Bringing in the Bells rounded up assorted comedians, weathermen and a wrestler-cum-polis impersonator to reflect on the old year fast disappearing down the plughole. Straight away Macdonald declared herself content with 2021, especially when compared with its Covid-ravaged predecessor. Sat on a sofa alongside Partick Thistle’s veteran full-back, she said: “I managed to do a few nice things because I didn’t have to be with him every day.”
“Oh I see,” countered Foster, petted lip to the fore. “I was just about to say that I loved lockdown for the reason we were always together.”
One of those “nice things” for Macdonald, the 12 million-selling songstress, was being able to strap on a guitar and perform at festivals again, including Glasgow’s TRNSMT back in September. “A special gig when everything comes together is just magical,” she said, which prompted another hurt expression from Foster. “That must be great,” he sighed. “I’ve never had a game which went like that.” “Come on,” offered his better half, “I’ve watched a couple when you were good. Mind you, loads when you weren’t!”
His detractors would have relished that but Foster was adept at sending himself up on Bringing in the Bells and there’s more of the same when we talk on Zoom, just before he heads out to training. He repeats a line used before, that he’s one of those players who supporters – sometimes even his own fans – love to barrack and bait: “Amy always says I’ve achieved a remarkable thing: uniting Scottish football in its hatred of me!” He defers to Macdonald often, insisting he’s terrified of her, and pointing out that from having been the choir-mistress leading the Tartan Army in “Flower of Scotland”, she knows Hampden much better than him, the possessor of just three Under-21 caps.
But Elgin-born Foster – 600 games and counting with Aberdeen, Rangers (twice), Ross County (twice), St Johnstone and currently Thistle – is still getting a kick at the ball. A League One champion with the Jags last season, he’d love to help them to consecutive promotions. Going into today’s match at Hamilton Accies, they have two games in hand on table-toppers Arbroath, and victories in both would tuck them just a point behind.
Like every footballer who knows that sometime soon a shrill whistle from the referee will be his very last, Foz is trying to savour every game. Thistle manager Ian McCall tries to protect his venerable defender, knowing all that experience could be invaluable in the run-in, and the player gets a teacher’s note allowing him to skip part of training. “As the ex-pros always say, play for as long as you can, so that’s what I’m trying to do. I’m able to get around the pitch okay and don’t seem to have lost too much of my pace. When I was younger, like most footballers I suppose, I thought I was bulletproof. No one could teach me anything. Recently though I’ve been using Amy’s personal trainer and I feel physically stronger. I’m probably in the best shape of my career which given I’m now 36 is a little bit disappointing!”
What will he do next? Currently coaching Thistle’s Under-18s he’s wondering about trying management, though recent abrupt departures from the scene such as Hibernian’s sacking of Jack Ross make him wary. “That was mind-boggling. No bad spell and then one happens, though in the midst of it Hibs perform brilliantly to reach a cup final. Do managers now have to be doing well all of the time?”
Or there’s punditry. When he’s not being the butt of Macdonald’s jokes Foster is embellishing his telly persona with thoughtful analysis on BBC Scotland’s Sportscene. You could say his specs lend him a studious, almost cerebral air but then perhaps you’re making a comparison with Kris Boyd on Sky - legs wide apart like some heavy-metal hollerer in a rock video’s wind-tunnel, teeth glinting impossibly white.
“I really enjoy punditry,” Foster says. “I’m not a big note-taker during games and try to give my opinion as I see the play at the time, fairly and without any side. I’ve played for a number of clubs and sometimes you get tagged: ‘Oh, he must support such-and-such … he must be one of them.” So, come on then, who does he support? “Right now, Partick Thistle.”
But Foster is a bit of a contradiction. There he is being clever and considered in a TV studio. There he is at home, bound to be an artistically creative environment. And there he is, Richard Foster, newly graduated from the Open University, six years of conscientious study behind him.
But who was that, Thistle vs Arbroath the other Saturday, girny and grumpy at the end of the match and ready to storm off the pitch? The very same Foz.
“I know, I know,” he groans. “We’d just been beaten 2-0, [Joel] Nouble and their left-back [Colin Hamilton] wanted to shake hands and I just ignored them. ‘Don’t be like that,’ they said, and I took two steps and went: ‘No, they’ve beaten you fair and square, they’re your peers, you’re 36 years old for goodness sake – don’t be ridiculous.’ So I went round all of the Arbroath team shaking everyone’s hand.”
Foster has played Champions League with Rangers, a gobsmacking introduction to life in light blue in 2010 having moved on loan from Aberdeen. “One week I was losing to Cove Rangers in the Aberdeenshire Cup, the next I was at Old Trafford.” He’s won the League Cup, the 2016 success with Ross County. But we spend most of today talking about the daft, sometimes dark and invariably downright embarrassing moments in his career when he couldn’t control his temper.
He’s happy to do this because Foster has worked hard attempting to get the better of those demons. That’s really what the degree was about. He chose psychology in the hope it might enable him to self-medicate and learn how to avoid spontaneous combustion on the football field. And it’s working. A few years ago, he says, he would have been straight down the Firhill tunnel and stomping all the way along Maryhill Road.
Fair play to him. Not many people – and certainly not many footballers – would have put themselves through six years of online course work to emerge this satisfied with a belated demonstration of basic sportsmanship in a match against the Red Lichties. But then not many people are Richard Foster, a man with his “previous”.
There was the bust-up with Tommy Wright when the latter was his manager at St Johnstone. There was the bust-up with Danny Swanson – an onfield square-go, this, with a Saintees team-mate. These and other incidents would have been uppermost in Foster’s thoughts as he became engrossed in how the mind works, or doesn’t in some cases, how switches are suddenly and dramatically flicked and what goes on inside the heads of psychopaths – although he stresses this is not a term he’d use to describe either Wright or Swanson, two characters of similar temperament to him and with whom he was quick to kiss and make up afterwards.
Maybe before Foster embarked on the degree the sofa at home had become something of a psychologist’s couch. “How to understand folk – I discussed this with Amy all the time. She would always say to me: ‘Just take a breath.’ There’s a lot of advice out there but I don’t think those offering it have ever really properly been angry. They’ve never had the red mist descend because when it does you just can’t think coherently. For instance, there was no little voice telling me: ‘Richard, don’t think about kicking that door. A two-match ban will almost certainly result.’”
That was the game, also for St Johnstone, when two contentious refereeing decisions turned a potential 2-2 draw against Dundee into a 3-1 defeat, our man being adjudged to have fouled for the decisive penalty right after his team were disallowed a goal. “I was raging and marched straight to the referee’s room. The door wasn’t flattened but it was definitely hanging off one of its hinges.
“Ridiculous,” he repeats. “I’ve got a son. What was I going to tell him? That clarity only dawns later, and it was the same after the fight with Danny. How was I going to explain that to Amy?
“She’s the one person I think who can control me. All those situations, if Amy had been in the stand then I probably wouldn’t have got myself into the trouble I did. I’m not afraid of anyone in this world apart from her. The look she can give me, the way she can cut me down with her words – scary. Often what she says is: ‘Foz, don’t be a d**k.’ And I’ll go: ‘Aye, you’re right.’”
Was he always so hot-headed? He thinks yes, remembering a schools football tournament in Duffus, Moray. Defeat enraged the 12-year-old to the extent he refused to get on the bus back to Elgin. “I tried to walk the six miles home, right down the main road.”
That young professional at Pittodrie who thought he knew it all? “An obnoxious wee s***e,” confirms Foster. There were fall-outs, too, with manager Jimmy Calderwood and then Foz executed an act of the most extreme obnoxiousness in the eyes of Dons fans by swanning off to Ibrox. After returning from the loan new boss Craig Brown appointed him captain, but the diehards never forgave him, and haven’t yet.
“I’ve been booed by Aberdeen fans for the full 90 minutes and in a funny, perverse sort of way I can admire that level of dedication. Once, playing for St Johnstone, when they saw that a long pass was meant for me, they started booing midway through its flight. They obviously couldn’t wait for the ball to reach me. That was on Sportscene and it really made me laugh.
“Then there was the time when the ball went out for a throw-in and this guy was obviously going to try and hit me with it. I was thinking: ‘Go on, mate, but I’m a professional footballer so I’m bound to catch it.’ He tried to put a hand on the little wall round the pitch to gain extra leverage but found a gate. At Pittodrie they open outwards which caused him to stumble onto his knees, then his belly and after that all he could do was hand me the ball. That was another comical moment.”
Treacherous. Cocky. Combative. Underwhelming (this at Rangers, though he was hardly alone in that during the club’s lower-league languishing). Here’s how Foster has been variously viewed down the years, and doubtless the glamorous pop-star wife and the time when he hit the bottle – peroxide, that is – have provided even more ammo for the supporters who bring weird if not warped logic to their appreciation of our national game, providing them with all the reason they need for those jeers.
But he takes them in his stride and, after so long, you have to admire his pluck. “Whatever they say about me, if it wasn’t for football fans I wouldn’t have this job,” he smiles. Who knows, he might one day make them the subject of a psychological exploration.