 18 points, and a goal difference of -2. After 14 games of Foster’s first season with the club, Birmingham have 16 points, and a goal difference of… you’ve guessed it, -2*.

In this period, at home, Birmingham with Hart in goal won three, drew two and lost two, conceding only four goals. With Foster, they’ve won three, drawn three and only lost one, conceding five.

So far, so bloody almost identical.

Away from St Andrews, Hart won two, drew one and lost four, conceding 10. Foster has won none, drawn four, lost three and conceded 12. So Hart might be slightly ahead on that front, as he is on relative points totals and league position after these matches (11th vs. 14th). But there is not much in it at all.

It might be interesting to consider then why Foster might, as his performance on Saturday suggested, find it easier to resurrect himself at Birmingham, which is becoming a right old place in which goalkeepers can make a name for/reinvent themselves.

It’s possible that a very English discomfort under pressure affects the country’s keepers at the very highest level. Foster didn’t look particularly assured for England against France and his kicking under pressure remains erratic. He’s not alone – Paul Robinson, Scott Carson, David James and Rob Green have all had this particular curse strike them while representing their country in recent times. Of them all, Hart is the only one who looks capable and unflustered at that level. The others have all excelled for their club sides before, but have rarely done so in an England shirt.

Great things were expected of Foster at United, where Ferguson believed he was England’s best keeper. But in the biggest games Foster was involved in, it didn’t quite happen for him, as it hasn’t quite happened for a catalogue of United keepers in first Peter Schmeichel's and then Edwin van der Sar’s shadows. There’s pressure when you wait in the wings for so long. Pressure which is then magnified whenever you are given a chance.

With successive games in a Birmingham side with fewer expectations (although I’m not pretending that Foster won’t feel he has to prove himself), he can become an excellent keeper. He has been signed specifically as a number one. The fans are grateful for the saves he makes, not judgmental of the errors, which were so magnified at Old Trafford where there is generally less to do over 90 minutes. Plus, Foster is already pretty bloody good. He was Watford’s player of the season in 2006/07 and was man of the match when United won the Carling Cup in 2009.

And lest we forget, this season he has already made this save, which I reckon is up there with the best penalty saves ever (LOOK AT THE SPEED OF IT). He consistently denied Drogba and co, at times brilliantly, on Saturday. And Birmingham’s rearguard is showing signs of returning to the formidable form they demonstrated when Hart was the last line of defence.

*And if you think that’s weird, Birmingham’s 14th game of the season last year was also a 1-0 win, and the goalscorer was Lee Bowyer. JUST LIKE THIS YEAR. ALEX MCLEISH MUST BE A WITCH.

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