Sacrificing Portsmouth title glory and Paul Cook relationship for England honours was tough, but I have no regrets - Ian Foster
Departing for St George’s Park in February 2017, the first-team coach left the south coast with a heavy heart.
It ended a 20-month Fratton Park association established after arriving with Paul Cook and Leam Richardson armed with a remit to finally initiate the club’s rebirth.
That Sunday in May 2017, the newly-captured League Two trophy was memorably paraded in Southsea.
On the same afternoon, Foster was fulfilling responsibilities at the Under-17 European Championships, with England defeating Ukraine 4-0 in the group stages, their scorers including Jadon Sancho and Rhian Brewster.
Last week marked four years of Football Association employment, with Foster these days elevated to the role of the Three Lions’ under-19 head coach.
Along the way, he’s worked on the training pitch with Phil Foden, Callum Hudson-Odoi, Emile Smith Rowe and, of course Sancho and Brewster.
Cook may not have spoken to Foster since – but there is no cause for regret.
‘Leaving Pompey was probably the most difficult decision I’ve made in football,’ Foster told The News.
‘But, from a personal and professional level, you can’t afford to have any regrets. You’ve just got to back yourself and back your decisions.
‘It was as much a family decision as it was a football decision. My family lived in the midlands, not a million miles away from St George’s Park, while I was staying in Pompey on my own.
‘I had spent almost two years away from my wife and son, but loved it at Pompey. What a fabulous bunch of players, I loved coming into a smashing training facility every day, it was such a great environment at a club definitely on the up.
‘Leaving for England was something I had to think long and hard about. The outcome was heavily based on my family, as well as the professional aspect of it.
‘Initially, I think Paul Cook understood because of the job I’d been offered. Although I don’t suppose it’s ever easy for a manager when a member of his staff wants to leave the club.
‘Yet it didn’t go down well with him, we had a lot of discussions about it. It didn’t particularly sit well with him in the end, but I had to make the right decision for myself and my family.
‘The FA were brilliant. They said I could either come in immediately or they’d wait for me until the end of the season. It was entirely up to me. My plan was to see out the campaign.
‘Then Paul and myself had honest and open conversations – and we decided it was best to leave at that time (February).
‘It was tough to go at that moment, I felt that I’d played a huge part in taking the club up to League One.
‘Myself and Paul haven’t kept in touch, which is unfortunate, but obviously, being in the international setup, we don’t cross paths.
‘Had we moved from one club to another we probably would have crossed paths in technical areas at some stage. However, I haven’t seen Paul since I left Pompey.
‘Paul and I became particularly close when we worked in Ireland, it was evident then that he was going to become a successful manager and he’s gone on to prove that.
‘It’s a strange one. If I had stayed, I would have missed out on an Under-17 European Championships and winning the Under-17s World Cup. You can’t have any regrets.
‘Leaving earlier was a decision the football club came to. We shook hands, wished each other well – and it worked out for both parties.’
Foster entered St George’s Park as the under-17s’ national specialist coach.
There he worked with Steve Cooper, who would later become Swansea manager, a side he has presently positioned third in the Championship.
Within three months of his England arrival, Foster would be involved with an England under-17s side which lost on penalties to Spain in the final of the European Championships.
Then, in October 2017, a team containing Phil Foden, Jadon Sancho, Callum Hudson-Odoi, Rhian Brewster, Morgan Gibbs-White, Marc Guehi, Angel Gomes, Jonathan Panzo and Emile Smith Rowe claimed the World Cup.
This time Spain were defeated 5-2 in the final, with Manchester City’s Foden netting twice on the way to being presented with the Indian-based tournament’s Golden Ball accolade.
Foster added: ‘England immediately gave me the chance to work with the under-17s – a group of multi-talented footballers hungry for success. And it was a pleasure.
‘Phil (Foden) was part of a wonderful group and, I am sure he’ll be the first to admit, that bunch of players helped him become the England player he is.
‘You get some players like Phil who almost have a meteoric rise, they skip age groups because of their ability. Others need more time on the pathway.
‘My job is to give those players experiences of going deep into tournaments, of playing on the subcontinent, playing in heat and humidity. So when they do go into a tournament with the senior team, it’s not alien to them.
‘Phil has won a World Cup in India and played in the European Championships final in Croatia. He and others have had wonderful experiences throughout the pathway.
‘So when they are asked to play a World Cup in Qatar, they’ve already played in that type of environment. It’s not brand new to them.
‘There’s a lot of talent emerging, but the one thing they are getting at the moment is opportunity, both for England and their clubs.’
Back in May 2015, Foster had been without work for almost a year before following Cook to Fratton Park.
However, having coached at Galway United, Dundalk and then Coventry, the former Kidderminster Harriers player had established impressive credentials.
After Andy Awford’s departure as Pompey boss towards the end of the 2014-15 campaign, a club under fan ownership sought an experienced manager.
They turned to Cook, who had taken Chesterfield to the League One play-offs the previous season.
In turn, trusted long-time assistant Richardson and the 38-year-old Foster were also on board – and challenged with overhauling a squad which had finished 16th in League Two.
Foster added: ‘I remember coming to watch Pompey’s final game of the 2014-15 season at home to York.
‘The one thing that struck me was it was the dead rubbers of dead rubbers, 16th against 19th in League Two, and absolutely nothing to play for. Yet it was a full house at Fratton Park.
‘At that match, not once did I feel the supporters got on the backs of the players. It was a really, really healthy atmosphere and environment for the players to thrive in during a difficult time on the back of everything that had gone on before.
‘It was clearly evident this was a football club which could be moved forward. If you looked at the glass half full, it had the potential to go on to become what it once was.
‘It might sound strange, you would assume that you would have your pick of any player at Pompey, but one of the most difficult things was signing good players. They didn’t want to play at the level.
‘You would have your conversations with players and they’d say “I’m desperate to come to Pompey, but not in League Two”.
‘I respect that from the players. They only have one career and want to play as high as they possibly can. If you come in and it doesn’t quite work, all of a sudden you could be languishing in League Two.
‘Credit to the boys who came to us, they should not have been playing at that level. Kyle Bennett, Gary Roberts, Enda Stevens and others were better than that at the time and could easily have played the league above.
‘But they were sold a dream and were desperate to be part of it.
‘It was a really exciting time because you had carte blanche to get who you wanted, but it wasn’t quite as easy as it, it was quite challenging.
‘We wanted to have that blend of youth and experience – and credit to the Academy at the time, there were some really good footballers coming through.
‘With Adam Webster, it was clearly evident he had the potential and was a really exciting prospect.
‘He could play off either foot and was brave. By calling him brave, he wouldn't particularly head it, but he’d take it off his goalkeeper and play under pressure.
‘Conor Chaplin was a teenager scoring goals in League Two, which is a rarity at any level for someone that age to get that amount of goals – but they were also important goals for the club.
‘Ben Close is such a wonderful technician, while Jack Whatmough was injured when we came following a serious injury, but would play twice at the season’s end.
‘Still, in terms of senior players, when you identify a philosophy you want to play, it’s important you get the right profile of the players.
‘Take our full-backs in the first season – Enda and Ben Davies – who gave us a wonderful opportunity to play the way we wanted.’
Following League Two play-off semi-final elimination at the hands of Plymouth in May 2016, Cook bolstered his squad for a second shot at promotion.
That summer, David Forde, Carl Baker, Drew Talbot, Danny Rose, Milan Lalkovic, Tom Davies and Amine Linganzi were recruited, while there were the permanent arrivals of loanees Matt Clarke and Michael Smith.
By mid-February 2017, the Blues were fifth in League Two – 12 points adrift of leaders Doncaster with a game in hand.
Already under escalating pressure from supporters, Cook then learnt of Foster’s desire to join the England setup.
The coach’s final match was a 2-0 Fratton Park victory over Blackpool, with Gareth Evans and Eoin Doyle netting in that Valentine’s Day triumph.
That he bid farewell to Pompey – and his fuming manager.
Now aged 44, Foster added: ‘With Pompey, I never thought it would ever be the case that the League Two title would lead to winning League One, going into the Championship and, within a year, being back in the Premier League.
‘Football’s not like that. With Pompey, it’s almost a beautiful story coming back from all those trials and tribulations, but it takes time.
‘The journey still continues, it’s clearly a football club still going in the right direction and remains one of the first results I look for on a Saturday.
‘I had such fond times at Fratton Park, it was a really special period for me, not only personally but professionally.
‘But the chance to work with England doesn’t come along often.’
A message from the Editor, Mark Waldron
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