Ben Foster is in his element, the excitement in his voice impossible to ignore as the Watford goalkeeper takes his mind to hanging up his boots. “I want to be a cyclist after football,” he says. “I will give the next two seasons my full, undivided attention and then there are so many things I want to do on my bike on the bucket list, all of these lovely climbs.
“The Alps, all of the famous ones – the Vuelta [a España], the Giro [d’Italia] – even some of the mad ones. They have a race in America called Dirty Kanza, which is proper grotty – gravel bike, dirty, camping in bushes. It will be absolutely class; I can’t wait.”
Foster is in full flow, unfiltered and absorbing as he discusses everything from the upsides of living in the sticks and the pitfalls of social media – “it is the worst thing for a young footballer” – to Saturday Kitchen and his plans to start a YouTube channel combining football and cycling, which he fell in love with after spending much of his rehabilitation from three cruciate injuries on two wheels.
This season represents his 19th as a professional and he is focused on attacking the Championship after relegation. “It can be a good thing because sometimes clubs need a bit of a clearout, a flush-out, a chance to blood youth in and get some real energy around the place,” he says at the EFL season launch. “We have got quite a lot of exciting players, such as Domingos Quina. When they step out on to the training pitch you can see they are still living that childhood dream.”
Forty-seven days on from the end of last season, Watford kick off the new one at home to Middlesbrough on Friday but regardless of result, Foster will not be plugged into his phone in pursuit of gratification, unlike some of his younger teammates. “The first thing they do is they bring Twitter up, Instagram up and they’re searching for their name and looking to see what people are saying about them. I’m saying: ‘Lads, come on, these people, you’ll probably never meet them in your life but you have just let whatever they have said get into your head and it will affect you if you read enough of those negative comments. On the flip side, if they are saying amazing, wicked things about you, still don’t take it in – take no notice of it.’”
Foster’s first and last taste of the second tier culminated in Watford winning promotion via the play-off final in 2006. “We were favourites to get relegated. That Watford team had just avoided relegation the previous year after Aidy Boothroyd took over. Manchester United were happy to loan me out because they knew I was going to get peppered, thinking we were going to be poor, but we ended up ripping it up, finishing third and smashing the play-offs.”
Put to him that there appears a market for experienced goalkeepers of his calibre in the top flight – Joe Hart joined Tottenham and Scott Carson re-signed for Manchester City this summer – and the 37-year-old grimaces slightly. “If somebody said to me: ‘Come and be our No 2’ … I couldn’t do that.”
It is scarcely dull at Watford and last month Vladimir Ivic became the club’s fourth permanent manager in less than a year. Troy Deeney has said the Serb sometimes looks as if “he’s going to kill you” and others have likened him to James Bond villain. “It’s a good shout,” Foster says, smiling. “He is very conservative in giving out praise. He’s not the kind of guy to put an arm round you, speak to you – ‘how you are doing or how’s the family’; he’s a completely different manager to Nigel Pearson.
“He is very direct and very happy to pull people up on things if they’re not working hard enough. He has been running the lads like dogs [in training]. Every single day they are crawling off the pitch, knackered. But because it is a ridiculously condensed season, being able to stay fit and keep fitness levels high could be the difference between making the top two or being in the play-offs.”
This week, Abdoulaye Doucouré became the first high-profile departure but the arrival of Glenn Murray, a striker who knows the Championship, should guarantee Watford goals – and provide a welcome consistency. “I would much rather play with a team of seven out of 10s each week, rather than those that might be a nine or a 10 and then the next week they might be two or three. I want to know what I’m getting every match day.”
Foster is smashing company, radiating his passion for cycling and cooking – he trained as a chef at Café Rouge before joining Stoke as an apprentice. He lives on a 30-acre farm in the Warwickshire countryside, where emus and llamas roam and baby peacocks “bowl about the place”. The rural location suits him, with the local butchers a favourite haunt. “You could go up there tomorrow and they might have rabbit, hare, deer, cow’s tongue – anything. I will always try and get something a bit quirky, a bit weird that I can find a nice recipe for.”
As for a favourite chef, James Martin gets his vote. “If we had ‘smellovision’, it would be incredible. And an old classic: Rick Stein, because I love my fish.”
Such breadth of interests makes it easy to understand why Foster is reluctant to pigeonhole himself as a footballer. “If you ask me who I am, I would say: ‘I’m a father, a husband, I love cycling, I play football for a living, blah, blah, blah’ … but the problem comes when straightaway people say: ‘I’m a professional footballer.’ Come on, mate. You’re not – you’re a human being first. But that comes with age. And that’s the thing you need to get into people’s heads, that they are people first. People see them as this commodity, this footballer, but they are a person first and foremost.”
That is clear when it comes to Foster, widely regarded as one of the nicest characters in a cut-throat industry. In December, he gave an 80-year-old season-ticket holder with dementia a lift home after the man fell into a ditch on the way home from Vicarage Road and this year he gave a young Watford mascot with leukaemia a day to remember. The heartwarming clip of Foster ensuring Molly Hall had access to all areas and autographs aplenty has been viewed almost four million times.
“In the video, Roberto Pereyra walks in with this super-shiny backpack and Molly says: ‘I love the bag,’” he says. “When my wife and I were watching it, we were like, ‘We’ll send her some similar bags’. But Maxi Pereyra must have seen the video – his bag was like a Christian Louboutin bag or something, which costs like a grand – and he went and bought exactly the same bag and sent one to Molly, which was incredible. He hasn’t gone shouting about it, though I’m probably killing him now by dropping him in it …”