Steve Foster: ‘Brighton came alive but I wasn’t allowed any alcohol’
Steve Foster has very lucid memories of the last time Brighton & Hove Albion took part in an FA Cup semi-final. Perhaps, by his own admission, a bit too lucid. Foster was the defensive bedrock and iconically headbanded captain of the team who reached the 1983 final, which they came infamously close to winning. His eyes light up as he recalls the fiesta that engulfed the town when his team beat Sheffield Wednesday in a sun-drenched semi-final at Highbury to reach Wembley.
“The town came alive,” he recalls. Foster remembers it more clearly than he might like because he was forbidden to touch any alcohol as a consequence of the tablets he was taking for an infected elbow. “I wasn’t allowed,” he rues. “I had to go home to bed.” The frustrated look on his face suggests that is highly out of character.
The 1982-83 season was eventful, an emotional helter-skelter, as the curse of a relegation battle contrasted with the thrills of a Cup run. Foster had his own ups and downs as the campaign came to a head and he found himself suspended for the FA Cup final. He did everything possible to avoid it. Having picked up a booking in a league defeat at Notts County that took him over the threshold for a two-match ban, including the big day at Wembley, he went hell for leather to pick up a second yellow as the rules dictated a red card for two bookings would have resulted in only a one-match ban and freedom for Wembley. “I tried to get a second booking. I did about 15 fouls,” he admits. At one point he even caught the ball hoping the handball would be punished. All to no avail, though, as the referee took no further action.
The non-playing captain would remain at the heart of it all, inspiring and supporting his mates in the final against Manchester United. Brighton memorably flew by helicopter from their south London hotel to land on a school playing field not far from Wembley before the coach ride towards the twin towers. The stand-in captain, Tony Grealish, sported a headband in tribute to the missing defender.
“The game was too important, though, for me to get upset,” Foster says. “I was on the bench. Don’t think I was allowed to be but I did sit on the bench. Farah trousers, they were so stiff, and the cream jacket as well. We played fantastically. We should have won that game towards the end with Michael Robinson passing the ball to Gordon Smith – first time he’d passed the ball to him in the penalty area ever I think. Gordon still gets ribbed about it but he won’t get any stick from people in Brighton.”
The final would be for ever remembered for the nearly moment, in the last minute of extra time, accompanied by its piercing commentary: “… and Smith must score …” Foster remains friends with Smith and regards it as harsh that he is so strongly associated with a missed opportunity. “I suppose it is a bit unfair on him but I don’t think he’d regret anything – other than not putting it in the net,” he says. “Gordon is a very strong character. He became more well known for the miss than if he had scored. He scored a great goal earlier in the game but nobody remembers that. He was brilliant. Very technical in the way he played. He didn’t drink when he signed for us from Rangers. We changed that.”
With the final having finished 2-2 Brighton returned to Wembley for the replay and Foster got his taste of a Cup final. The moment had passed his team by, though, and they were beaten 4-0. Remarkably, Foster insists he would not have wanted to come back in, to disrupt the team who performed so well in the first game, had there not been an injury to Chris Ramsey. “I would probably have been sub,” he says. “You couldn’t take away what they had done in that 90 minutes and then change it.” Would he really have accepted that as captain? “I wouldn’t have wanted to play. I think we would have agreed I would have not played and I would have been happy with that.”
Foster lives nearby and follows the fortunes of his former club. He returned for a second spell as a player to help during the more difficult times. “I retired at 35 and they asked me to play a couple of games, then a month, then two months and I ended up staying for four years until I was 39. That was when the bad times started with the sale of the Goldstone Ground and so on.”
It has been a hell of a comeback. “Tony Bloom has been great. His money and what he has done for the club has been fantastic. The buzz is back. They are in a fantastic position. They need a few more points to stay up, which I think they will get easily. They have nothing to lose in the semi-final against Man City. It will be a big occasion for them.”
Today’s centre-halves tend to be a different breed, with ball-playing encouraged, but Foster recognises some important qualities in Lewis Dunk and Shane Duffy. “Brighton have got two fantastic centre-halves now and not being rude but they are old-fashioned with their work ethic and how they play. Not everyone is comfortable passing the ball forwards from the flanks. Man City can do it. But just because they do it I can’t see why everyone else has to. You go across the park and watch the under-12s and they are doing it, they make about three passes and then get caught on the edge of their own box.” He does not entirely approve.
These days Foster’s business, in collaboration with the Professional Footballers’ Association, concerns insurance for 5,000 footballers, from personal accident to career ending. At the top end the company insures individuals up to £30m.
In his smart suit, the headband is long gone, but the remnants of his wholehearted playing career are etched on his face. Above his forehead, around the area the towelling used to protect after he had spilt his head open during an aerial clash with Wolves’ Andy Gray, the soft tissue swelling remains. As does his toughened passion for the Albion.
It feels like everyone in town knows him. “Don’t know if that’s a good or a bad thing,” he smiles, ever the cult hero.