It was the most famous headwear in football. The sight of Steve Foster sporting a white headband was one of the enduring images of the game in the early 1980s. This week, he revealed the real story behind it and how he deliberately tried to earn a red card in a bid to play in the FA Cup final.
Only once have Premier League newcomers Brighton previously played at this level. In 1979, manager Alan Mullery led them to promotion to the old First Division. That summer, he strengthened the team with the £130,000 signing of Foster, a young centre back from Portsmouth.
“It was probably the best football I played, week in week out,” Foster told Sky Sports. “Playing all the big clubs like Arsenal, Man Utd and Liverpool. You just love that experience.
“Team spirit – that was very big in those days, especially for Brighton. We had really good players like Mark Lawrenson, Jimmy Case and Michael Robinson. There was a great rapport with the fans and the manager, Alan Mullery, was brilliant. Having good people around you – that’s what helps.”
Foster was playing with a point to prove. As a 16-year-old schoolboy striker he’d been released by Southampton.
“We were all called into the home changing room, one by one we had to go in and be told `yes’ or `no’,” he recalls. “I was told by the manager Lawrie McMenemy to walk out of the door, get my head up and prove him wrong.”
Brighton vs So’ton
October 29, 2017, 12:30pm
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As Brighton sought to establish themselves in the top division, Foster earned a reputation as one of the game’s most impressive young players and – thanks to the headband that he’d begun to wear in every game – one of the most instantly recognisable. He says a clash of heads with the former Wolves striker Andy Gray was initially to blame.
“We used to do a corner routine with Michael Robinson,” he explains. “He would block off the man who was marking me and I’d come into the penalty area and should have been free.
“We were playing Wolves. Andy Gray wasn’t blocked because Michael Robinson forgot and he split open my head. I had around ten stitches for that one.”
To stop the wound re-opening every time he played, Foster would apply a protective pad to his forehead.
“To actually keep a pad on I had to use tape,” he says. “It wasn’t a headband to start with – just tape. I ended up having to do that for every game.”
“It was just a piece of towelling that was folded over and stitched with Velcro at the back. Sharon, the wife of the physio Mike Yaxley, used to make them for me.”
In 1982, Foster’s form earned him an international call-up. He is the only Brighton player to have played for England at a World Cup. When he made his senior debut against Northern Ireland, one particular message of congratulations was especially welcome.
“It was unexpected from Lawrie McMenemy,” he says. “You get the usual ones from family and friends but I got a telegram from Lawrie to say ‘well done – you proved me wrong’. That was a great gesture.”
Brighton battled hard to stay in the First Division but, in 1983, they had to concede defeat. Remarkably, they also reached the FA Cup final that season. But their captain faced being ruled out by a two-match suspension when he collected a booking in a league game at Notts County.
“I knew what I had to do – I had to get booked again and be sent off,” he says. “I think I committed twelve fouls in the second half. At one point I caught the ball! The referee just refused to send me off.”
At Wembley, Foster was a frustrated spectator as his team-mate Tony Grealish – sporting a white headband in support of the captain – led out the team to face Manchester United.
Against the odds, Brighton would have won the FA Cup had Gordon Smith converted a last-minute chance. But a 2-2 draw meant a replay and Foster returned to lead out the team five days later. This time they lost 4-0.
“We actually played quite well in the first 20 minutes,” he recalls. “But you only have one chance to beat Manchester Utd. We had that in the first game. I remember 80,000 people singing `what a difference you have made’ to me. I think my mum started that!”
Watch a preview of Sunday's Premier League fixtures as Brighton host Southampton and Everton travel to Leicester City
Foster’s moment of Wembley glory would come five years later when he captained Luton to a League Cup triumph against Arsenal. At the age of 34, after a career which had also included spells at Aston Villa and Oxford United, he returned to the Goldstone Ground – and played on for four more years.
By the time he retired in 1996 the club was facing an uncertain future. Evicted by the controversial sale of their ground they were forced into exile, first to Gillingham and then to Brighton’s athletics stadium at Withdean. It would be a quarter of a century before they could claim a home of their own again.
Now, thanks to the backing of chairman Tony Bloom, the construction of the Amex Stadium and the arrival of Premier League football, Foster feels the good times have returned to his former club.
“It’s fantastic for the town,” he says. “Look at the gates they’re having now and they could probably have another 10,000 fans coming to games.
“Tony Bloom and his family – his grandfather was involved with the club when I was there the first time – what they’ve done to change everything, from the Withdean Stadium to where they are now, is brilliant. It’s what the fans deserve.”
Watch Brighton v Southampton live on Sky Sports Premier League from 12.30pm on Sunday.