Ben Foster could have played his last Manchester United game after he was left out of England’s squad with a chest injury this week. The ‘keeper, who has appeared 10 times for United this season, is under pressure after a series of high profile errors in recent weeks. With Edwin van der Sar back in training, the big Dutchman will be pushed back into action for United’s match against Bolton on 17 October.
It’s a sad fall from grace for the Lemington-born stopper. With talent in spades and praise to match, many genuinely believed that Foster was the future of both United and England goalkeeping. Ten games and a string of uncertain performances later and some now doubt whether Foster has a future at United at all.
Foster’s problem is a crisis of confidence born from inexperience. At 26 he has far less top level experience than many ‘keepers of his age. After two years on loan at Watford, Foster returned to United to find van der Sar in the form of his life and a warm place waiting for him on the bench.
He is also an unfortunate player, who has been repeatedly injured during his United career. Foster’s most serious injury – knee ligament damage – kept him out for the best part of the 2007-8 season.
The ‘keeper, who has two England caps to date, played a staring role in United’s Carling Cup triumph last season. And while the experience was undoubtedly invaluable for the former Stoke City star, playing with United’s fringe and reserve players is not the same as the cut and thrust of the Premier and Champions Leagues.
With van der Sar injured against Bayern Munich in the pre-season Audi Cup, Foster proffered an eight week window to prove that his United credentials. It’s a chance that many believe Foster has blown.
The season didn’t start well either following a horrendous mistake against a Malaysian XI on United’s pre-season Asian Tour. In quick succession there were errors in the Community Shield – the weak punch that led directly to Chelsea’s opening goal a sign of things to come. Further errors followed against Arsenal, where he got a hand to Andrei Arshavin’s long-range shot but failed to deflect the ball wide.
Then came, perhaps, the most calamitous performance of the season in the Manchester derby. First, Foster allowed former United striker Carlos Tevez to rob him of the ball for City’s opener. Then the ‘keeper, who joined United in a £1 million deal in 2005, went to ground early allowing Craig Bellamy to steal in for City’s third.
Following the match Foster, who is famously strong-willed during his frequent injury lay-offs, spoke of his distress.
“After last Sunday I pretty much buried my head in the sand to be honest,” the ‘keeper told the Manchester Evening News.
“I didn’t really want to watch the television and the next day… the papers, there was no way I was reading any of them. But when we got into training, you have to face up to it. You have to look at the replays and analyse it and learn from it.
“Our goalie coach Eric Steele has been on at me all week and has been hard on me really – but I needed that and I like to think I have learnt from it.
“I was the only one in the changing room with an upside down smile on his face!”
Manager Sir Alex Ferguson responded by publicly backing a player for whom he has predicted great things. It was a policy built on sound principles – Foster deserves an extended opportunity – but shaky foundations. Then the stopper produced a confidence-inspiring display in United’s outstanding team performance at Stoke City, only to face exclusion from the side against Wolfsburg. It was, in retrospect, a bizarre decision.
Perhaps being dropped for the midweek match was the final straw, with Foster culpable for both Sunderland’s goals last weekend. Firstly, the six-foot stopper failed to get down quickly enough to Darren Bent’s snap-shot on seven minutes. Then, tragically, Foster was out-jumped by Kenwyne Jones for Sunderland’s second. It might just have been his last mistake for the club.
With van der Sar back in contact training, the 130-cap Dutch legend is likely to start against Bolton on 17 October. Ferguson, keen to avoid the mistakes of the Tim Howard – Roy Carroll era, is likely to stick by his leading ‘keeper before dipping into the transfer market next summer.
Unless, that is, Foster can change his mind. The real question is – will he ever get the chance?