Tottenham must find a way past Birmingham’s rejuvenated Ben Foster

BIRMINGHAM City may not have the glamour and prestige of Manchester United or Manchester City, but it has certainly become the place to be for aspriring England goalkeepers.

Alex McLeish’s decision to take Joe Hart on loan from City in July 2009 proved to be an inspired one, with the 23-year-old proving to be one of the signings of the season.

Hart kept 12 clean sheets in all competitions in his spell in the Midlands to help the Blues to a ninth-placed finish on their return to the Premier League.

It was no surprise that Roberto Mancini ordered him back to Manchester at the end of the season, and all eyes were on White Hart Lane on August 14 to see who would start between the sticks as ambitious City walked out for the campaign’s curtain-raiser in N17.

Would it be Hart or Shay Given? It was Hart and, regrettably for Spurs, he was superb, saving his side from certain defeat with a string of stunning saves in a goalless draw.

Hart’s meteoric rise to prominence has been mirrored at international level and, following Robert Green’s disgrace in South Africa and David James’ move to Bristol City, the City boy has taken over as England’s No1, starting all three of the qualifiers for the 2010 European Championships.

All is well for Hart, who will be fully aware of the importance that his year at St Andrew’s has played in his rapid rise to the top of the English game.

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His gain was Birmingham’s loss. However, having lost the new England keeper, McLeish shrewdly moved to sign Hart’s biggest threat to the Three Lions’ keeper’s jersey – Ben Foster, then of Manchester United.

The 27-year-old was an obvious choice for the Blues – a rough diamond aching for his own chance to prove himself in the top flight, and join the fight for Fabio Capello’s favour.

The sight of Hart – four years his junior – going from strength to strength for club and country may well have played a part in Foster’s decision to quit United after five years and just 23 appearances, galvanising him to make a career-changing move.

The only person blocking the �6million transfer was Sir Alex Ferguson but, as the United boss said at the time: “I think he deserves the opportunity to do better for himself.

“That’s the reason we accepted the offer. I feel and I still am very strong about this, I think he’s the best English goalkeeper in England.”

Six months on, Foster’s performances have fuelled suggestions that – when Ferguson replaces 40-year-old Edwin Van Der Sar – he will be back to re-sign his former No2.

Foster announced his arrival at Birmingham early on with a breathtaking penalty save from Blackburn’s Morten Gamst Pedersen as City won their first home game of the campaign.

The ex-United stopper has gone on to keep five clean sheets, four of them at St Andrew’s, keeping Liverpool at bay and recently stealing the show in a 1-0 home win over Chelsea – including a low diving stop which has earned comparisons with Gordon Banks’ save from Pele at the 1970 World Cup.

That came three days after Foster replaced the injured Hart between the sticks for England’s 2-1 defeat to France at Wembley. Everything is going to plan.

All of that makes ominous reading for Tottenham, who travel to St Andrew’s this weekend – and Foster has previous with Spurs.

The ex-United keeper was in goal when the champions won 3-1 at the Lane in the league last season. But, more memorably, it was Foster between the sticks in the 2009 Carling Cup Final, which ended goalless after extra-time. and went to penalties.

Foster famously watched videos of the Lilywhites’ likely penalty takers on an ipod before the spot-kick contest, including an effort from Jamie O’Hara during an England Under-21 match against Czech Republic.

He saved from O’Hara, and and then repeated the trick against David Bentley to secure the cup for United.

Given Foster’s penalty save from Pedersen, and Tottenham’s inability to hit the net from 12 yards these days, Spurs’ players will hardly be racing to the penalty spot if they are awarded a kick at goal on Saturday.

But look on the bright side. Foster’s knack for saving spot-kicks may one day come in very handy for England.