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They say never go back. But Watford goalkeeper Ben Foster has made a mockery of that cliché – twice.
Now 36, Foster is in his third spell as a Hornet – and he's arguably in the form of his life.
Foster first pitched up at Vicarage Road in the summer of 2005 as a fresh-faced 22-year-old, having just signed for Manchester United in a £1million deal. He played a crucial role as Aidy Boothroyd's unfancied side won promotion to the Premier League and was named Player of the Year when he returned for a second stint the following season.
Then, in 2018, Watford moved to bring Foster back for a third spell. By now 35, West Bromwich Albion were reluctant to lose their goalkeeper but the Hornets' hierarchy agreed to a £4million fee to complete an emotional return to WD18 – some 13 years after initially signing for the club.
Despite his advancing years – and an undeniably wobbly start to the season – Foster has been integral to keeping Watford heads above water this term. His form has not gone unnoticed and, according to reports, Tottenham Hotspur boss José Mourinho has lined him up as a potential rival to current No.1 Hugo Lloris.
Foster's two-year deal at Vicarage Road is up this summer and his future is unclear.
For his part, Foster is relaxed about the next stage of his career. Asked about reports linking him with Spurs, he told talkSPORT: “That’s complete paper talk, but I am out of contract in the summer.
“There’s been nothing yet [a contract offer from Watford] but it’s not something I’m really thinking about too much.
“It’s the first time in my whole career that I’ve actually been out of contract at the end of the season, and I don’t really know what to make of it. I’m enjoying it, not because I’m trying to leave Watford, that’s not even an option and I can categorically say I’ve had no contact from anybody else, but I think it opens your options and gives you a bit of freedom.
“I’m very laid back in general about stuff, and if I was to start getting annoyed or frustrated about not being offered a new contract it just wouldn’t help, it wouldn’t help me. So it is what it is. I’m not trying to leave Watford, I’m very much enjoying my football.”
It's understandable Foster would find himself in demand. Only Liverpool stopper Alisson (10) and Burnley‘s Nick Pope (11) have kept more clean sheets than his nine this season. Indeed, given Jordan Pickford‘s troubles at Everton, Foster would surely be in England contention had he not retired following the 2014 World Cup.
Data around goalkeeper performance is notoriously lacking. The number of saves a keeper makes, for example, is not a reliable yardstick. Foster is, for example, always going to make more than Ederson or Alisson because of the volume of shots he faces.
However, the expected goals against (xGA) metric gives us an idea of how many goals a team should have conceded over the course of a season. Watford's is 43.14 and they have shipped 43 thanks to some Foster heroics. Time and time again, the Leamington Spa native has saved his side with barely believable reactions and agility.
For context, Pickford has conceded 42 times against an xGA score of 34.14, a swing of minus 6.86 – among the worst in the Premier League this season. Foster's save percentage (68.1 per cent) is higher than Pickford's (61.8 per cent) too.
While he is still performing and enjoying his football at Watford, it seems unlikely Foster would find much – if any – attraction in the prospect of moving back to a bigger club only to sit on the bench.
A keen cyclist who put family ahead of his England prospects while in the peak years of his career, Foster spoke openly last season about his desire to retire prior to returning to Vicarage Road.
A hugely popular figure among supporters, staff and players alike, the former Manchester United stopper is recognised as one of the game's good guys and only last week proved it once more by making good
on a promise to ensure a 12-year-old leukaemia sufferer got to see Watford take on Liverpool. Not only that, Foster arranged for Molly Hall to be mascot on the day and wheeled her out ahead of an unforgettable 3-0 win for the Hornets.
? @BenFoster just proves time and time again why he is the nicest man in football.
— Watford Football Club (@WatfordFC) March 2, 2020
Though clearly ingrained in the fabric of Watford, there is a day on the horizon when Foster won't be the man between the sticks. The club's long-term plans for the No.1 jersey will be up for discussion in the coming weeks.
Deputy Heurelho Gomes, who turned 39 in February, is expected to retire having surprisingly elected to play on for another 12 months last summer. Underneath the veteran pair, big things are expected of Daniel Bachmann and Pontus Dahlberg.
For Bachmann, who has a highly-acclaimed loan spell at Kilmarnock behind him, a shot at being No.1 cannot come soon enough – whether at Vicarage Road or elsewhere. The Austrian has had to make do with a couple of FA Cup run-outs this season and while 25 is no age in goalkeeping terms, he won't want another season of twiddling his thumbs.
Four years his junior, Swedish international Dahlberg has time on his side. But he too will take a keen interest in the succession plan – particularly as he is yet to make his debut for FC Emmen after joining on loan in January, as the Dutch outfit want him to get used to playing on artificial grass again.
There should be a back-up spot open behind Foster next season – unless Gomes performs another 360 – which one of those two will have eyes on filling before eventually taking over from Foster, who is more than deserving of another year.
Watford's goalkeeping future is bright. But for now, it's time to raise a glass of Fosters – other lagers are available – to the Hornets' No.1.