Ben Foster’s YouTube alter ego ‘The Cycling GK’ helps him not take soccer too seriously

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When Gustavo Hamer’s 30-yard header looped over Ben Foster‘s head, the Watford goalkeeper’s first thought was “Oh s—, s—, here we go…” Then came the self-loathing, analysis, acceptance and refocus. “Even as I’m diving for it, I can still remember thinking ‘I should be saving this’ and I just didn’t, for whatever reason, get enough contact on the ball, whatever it was, it was a technical error,” Foster told ESPN. “As soon as it happened, I thought oh, no, no, no.”

The process took 30 seconds, and all of it was captured by the GoPro camera that Foster had placed in the back of his goal before kickoff. His Watford side eventually ground out a much-needed 3-2 win over Hamer’s Coventry City in the Championship last weekend. Afterwards, as he did the postmatch hand-shaking, he carried around his GoPro, thanking his teammates for bailing him out. As Foster arrived back in the changing room, he was greeted by teammate Will Hughes. “He [Hughes] was standing there, just sort of looking at me with the mischievous face of like, this is gonna look incredible on the YouTube channel!”

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When football stopped back in March, Foster, 37, used his time and energy to merge his football career and passion for cycling with his new YouTube channel, “The Cycling GK,” which hints at some of his plans for life after football. Amid the gloom of another lockdown in the UK, Foster and his YouTube channel offer an antidote. In a sport where so often personalities are hidden, he breaks the norm, granting us an insight into a career well-lived, but also a man you’d love to spend an afternoon in the pub with.

“I love football, don’t get me wrong. I love it,” Foster says. “I love the Saturday afternoon; the adrenaline buzz I get from it is incredible. But for the rest of it, I could take it or leave it — genuinely take it or leave the rest of it, the crap that comes with it — the celebrity, the fame, all that kind of stuff. It doesn’t matter to me whatsoever.”

As we chat over Zoom, Foster reels off the things that get him enthusiastic and ignite his beaming smile: beers, his family, food, the thrill of taking his new Tarmac SL7 bike out for a ride for the first time (“It’s like going to see your new baby that’s just been born”), the Giro d’Italia and his YouTube channel. Oh, and saving penalties, as he did in one episode against Blackburn RoversAdam Armstrong.

Foster’s channel offers viewers a unique insight into life on and off the field as a goalkeeper. The GoPro he nestles behind him in goal offers an opportunity to eavesdrop on everything that goes on: a personal highlight was one Luton player shouting at another ‘You selfish piece of s—‘ after he scooped a shot well over the bar, instead of passing to a teammate in a better position. Then there are the moments in another episode where Foster lambasts his defence for allowing a shot on goal or guiding one of their full-backs to force the Coventry attacker on to his weaker right foot. It’s incredible access — the sort we all pine for with every new fly-on-the-wall documentary released on streaming media.

Watching “The Cycling GK” also allows you to tap into Foster’s infectious enthusiasm; somehow, after our chat, his joie de vivre led me to purchase a few bottles of the red wine he recommended — a Tempranillo called The Guv’nor — and wonder whether I can get my well-insulated frame on one of these lightweight bikes blessed with technology and precision that’d make NASA blush.

Foster is now in the twilight of a career that’s seen him play for Manchester United, West Bromwich Albion, Birmingham City and his current side Watford, while winning eight England caps. We talk through a few highlights — the time he saved a Steven Gerrard penalty in front of The Kop, his England debut, playing under Sir Alex Ferguson — then he laughs as he remembers when opposition goalkeeper Paul Robinson lobbed him from 80 yards. But Foster is anchored in the present and not defined by the sport.

By way of a mission statement, he says: “My name is Ben Foster: I’m a husband, I’ve got two lovely kids, I love cycling, I play football for a living. That’s how I live my life. You need to learn to kind of try and get a little bit of a partition in between who you are and what you do for a living as well.

“I’ve learned to not really give a crap about what anyone else thinks, and all the crap that comes with football you need to just learn to let it go because it doesn’t matter. For a goalkeeper especially, you have to say stay on that kind of even keel, if that makes sense.”

He sees himself as much as a cycling obsessive as he does a footballer, which formed the genesis behind this new YouTube channel that takes you into the heart of life at Watford — including a lot of Hughes’ colourful language. “It doesn’t matter what Hughes is doing, he’s swearing, so as long as we sort of blur his mouth and bleep his like swear words out, we’re fine. He loves it, honestly, he’s a sneaky one. He’s one of them who acts like, gives it the big’un and he’s like, ‘I’m never coming on, I’m never talking, blah, blah, blah.’ And then as soon as I’ve got the camera up, he runs up behind and he’s getting on and jumping in and swearing and all this kind of stuff.”

There have been 11 episodes published to date: viewers have learned that Foster is uber-competitive on a Wattbike, he adores tomato ketchup, (again) Hughes swears a lot, the unsung heroes at Watford like the kit man and the bus driver are the lifeblood of the club, and Foster judges a hotel on whether there’s a USB connector by the bed or not (he’s quick to praise their chosen team hotel for home games on their recent refurbishment and new USB connectors — “sweet as a nut, mate!”).

Cycling is as much Foster’s hobby as it is his refuge. The two hours he spends daily on the bike offer him a chance to clear his head, get the endorphins pumping and permit him to “eat and drink what I want” when he gets back home. He has a glass of wine off camera as we talk and laughs as he talks about how quickly he consumed a bag of crisps earlier in the day, having already burnt 2,000 calories. His dream holiday is four or five days in the mountains with mates on bikes, then an afternoon by the pool.

But this passion was originally triggered by necessity. He has suffered three ACL injuries in his 19-year career, and the bike allowed him to regain fitness while not putting pressure on his surgically repaired knees. It also kept his mental health in check during the UK’s first COVID-19 lockdown.

“It was the best sort of drug for me ever — I had to do it every day, whether it would be on the watt bike, or I’d get out on my bike, and I’d go out for an hour, two hours, whatever it would be. My fitness levels went crazy high because I was at home and I was worried I put weight on, but because I’ve been nailing the bike so hard, like I was as fit as I’d ever been like mentally though, I think that’s a big thing for me mentally.”

And you see all this through “The Cycling GK.” While YouTube is offering him an outlet and a post-football business venture, he’s also aware of how brutal social media can be for those finding their feet in the early stages of their careers. “I’ve seen them when we get in at full-time, and the first thing they’re doing is checking what some random bloke in his bedroom has said about him and they take it in as well. Their reaction is not like ‘what a d—head,’ they fully take it in, and it really affects them. It’s a shame, really, because the only people you should really listen to are the coaches, your loved ones, your parents, people that really matter.”

So that’s why he tries not to take himself, or the rollercoaster life as a goalkeeper, too seriously. But he’s also aware of his footballing mortality. He has played 480 professional games to date; his body reminds him of it on Sunday mornings. “I peel myself out of bed.. like everything feels so much stiffer and ‘oh God, I can’t wait for this to not hurt anymore.'”

Foster has two years left on his Watford contract and would dearly love the next, and potentially final, year to be back in the Premier League. Cycling is helping him keep retirement at bay, but he never wants to be a No. 2 goalkeeper. It’s not in his nature. “You never know with football; I don’t think you can ever say never. We’ll just gauge it at that moment in time and see how we feel.”

When the time comes to hang up his gloves, he’ll stay in the game in some capacity (“maybe I’ll do media or commentating or this or that, whatever”), but he is already dreaming up adventures on his bike.

“There’s loads of bucket list things I want to do,” he says. “There’s like things called the Hoate Route or L’Etape du Tour where you do like the seven hardest stages of the Tour de France or the Giro d’Italia or whatever. And you’ll do them each day. But you’re not doing them in a race, it’s just like a big old kind of group of people having a good time. There will be a group who’ll race it, but I’ll be in a group with people that just want to have fun and then you’re in the bar and have another few drinks. You do the same thing the next day. It’s such a good social. Mate, I honestly… I can’t wait to do it.”

Then there are projects closer to home, like the new house he’s building on a 30-acre farm he lives on in Warwickshire. He’s got new neighbours too, belonging to the lady who owns the farm. “She has got like the maddest, maddest animals. She’s got four llamas. She’s got three ostriches, who just had babies which are called rheas. She’s got six or seven ostriches now. She’s got a Dobermans, like a guard dog who’s lovely, brilliant, wicked guard dogs as well.

“There’s two massive lakes literally outside the front door. There’s about a hundred Canadian geese, she’s got friggin’ herons all over the place. There’s carp in the lake — you’re talking like a three, four- or five-pound carp. She’s got two peacocks as well, just for good measure, and they’ve just had babies as well.”

Then there are the guests he’d love to get on his show. “Dream guest wise would be… he’s just won the Giro, Tao Geoghegan Hart. We’re kind of like internet friends. He’s a big football and Arsenal fan.”

And perhaps new goals for his GoPro. “I’d love to put one in Manchester City keeper Ederson‘s goal. I’ve seen him Cruyff turn somebody two yards out from his own goal and I’m thinking ‘you don’t give a s— mate.’ It’s wicked. And that kind of mentality though, is worth its weight in gold. He’s class. From the past, I think also just to hear Peter Schmeichel’s vocals and hear him coming after people, and roasting people like you wouldn’t believe would be amazing.”

And then it’ll be off to find his next obsession. “I am world class at finding a hobby. I think I get it from my dad a little bit because he’s a bit of a collector of things. He’s always collected Star Wars memorabilia; he’s got so much stuff at home, it’s a joke — like some of them real old-school little figurines still in their boxes and all that kind of stuff. I get the kind of collecting gene from him. I just love it. I don’t think it’s a bad way to be, to be fair.”

But for now, it’s about getting Watford back into the Premier League and loving that buzz of the matchday, while doing his best to capture life as a professional footballer — and lover of two wheels — on camera.

“With football you can never ever get too high, never get too carried away,” Foster says. “And then on the other side, you can’t get too down and too low because then you’ll start thinking about it and worrying about it too much.

“When we’re on camera filming away, I just try to show people know that’s how I deal with football. And I’ve found the best way I can deal with it all, is how I am now. This YouTube stuff has opened so many more doors … but people are really watching it! Even like for the cycling videos, I’m getting 100,000 views. This is amazing. It’s working. I love it.”