Tim Howard played a blinder in his first season at United, so much so, he was named PFA Keeper of the Year. It is important to note he fought off competition from Jens Lehmann who had just enjoyed an unbeaten season with Arsenal and Chelsea’s Carlo Cudicini, who both conceded fewer goals than him.
Following his cock-up in the European Cup, a game which should have already been won thanks to a Paul Scholes goal which was wrongly disallowed, his confidence took a knock and he was replaced by Roy Carroll for a month, only after featuring in one more game: the 4-1 defeat to City (where Mikael Silvestre was the villain, but it still couldn’t have helped Howard).
Howard regained his place in the team for the final six matches of the season, including our 3-0 in the FA Cup final (making him the first Yank to claim an FA Cup winners medal), but that was the peak of his United career.
Roy Carroll was a poor goalkeeper, by United’s standards at least, but that didn’t stop him starting far too many games for us. Whilst the memories of the individual games seem to blur in to one, the fear I felt every time an opposing team broke in to our half was ridiculous. Whilst the country was talking about our decline, our midfield comprised of the likes of Djemba-Djemba, Kleberson, Richardson and Fletcher (yeh yeh, when he wasn’t good enough), it was the goalkeeping situation that was the most worrying.
Howard played in goal for the opening two months of the 04-05 season but was replaced by Carroll in October. Howard played all our FA and League cup games in January whilst Carroll was played in the league, who retained the spot until February, where his blunder in the 78th minute lead to a defeat in the home leg of the European Cup tie against AC Milan. Howard took over Premiership duty during March and April until the American gifted Newcastle the lead in the game where Rooney scored that goal. Howard didn’t play again that season with Carroll taking over for May and the FA Cup final which saw us lose on penalties, Carroll not making a save. It was a fucking farce.
Whilst the manager has been up for criticism time and again over the years, from our fans as much as elsewhere, he pretty much always proves people wrong. As regards to this goalkeeping situation though, Ferguson made an error in judgement. Howard was suffering from lacking confidence (who wouldn’t be when Roy fucking Carroll was ahead of them in pecking order?!) and needed to be trusted. Yeh, he certainly made some fuck ups but for Ferguson to chop and change the keeper, depending on a mistake they made in the previous game, resulted in both keepers becoming nervous wrecks. Carroll was never worthy of our number one shirt but Howard had been, and could have been again.
Of course, alls well that ends well, and Howard’s lacking confidence resulted in the experienced Edwin Van der Sar coming in. Who knows what would have happened over the past few seasons if we hadn’t had Edwin between the sticks. But this doesn’t change that there was a serious lack of judgement from Ferguson during the Howard-Carroll stage.
Howard has gone on to prove himself as a good quality Premiership keeper with Everton and last season set a record for his club of 17 clean sheets, which was only bettered by United, Chelsea and Liverpool. Is he good enough to be United’s number one? It’s hard to tell. He doesn’t have a United back four in front of him these days so it’s unfair to compare him like for like with Edwin, but the point is, we’ll never really know.
As far as I’m concerned, the jury is still out on Ben Foster, whilst for many, their minds are already made up – he’s not good enough. But Ferguson has really gone out on a limb with this lad, praising him time and again and really raising his profile.
For Ferguson to do this, he must have faith in him, which means he must keep playing him, to the disappointment of several readers here. But we can’t have another Tim Howard scenario here. We have to keep going with Foster, not turning to Tomasz “Roy Carroll” Kuszczak to fill the gap until Van der Sar returns. If Foster is given a real go in the team, really trusted and supported, and still makes a hash of things, then it’s time for us to part ways. But six matches is nowhere near enough time for us to decide whether he’s got it or he hasn’t. Get a grip.
There are several things to remember before casting Foster aside, most importantly, his display in the League Cup final last season. Saving a penalty, making a great stop to deny Aaron Lennon in normal time and being named Man of the Match. His contribution won us a trophy, how is that so easy to forget for some?
Another point, this is a fella who really, really wants to play for us, who has pretty much put his career on hold to get a chance to play in our first team. When the deal was close to being finalised in 2005, a 22-year-old Foster talked of his strong desire to join us.
“Ever since I heard of their interest I’ve been on tenterhooks and had a few sleepless nights,” he said. “It’s a massive, massive club and a massive chance for me. Hopefully the two clubs can get something sorted out now.”
When on loan at Watford he reaffirmed his commitment to the club and his focus on playing for us.
“I’ve bought a house on the outskirts of Manchester and want to settle down with the club,” he said in March 2007. “I want to be at Old Trafford. That’s my club and I’m ready to stake my claim. I want to settle down to focus solely on my United career.”
He missed out on the FA Cup semi-final against United due to a clause in his loan deal with Watford but spoke of his desire to come back to us and his admiration of Van der Sar.
“Hopefully if I can go back and force myself into number one that would be unbelievable, it would be brilliant,” he said. “But if it’s going to be a case of sitting on the bench and waiting for the odd game here and there it’s obviously going to be disappointing, but it’s not going to be a bad place to be at really. You’re going to be picking up certain things from people like Edwin van der Sar and that. I think he’s been brilliant this season. I wouldn’t say he actually deserves to lose his place because I think he’s been one of the best keepers this season.”
Foster made his debut against lowly Derby and saved us from embarrassment, making a great save to stop Kenny Miller giving our opponents the lead in a game we won 1-0.
“I finally feel like a United player now!” he beamed in the post match interview. “I’ve been here nearly three years and it’s good to finally get on the pitch for the first team in a competitive game. It’s a big thing to come back from injury and to be thrown straight into the first team, but I thoroughly enjoyed it – though it was a bit harder than I thought!”
He has waited patiently for his chance, not looking to jump ship to another good club where he would get first team football, something he certainly would have been able to do, yet after just six games he already has sections of the support turning on him. Yeh, he’s made some schoolboy errors, but Van der Sar has 12 years on him and he still makes them! You haven’t forgotten Anfield or St. James’ Park last season have you? Nobody is perfect. Think of all the times Wayne Rooney can’t get his shot anywhere close to being on target, or Giggs’ corner can’t beat the first man, or Scholesy does something daft (ranging from handballs to stupid and costly bookings), or Rio kicks the ball at Bellamy seconds before injury time, or Vidic lets the ball bounce when Torres is looming… you get the picture?
This isn’t me arguing Foster is our future number one rather me arguing that he could be and we should give him a chance to prove that. We could have a player here who is good enough to fill Van der Sar’s boots (and gloves) and if we’ve learnt anything over the past decade, it’s that replacing world class goalkeepers is a bloody tough job!
Essentially, we’re all entitled to our opinions and if you’re ready to judge Foster after six games, a judgement the manager does not agree with, then that is entirely up to you. But I hope Fergie has learnt his lesson where goalkeepers are concerned, which is supported by his decision to keep the faith with Foster for today’s match, and that with time, our patient, unlucky, sometimes outstanding, other times scary, determined, committed, United-focused keeper proves the manager right and wears our number one jersey with pride for years to come.