Smiling. A Lot! - Ben Foster
Ben Foster talks to Olly Wicken about his first spell at Watford from 2005 to 2007.
Ben Foster is an easy-going man. This is obvious from the start of our interview because he’s in his underpants.
“Is this alright? You don’t mind?” He’s lying on a treatment table in the medical room at Watford’s training ground in London Colney, receiving a massage after training. He checks with the occupants of the other three treatment tables - Danny Welbeck, Nathaniel Chalobah and Craig Cathcart - that they don’t object, and we get the interview started.
Immediately, he comes across as a happy-go-lucky character. “I’m carefree. Very carefree,” he says. “Don’t take myself too seriously. Very happy in my own skin. Enjoying myself and smiling a lot.” The rest of our conversation goes on to prove this. But Ben Foster wasn’t always this way. When he arrived at Watford in the summer of 2005, he didn’t have the same confidence. “I had a big bungle head and a fat chin. Everything happened so fast for me. It was a whirlwind. I went from being on loan at Wrexham to signing for Manchester United and coming straight out on loan. I didn’t fully know what I was doing. I’d be thinking: ‘Someone’s going to find out in a minute I’m a bit of a fraud here’.”
He was 22 at the time and had played just 19 games of League football at Kidderminster Harriers and Wrexham (on loan from Stoke City), when Manchester United signed him as a goalkeeper for the future. Sir Alex Ferguson loaned him to Watford to get first-team experience.
“The team had just escaped relegation. I signed only two or three days before the season. Alec Chamberlain probably thought he was going to start the season, and then I turn up. He’d just had his testimonial and he was well within his rights to feel a little aggrieved, really. But Alec was just incredible and took me under his wing. He was like my father figure while I was here. We were great friends too, the families as well. He showed me the ropes and looked after me. Amazing, given we were competing for the same spot.”
Watford’s manager at the time, Aidy Boothroyd, was another key influence. “Aidy was brilliant. He was class. I was so lazy back then. I lived round the corner from the training ground, about a three-minute drive away, and virtually every day I would be late. It was embarrassing. So Aidy said, ‘I’ll tell you what I’m going to do. I’m going to write a report every week to Sir Alex Ferguson about your progress here and it’s going to include everything: what time you turn up, what you do in the gym, blah blah blah.’ And I was like: ‘This guy’s an absolute prick’. And for the first couple of weeks I thought: ‘Nah, he won’t do that.’ But he did exactly that and he showed me the report. It said ‘Ben’s turning up late, Ben’s not professional’. And I was like: ‘Shit!”. It was during an international break, and he pulled me in his office and he gave it to me. But it was a ‘cruel to be kind’ thing, and after that I was like: ‘I should probably buck my ideas up a bit’.”
Ben certainly did buck his ideas up. He became a virtual ever-present during the 2005/06 season. “I only missed two games. One was away at Brighton. Me and the missus went. It was at some kind of racing track with a temporary stand and stuff [the Withdean Stadium]. Chris Eagles scored a wonder goal from the halfway line. Incredible. Amazing.”
Of course, the whole season turned out to be amazing. “That season we were favourites or second favourites to get relegated and we just kept going and kept going and kept going. It was a great season. We just did really, really well. It was no-nonsense football, just get the ball up there as quickly as possible, get round it, and go from there, but we had the players to do it.”
He talks about the season with great enthusiasm. “The play-off semis was a funny one. We’d already lost twice to Palace that season, and for the away leg of the semi-final they’d already pre-printed flyers for the fans, saying ‘Buy your ticket and get travel for the final’. And we were like: ‘You cheeky buggers.’ So we were on it, pumped up. And it was 3-0. Incredible.”
“For the final, Aidy took us to the Millennium stadium in the week before the game for a good look-around so we all knew what to expect. The mental side of it was incredible, he was massive on that. So we were ready. In the tunnel, the lads were bouncing, everybody was bouncing. Jordan Stewart was screaming. The Leeds players were looking at us thinking we were a wild pack of dogs or something. And we started so fast they didn’t stand a chance. We rolled them over.”
It was a positive, happy time for all Watford fans. Ben’s eyes shine as he reflects on it. “I reckon if you could guarantee to be promoted, you’d do it via the play-offs, because the emotion and all that is incredible. What a feeling.”
At the start of the following season, Ben was back on loan at Watford again to get more first-team experience, this time in the Premier League. But it proved to be a very different challenge. “The second season in the Premier League was a massive baptism of fire. The gulf in class was huge. We weren't good enough. Nowhere near good enough. There were teams back then playing proper football, the start of real football in the Premier League, with the likes of Henry and those sorts of players. They were faster than us, they were stronger than us, just better than us at football, simple as that. You get eleven players against eleven players, but when every one of theirs is faster than you, better on the ball than you, can kick it harder than you, kick it more accurately, pass it more accurately, then you’re struggling.’
Watford won only five games and finished bottom of the division. Fans may not have happy memories of 2006/07, but Ben remembers it positively. “It didn’t get us down that we weren’t winning. So little was expected of us. It’s not that we didn’t give it a good go, but we knew we were doing what we could do, and we gave it our all. “You know, we had a wicked season. Everyone enjoyed it even though it was clear we didn’t have the quality of every other team in the league. We enjoyed the team spirit. Aidy’s man-management skills were amazing; he was such a great guy to work for; he kept everyone going so well. Everyone bought into his ideas, everyone enjoyed training, everything. “The group as a whole was just class. The lads got on so well. We always did so much stuff together. It was just nice to be part of, nice coming into work every day; my first real taste of being part of a team where you all hang together. I remember it really fondly.”
He’s especially enthusiastic when he talks about individual team-mates from his first spell. “Jay DeMerit: first and foremost a brilliant lad. He was like a little hippy, you know. He was going out all the time, having the time of his life. He was a party animal. He loved it. He always wore his heart on his sleeve and he would fling into everything.
“Ashley Young was a machine, a running machine. Despite his slight frame, he was so aggressive, so strong. He had so much technical ability. Great professional, great guy. You could just see he was going to go onto greater things.
“Marlon King was a goalscorer, a finisher. He wasn’t the strongest bloke, but he was very good at being able to turn his player and arch his body to be able to tuck the ball in the corner. That goal against West Ham. Beautiful.
“Malky Mackay was the veteran of the team. I remember his last game for the team, actually. We were losing 3-0 [at home to Everton] and all of the goals were a case of him having to turn and run back to his goal, and by the time he’d turned they’d already put the ball in the back of the net. And Aidy just said: ‘I think that’s enough, mate’. But a great bloke, what a guy.
“Hameur Bouazza had the most powerful shot ever. He had feet like Monster Munch. Honestly, he could welly a ball and it could go anywhere, but if it was on target you were struggling as a goalie.”
“Jordan Stewart. Brilliant lad. He’d got energy to burn. Always smiling, always bouncing around, looking to have a laugh.”
“Darius Henderson. Animal of a man. Six foot four, and built like an absolute brick shithouse. Up at Leeds, we both got sent off. I was sitting in the changing room and about three minutes later Darius comes in, shirt hanging off him, he’s got a massive scratch down him, half bleeding. I went ‘Just been brought off?’ and he went ‘Nah, red card.’ I would not want to mess with him. He was a powerful man. Great to have in the changing room.
“Dan Shittu. I ain’t trying to mess with Dan Shittu. We went on a team-building thing once. We were at an adventure place on one of these outdoor things with high beams and walkways, and little Anthony McNamee was on this climbing frame and he couldn’t get up it. Dan Shittu was on top of it, so he went down and grabbed him by his scruff and plonked him on the top and went: ‘There you go’. He’s a gentle guy, golden, so nice, but he was a big, scary man.”
Ben’s memories of the overall feel of the club in those days are all positive too. “It felt like a smallish club. A nice club. A family-orientated club. There was terracing on one side and we shared with Saracens, so the pitch at times was just, oh my God, but it had a real nice feel to it - at the training ground too. My family used to love coming. They became really good friends with the people on the door and in the players’ lounge. It was such a nice atmosphere.”
But he's less enthusiastic about the training facilities in the mid-2000s. “There was a Portakabin out in the car park, that’s where the gym was. It was literally a Portakabin. You’d go in on a hot day and it was a hundred degrees. Horseflies, bees, wasps. It was horrible. They definitely didn’t have a Wattbike. It was so basic, honestly.”
This brings him onto the contrast with how things are today, in his second spell at the club after his return in summer 2018. “I’ve come back all these years later and we’ve still got the same canteen staff and the same people working on the media team, and Doc Hamilton. It’s great. But now to then is a massive difference, it really is. We were a Championship team then, at best, and now everything is geared for the Premier League.”
There’s almost an awe in the way he talks about the new facilities. “What used to be the physio room is now the interns’ room. They’re all crammed in there now, because it’s so small. But now look at this physio room, it’s huge. You could swing ten dead cats in here. It’s massive. “Back then, the food was very average, massively average. The travel was basic, the hotels were basic. It was what it was, but now I appreciate what the place is now. There’s been new buildings bolted on all the way around it. It’s been increased two or threefold from what it was.
“Back then, you never had iPads. You’d have access to the last game, but now I can get a video sent to my phone on a Friday of the opponents’ set pieces for the next day, the penalties and what a striker might do. Everything’s so specialised and individual to a player or position. The tactical part of it is huge. Every game we go into, there’s a different game plan, not completely different, but with different elements — whereas with Aidy we had our set way of doing it and that was it. You’d get it up there, into those corners, and get round it. Even if you gave a throw-in away up there, it was “brilliant, get round it and get the ball back off them”, whereas now there’s a lot more emphasis on actually trying to play a bit of football. And it should be that way really, we’ve got some unbelievably technically-gifted players.”
When he goes on to talk about his current colleagues, his enthusiasm increases. “Clevs [Tom Cleverley] is like a little rat. He’s always on it. He’s always ratting, always wants to win. He’s a little bulldog. He’s brilliant to have in your team.
“Gerard [Deulofeu]. In training he’s sometimes ridiculous. He’s that kind of player that, if he comes through one on one, he will make you sit down as a goalie. He’s faking that much stuff that you’ll actually buy one of them and sit down and he’ll roll it past you, and that really winds you, but it’s nice to see at times. He’s got everything. On his day he’s an absolute world-beater, and I think it’s so important you have players like that in your team.
“We didn’t have any players like that back then. We had a player on loan called Douglas Rinaldi - Brazilian. He was decent, to be fair. But I remember Aidy Boothroyd holding a trial session. We were in the Premier League and he held an open trial session. Players came and he signed one. That’s how it was. It’s amazing, isn’t it? Can you imagine that now in the Premier League?”
Times really are very different. While Ben - a former England international - is talking, the other players listening in from their treatment tables are two more England internationals and a Northern Ireland international. “The club now is very driven. I think the club, rightly so, should be aiming high. I’m not talking about the top four or five teams, I think that can be a danger in itself for a team, trying to aim that high - but a top-ten team is without doubt where we should be looking. That’s where the owners see themselves, and the players that we’ve got here deserve to be in that bracket.”
We end the interview by reflecting on the change in Ben Foster from 2005 to today in 2019. He says with a grin: “Blossomed into a wonderful human being. Considering what he used to look like, he’s a handsome fella now. Magnificent beard. Really, really great lad.” Then, more seriously, he compares how he and the club have changed over time. “They’re not polar opposites, but they’re very different. I wouldn’t say I’m on a regression, or that I care any less or try any less, or anything, but I’m definitely at a stage of my life where, when a game finishes, whether we’ve won, lost or drawn, it is what it is and there’s no point putting any extra thought into it because it’s gone. So let go of what’s just happened and move on to what’s to come. And that’s the way I look at life now. The best way to do it is to move on, to crack on, and enjoy yourself.”
It’s a philosophy he looks very happy with. He’s played eight times for England and 370 times (and counting) in the Premier League for Manchester United, Birmingham City, West Bromwich Albion and Watford, so his laid-back approach to life is backed up by a lot of experience. He’s earned the right to be easy-going.
The interview is over. We shake hands and Ben Foster puts his trousers back on.