More than three years passed without Fraser Forster keeping goal at St Mary's. This Sunday, he's targeting a triumphant return to Wembley as his Southampton resurrection continues...
Seeing golf balls fly over the fence and into his back garden is a small price to pay for Fraser Forster these days.
The suspect in question is next-door neighbour Oscar Ward-Prowse, son of Southampton skipper James, who, at two years old, already connects as sweetly off the tee as his father does from a 25-yard free-kick.
“It’s either that or footballs,” Forster grins. “I’m always out there playing a bit of football or golf with him. I’m godfather to him as well. He’s just the most amazing kid. He’ll 100 per cent be a footballer or golfer when he’s older – definitely one for the future.”
Thanks in part to the support of Ward-Prowse Snr, the towering Geordie is back doing what he loves at the club that feels like home, having finally ended a three-year sabbatical from the St Mary’s goalmouth.
His only appearance for Southampton in that time came on the road at West Ham, in April 2019 – halfway through his extended absence – in a 3-0 defeat soon expunged from the memory bank.
After more than 1,000 days in which weekends ranged from watching his own team play on TV to starring in cup finals north of the border, Forster returned with a clean sheet as Saints conquered Liverpool in early January.
It was the dawn of a new year that signalled a fresh start for a goalkeeper so talented he’s been capped six times by England and baffled Lionel Messi with his elasticity on Champions League nights at Celtic Park.
Having kept the Premier League champions at bay, Forster followed up with intermittent appearances in the Emirates FA Cup, as the clean sheets kept rolling in.
Proving impenetrable against Shrewsbury, Arsenal and Wolves, he kept his place for the league visit to Everton at the start of March, and has not missed a game since, racking up six shutouts in 10 outings in all competitions.
“I’ve had to wait a while but I’m loving it. It’s great to be back playing here. I love the club a lot. It’s fantastic to be back in the team – it will be even better when the fans are back,” he adds.
“There have been a lot of tough days along the road where it was hard to see light at the end of the tunnel.
“You keep training hard and working hard and hope things come together. You have to stay positive. Now I’ve got the opportunity, I want to take it the best I can.”
Forster admits he thought his Southampton career was over, only for a return to Glasgow to relight the fire inside him that was close to extinguished.
“Not through my choice,” he points out, confirming his desire to prove himself all over again at his parent club never waned. “But it’s tough at times when you’re not making a matchday squad.
“The hardest thing is when you’re not playing. You come into training but you’re not preparing for a game.
“But I believed in my ability. When the opportunity came for me to go to Celtic and play, that was perfect for me.
“To go and play 50, 60 games was fantastic. It was easy for me to go back there as it’s another club I have a fantastic relationship with.
“A lot of the staff were the same as my first time there, so it was like I’d never left. It was a great year, I had some great games.
“I got some game time and felt I just reminded people what I can do. I had a fantastic year there, won trophies and did well in Europe.
“I made the decision in the summer that I wanted to come back here and fight for my place. I’ve had to bide my time and the FA Cup has been crucial to that, but I got my head down and worked hard.”
It seems fitting that only Forster and Ward-Prowse have played every minute of Saints’ cup run, which now stands at four wins and four clean sheets, after Bournemouth were brushed aside in ruthless fashion to set up Sunday’s semi-final with Leicester.
Even 425 miles from home, the captain never left his side.
“I can’t speak highly enough of him,” Forster beams. “We were kind of inseparable before I left, and he was the person I definitely missed the most when I was at Celtic.
“We FaceTimed pretty much every day. To come back and be reunited with him is very special. I’m absolutely buzzing with how it’s going for him.
“He’s a fantastic captain and the way he’s playing… he’s just kicked on over the last couple of years. He’s a fantastic player and person.
“When you reach the point of the FA Cup semi-final you obviously want to try and make the next step. It will be a very tough game but one we believe we can win.
“The four clean sheets are a bonus, but for me it was just good to get some game time and get on the pitch in front of the manager so I could show him what I can do.”
Returning to Wembley leaves the 33-year-old with a score to settle.
Having played in the 2017 EFL Cup final, which still leaves a lingering sense of regret, Forster shipped five goals against Tottenham under the arch on Boxing Day that year, and found himself watching from the bench by the time Saints were beaten by Chelsea in their most recent FA Cup semi-final, in 2018.
“It was a day of real frustration,” he says of the 2017 final, against Manchester United. “We felt so close. There were just a couple of moments where things didn’t go our way.
“We felt afterwards that we couldn’t have done much more. If we played that game three more times, we’d win two of them.
“For me, it’s added motivation to go and get a good result and ultimately win on Sunday. If we could do that and go on and win a trophy, it would mean the world to everyone at the club, the city and the fans.”
Forster has happier memories of his last appearance in a final – the 2019 Scottish League Cup showdown with Rangers – a 1-0 win in which he produced a man-of-the-match display as Celtic defied the match stats to lift the trophy with 10 men, helped by a penalty save from their on-loan Saints stopper.
“Given the nature of the game, it was one of my best performances,” Forster recalls, fondly. “It was a very good day, one that I really enjoyed.
“When you’re at Celtic you’re fortunate to play in huge games like that. But to get man of the match, save a pen and win 1-0, it couldn’t have gone any better.
“It’s up there as one of the best games I had there. The fact it was a cup final added to the occasion.”
It was just one of many moments that have helped resurrect his Saints career, ensuring Forster is back where he belongs – just in time for the opportunity to be part of something that could leave behind an eternal legacy for Saints’ class of 2021.
“It would mean the world,” he says, allowing himself to dream. “When you look at how long it’s been since this club last won a trophy… it’s something very few players get to do in England.
“I’ve learned a lot from the last few years. I’ve come a long way since the bad times. We’re getting there. It would be nice to have a strong finish between now and the end of the season.”
With holidays abroad still on hold, if Saints do lift the trophy Forster may be forced to celebrate his highest high with another round of garden golf. Not that he’ll be complaining.