Ben Foster Wrexham heroics feel like a Hollywood script
Mark OgdenSenior Writer, ESPN FC7 Minute Read
WREXHAM, Wales — Ben Foster has a confession to make. His preparation for Wrexham’s biggest game of the season — and one that would end with the best moment of a career in which he has played for Manchester United and England — was perhaps not what manager Phil Parkinson would have wanted.
Rather than getting his head down for an early night, Foster was busy watching Jon Rahm win the Masters.
“I played so much golf after retiring last season,” Foster told ESPN. “My golf has taken over, you know what I mean? So I was up until half-past eleven on Sunday night, watching the Masters. I was so tired: I was trying keep my eyes open and I couldn’t manage it.
“What will the manager think? Oh, it’s fine. Let’s just say I’m the goalie and all you do is just stand there and shout to everybody. I ain’t got to run around all the time!”
Foster, 40, is being self-deprecating, playing down his reputation as one of the fittest and most dedicated goalkeepers of his generation, but he can afford to be. He is speaking to ESPN on the pitch at Wrexham’s Racecourse Ground, just half an hour after saving a penalty from Notts County’s Cedwyn Scott in the sixth minute of stoppage time.
By diving to his right to push Scott’s spot-kick away for a corner, which isn’t even taken due to the referee calling time after the save, Foster sealed a 3-2 win for Wrexham, which moved them three points clear of County at the top of the National League and that bit closer to automatic promotion to the Football League.
“That is just as good as it will get,” Foster, who was a shoot-out hero for Manchester United in the 2009 EFL Cup Final, said. “As a goalkeeper, to make a save in the last seconds, the last minutes like that, from a penalty to preserve the lead and to now be three points ahead with game in hand. … it’s a massive thing for Wrexham and for me too.
“That was phenomenal. What a game of football.”
It meant everything to Wrexham co-owner Ryan Reynolds, too. The Hollywood star, who bought the club with fellow actor Rob McElhenney two years ago, was at the game with McElhenney and both shared the agony and ecstasy of a pulsating game that culminated with Foster’s save. “When I get my hands on Ben Foster, he’s going to be on the injured list because I’m going to break ribs, I’m going to hug him so hard,” Reynolds said after the game.
Why is Reynolds so happy? Simply put, finishing top in the National League — English football’s fifth tier — guarantees promotion to the English Football League (EFL). Wrexham haven’t been in the EFL system since dropping out in 2008, but taking that big step up the ladder keeps them dreaming of reaching the Premier League with three more promotions. Finish second and you face the lottery of the play-offs — Wrexham lost at the semifinal stage last season — which means the stakes between Wrexham and County are incredibly high, especially as the two clubs have amassed 103 and 100 points respectively. Woking are a distant 24 points behind them in third place.
For Foster, the penalty save means everything. A month ago, he was enjoying his retirement and had no plans to return to the game, having racked up 535 appearances for clubs including United, Watford and West Bromwich Albion, as well as eight games for England. Having set up a successful football podcast called “Fozcast,” Foster saw his future as a social media broadcaster. But when Wrexham were suddenly hit by a goalkeeper crisis, with Mark Howard and Rob Lainton both injured, manager Parkinson sent an SOS to Foster and he responded, signing a short-term contract with the club that handed him his senior debut in 2005.
“It’s really special for me,” Foster said. “I was really happy having retired, but I would only come out of retirement for Wrexham — genuinely only for Wrexham.
“The reason why I came back is because I know the club and I do owe so much to them for what they did to me. They give me that springboard to start my career and show what I can do. And then I got the move to Man United off the back of my initial run here. So it’s where it all started for me.”
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Returning to Wrexham has also been a case of some old familiar faces in a much-changed club for Foster. “Merv, the masseur, is still here from my first spell,” he said. “The doctor is still here. But yeah, a lot has changed in the last 18 years since I’ve been here.
“I remember I was here when the previous owners, who got rallied against and hounded out of the club because they were trying to knock the stadium down, were here. That’s how much different it is now that we’ve got a couple of owners who want to do it properly. And if we can get over the line this season then there’s no limit to where we can get to.”
Foster’s match-winning save against Notts County was the ultimate justification for his return to the game. During the latter years of his career, Foster admitted to wondering whether he had the mindset to succeed at the highest level, saying that there were times at United when he lacked the cold, ruthless drive of some teammates. His retirement at Watford last year was a result of too much football over almost two decades as a professional, but returning to Wrexham has reignited his love for the game.
“I just lost the love for (football) a little bit, to be perfectly honest with you,” Foster said. “I didn’t get the buzz. I used to buzz off the Saturday afternoon feeling. I used to buzz off that adrenaline boost I would get, because I knew I could do stuff in games that I couldn’t do normally.
“Even that started to wane towards the end of the season. It doesn’t help when you’re getting relegated every other season, but that started to wane. And I just thought, you know what, I’m not really enjoying this as much as I used to do. I’ve had nine months retired and buzzed off it so much. I had a wicked time being retired but now — I’m not making any puns or anything — I’m just enjoying it for what it is.
“Then when you get moments like today, it’s just, ‘Oh God!’ Genuinely, you couldn’t write it. We’ve got a football club owned by two legends who are both incredible scriptwriters. And they wouldn’t have been able to write a script as good as that, what happened today.”
So now that the buzz is back and he’s showing he can still perform, will Foster extend his return from retirement?
“I ain’t got a clue,” he said after a long pause. “I don’t know. I think I’ll make that decision when it comes to it. This is like coming full-circle really, coming back, but I think first and foremost, I need to assure everybody that I’m doing this properly.
I’m not turning up to just play a few games of football and record a few videos. It’s not about that. It’s about helping Wrexham get over the line and get them promoted. That is the most important thing.”
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