Wanyama and Forster take long routes to respectability

Wanyama and Forster take long routes to respectability
The powerfully-built Victor Wanyama (right) was able to challenge Manchester City's Yaya Toure when Southampton faced the EPL champions last week.

Through the eyes of a child, Manchester United, Manchester City, Arsenal and Barcelona are the dream teams as seen on television or at the local cinema.

Football has the power to make dreams come true.

By Monday night, Victor Wanyama and Fraser Forster will have played at least once against all of those teams.

Wanyama's has been the longer journey, from Nairobi where he grew up with posters of Roy Keane and Paul Scholes on his bedroom wall to Southampton, where he has just played successive games against Man City and Arsenal.

And where, tomorrow, he hopes to line up against the club he idolised - Man United.

Foster, though born and bred in Newcastle, has taken the more improbable route to stardom than Wanyama.

The Kenyan is from a sporting family. His father, Noah, played for AFC Leopards in the 1980s. His three brothers all play professional football, one of them, McDonald Mariga for Parma in the Italian league. Their sister, Mercy, plays pro basketball in the United States.

And by the age of 15, Victor Wanyama had made his debut for the full Kenya national XI. A year later, he joined Helsingborgs in Sweden; a year later he moved to the Belgian league with Beerschot FC.

At 1.88m and powerfully built, he could look after himself. Indeed, he was twice banned for physical excess.

Celtic would teach him to use that power in another way. He volleyed a goal, from 25 yards, that shook Barcelona in the Champions League. And the following season, when Celtic repeated their victory against the mighty Barca, Wanyama was again irrepressible in the Celts midfield.

When you score against the Catalans, and you go stride for stride against some of the finest players most of us have ever seen, then you are a real player. Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta were gentlemen enough to shake his hand and tell him that he played well.

The only surprise is that it took Southampton, rather than one of the bigger clubs, to pay £12.5 million (S$25.8 million) - more than 12 times the fee he cost Celtic - to take Wanyama down to the Premier League.

And it was the Saints, who called upon the Glasgow club in August this year to offer £10 million for the goalkeeper whose performances against Barcelona drew headlines in the Spanish media of "Le Gran Muralla" - The Great Wall.

It is incredible to think that Forster, who now stands 2.01 metres, was once told he was too small to be a keeper. He was 13 at the time, and rugby and cricket were his games.

However, the Wallsend Boys Club in Newcastle is one of England's top breeding grounds for talented youth, and someone there persevered with young Forster.

A growth spurt in his 15th year prompted Newcastle United to sign him up to their academy.

The problem for a budding goalkeeper is that there is only one jersey in the team, and managers are loath to trust inexperience there even when the No. 1 gets injured.

So there was Wanyama, in his teens and early twenties, getting first team exposure in Europe. And there was Forster being loaned out to Stockport County, to Bristol Rovers, to Norwich City and eventually to Celtic.

Even in those places, he had to wait for established keepers to pull a muscle or break a finger to get games. He was 22, almost the age that Wanyama is now, before someone saw the real potential in this giant of a goalkeeper.

"He's a big boy," Celtic's manager Neil Lennon said at the time. "His age is the only thing going against him because otherwise he has all the qualities you look for."

All the height and reach, all the hunger to succeed, and as Lionel Messi et al at Barcelona gave him every opportunity to prove, Forster had the agility and the technique to makes saves at ankle height or in the top corner.

That was when it dawned upon Lennon that Celtic weren't going to be able to hold onto their "Great Wall" goalkeeper. Southampton's new coach, Ronald Koeman, was quick to persuade his new club to pay the £10 million fee.

If you tuned in to Arsenal versus Southampton last Wednesday, you will have seen the form and the mood Forster is in. He made save after save, he railed against his defenders for not dealing with the Gunners, and it took an 89th minute strike from Alexis Sanchez to finally beat him.

Next up, at Southampton's St Mary's Stadium tomorrow, Wayne Rooney, Robin van Persie and Co. get to test the Saints. And Forster measures his progress against David de Gea, now established as one of the premier custodians in the Premier League.

There was a time, not long ago, when United (and City) were looking at Forster and wondering if he had what it takes to move from Scottish to English football.

There have been many times when Wanyama has thought about the Red Devils.

"United were my team," he told reporters this weekend. "We used to go to the theatre where you had to pay to watch movies - and extra for United games. Sometimes they would stop a film to show United."

Wanyama is now playing where his heroes played. He has every chance of running into Paul Scholes because Scholes is a TV pundit. He just missed Roy Keane because Keane recently walked out on his role as Aston Villa assistant coach.

But Wanyama has crossed paths with three of his favourites - Yaya Toure, Alex Sanchez and Sergio Aguero all scored against Southampton in the past two weeks.

Now he meets the player he considers to be England's best, Wayne Rooney. "He is strong, powerful and has that anger that drives his team," suggests Wanyama.

His father once chided him that he wasn't a footballer until he had played like Noah Wanyama.

The son is way ahead on that score, and maybe his dad is tuned in from Nairobi watching him live the dream in England.

stsports@sph.com.sg 


This article was first published on Dec 7, 2014.
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