WORDS: JOHN CLARKE
With Joe Hart’s performances coming under increasing scrutiny, could Roy Hodgson be forced to look north of the border for England’s No1 goalkeeper? Fraser Forster may not be a household name yet, but the solidly built Celtic stopper has some big European nights ahead in which to prove his worth…
A steady trickle of England fans, it seems, are beginning to wonder if the wave of hype surrounding Joe Hart may have been wish-fulfilment on a grand scale.
Decent goalie that he is, the thinking goes, maybe he’s not the world-beating stopper they had hoped he might be, and if that really is the case, then no amount of back-page hyperbole, the collective will of a nation or Jedi mind tricks are going to change that. Whether Roy Hodgson believes the hype is a different matter, but if the Manchester City No1 drops more clangers like the one against Scotland, he may have some serious thinking to do.
In that case, England will face a choice: accept Hart, warts and all, or try something different. That something different could just be Celtic’s Fraser Forster.
Called up for the second time by Hodgson, it’s unlikely that the giant Geordie will displace Hart for the clashes with Moldova and Ukraine but it at least shows the coach is thinking about him. And well he might. Forster’s performances with the Hoops last season, especially in the Champions League, were often breathtaking. He certainly more than earned his win bonuses against the likes of Barcelona and Spartak Moscow.
Debate and argument is the essence of following football, though, and of course there’s a vociferous anti-Forster camp, based largely on the fact that he plays in Scotland and is unproven at English Premier League level. The logical, but fundamentally flawed, argument is basically this: if he wasn’t good enough for Newcastle, why is he now good enough for England?
Well, let’s get some context here. Tim Krul, a keeper at least as gifted as anyone England can offer these days, was asserting himself at St James’s Park, and competing with long-standing and reliable club servant Steve Harper. Tough nuts to crack for the new kid on the block. So Forster was loaned out to Paul Lambert’s Norwich, where he was voted the club’s Player of the Year. That still wasn’t enough to get a look-in back at his parent club, so he was shipped out again, this time to Glasgow’s east end where Lambert’s old mucker Neil Lennon was struggling to fill the hole left by the departed ‘Holy Goalie’ Artur Boruc.
This is when his development began in earnest; and what the “Newcastle’s third choice” brigade should note is that in his time in Scotland he has improved beyond all recognition. He wasn’t an overnight success and he didn’t win Celtic fans over instantly. Opinion was divided, but he was generally accepted as the best option available under the circumstances. He was a solid shot-stopper and a fine athlete, but he lacked confidence and command, wasn’t great with his feet, and when high balls came into the box he’d be stuck to his line like a rock star in a VIP lounge.
Lennon was very vocal about his faith in Forster, though, and brought him back for a second season on loan. Suddenly he looked a more assured and convincing prospect altogether and did enough to persuade Lennon, and Celtic’s notoriously frugal chief executive, Peter Lawell, to part with two million quid to secure his services on a permanent basis.
This was a significant investment by Celtic’s standards and, while a portion of the fans still howled for Shay Given, Forster went about reassuring them he was worth the money. His consistency improved, and by the time Celtic’s Champions League campaign was underway in earnest, he had firmly established himself as a fans’ favourite. The group stages and his resultant heroics culminated in the clamour for him to be included in the England squad, and Hodgson finally took note towards the end of the season.
So where are we now? Forster’s a fairly mature goalie, with four seasons’ football behind him, including experience in the Champions League, Europa League, SPL and English Championship. His ability as a shot-stopper has never been in doubt. You’d almost make him favourite in a one-on-one, such is his massive frame and his ability to make it appear even bigger to an onrushing forward. Any concerns over his kicking have been allayed and he’s also developed the key attribute for any Celtic keeper: impeccable concentration. A Celtic goalkeeper can be twiddling his thumbs for long spells, with all the action taking place in the other half, but when the call to action comes you have to be ready, and Forster inevitably is.
Aerial dominance is probably still his weakest point. Two years ago he wouldn’t have come off his line – now he does, but he doesn’t always get it right. One thing you can be sure of, though, is that he’s working in it. Press interviews show him to be a student of the craft, and incredibly focused on self-improvement. He practices yoga to develop his flexibility and makes no secret of his desire to get better. His progress at Celtic has been dramatic, and his focus and attitude ensure that it will continue to be so.
Ultimately, whether Forster gets the England call is likely to depend on his profile, and whether he’s appearing on Roy’s radar. Had Celtic slipped on the Kazakhstani banana skin in their qualifying play-off, Forster wouldn’t have been in the Champions League and would have lost his primary platform for proving himself south of the border. But with qualification ensured and another string of top-class opponents heading to Celtic Park, the big man has a chance to force himself further into the England coach’s consciousness. If he can keep Messi, Neymar, Balotelli and Ajax’s loan star Bojan Krkic at bay, he must be good enough for England … mustn’t he?