“We don’t talk about that,” says Ben Hamer when he recalls making his Champions League debut for Leicester back in 2016.
It’s was early December. The Foxes, fresh from their stunning Premier League triumph the season before, had already secured top spot in Group G and Claudio Ranieri opted to shake up his team selection at Estadio do Dragao, making 10 changes from the side that had been beaten 2-1 by Sunderland just four days earlier.
The opponents? A Porto squad featuring the likes of Iker Casillas, Andre Silva and future Wolves trio Willy Boly, Ruben Neves and Diogo Jota. Needless to say, the evening didn’t go quite to plan.Embed from Getty Images
“After winning the league – even though that was amazing and extraordinary – then comes the Champions League,” he reveals to BEES. ”I think the boys were more buzzing for that than winning the league! Kasper Schmeichel was out injured and Ron-Robert Zieler was playing at the time, but the goalie coach came up to me the day before we were leaving and he said: “Hames, you’re starting at Porto on Tuesday night.”
“I remember not being nervous in the slightest because I was more excited about it, going out warming up and thinking: “Yeah, this is a bit of me.” At the time, I hadn’t played a game for Leicester, competitively, for over a year.
“Anyway, we had a good warm-up, I had a good feeling, we walked out to the iconic Champions League tune, which was something I never thought I’d do, but within 20 minutes, we were 3-0 down. We ended up getting spanked five-zip in the end and Claudio was fuming after the game, saying he’d given us a chance and we’d all ruined it. Within the joy of making my Champions League debut and that, it was a bit of a bittersweet moment, to be fair. It’s something I won’t forget, but something that I won’t bring up.”
Regardless of Ben’s personal hauntings of the night, it was a night in which his career reached a pinnacle few can match, particularly given the fact, just 10 years prior to his European debut, he was playing in the Conference with Crawley.Embed from Getty Images
Named as the Reds’ Player of the Season in 2006/07, having spent the season on loan in West Sussex from Reading, he was soon searching for bigger fish to fry as he looked to impress sufficiently to work his way into Steve Coppell’s thinking; to jostle with the likes of Marcus Hahnemann and Adam Federici for the number one shirt at the Madejski Stadium.
An opportunity soon arose in with a little west London side in League Two, setting in motion a relationship that would linger, intermittently, for more than three years.
“It got to a day before the 2007/08 season started and Brentford had just signed Simon Brown, but he’d got injured in a pre-season game,” Ben recounts, while preparing a Monday evening meal of Italian Sausage Risotto.
“Sal Bibbo – the goalkeeping coach at Reading at the time – spoke to Scotty and said to take me for a month while Browny was injured – I think Scotty had seen me the year before. I got a call from Sal saying that Brentford needed a keeper, did I fancy it? I said “Yes, 100 percent”.
“I went down there, walked through the door first thing in the morning on the Friday before the game and the first person I saw when I got there was Terry Butcher. I went to say hello to him, but he didn’t really acknowledge me, so I was thinking, “Does he know he’s signed me, or what?” We both said hello and then he’s gone: “Who are you?” and I said: “I’m your new ‘keeper, you’ve just signed me.” So he goes: “Oh right, I’ve seen more fat on a butcher’s pencil!”Embed from Getty Images
“The next day I played against Mansfield and we drew 1-1. I had a good start and then made a few mistakes, as you tend to do when you are young. Browny returned to fitness, got back into the team and I went back to Reading in October/November time. I think he got injured again, so they signed me back in January.”
Having signed on loan for the 2008/09 season, after Terry Butcher had been replaced by Andy Scott on a permanent basis, Ben missed just one league game all season, claiming the Golden Glove award for a quite staggering haul of 20 clean sheets from 46 league games. When you couple that with the League Two win, it’s certainly a time in his career he can talk about to great length.
“To be fair, on the first day of pre-season we came in and did running,” he continues. “I remember this vividly, actually. Marcus Bean had just signed and I was in and running around at the same time as him, doing the fitness stuff at the start. Andy brought all of the players together in the middle of the pitch and he said there’s only one target this year and that’s to get promotion.
“He knew with what he was getting in, that he had a chance and that was pretty much what he was preaching to us from day one of pre-season – that was in the forefront of everyone’s mind. We beat Grimsby 4-0 in our first home game of the season and that’s when we thought: “Yeah, we’re alright here.”Embed from Getty Images
“We had a good back-four, to be fair, with at least two players for each position, but most games, from what I can remember, I had maybe only one, two or three shots to save because they were so good.
“It’s easy when you’ve got a good English core, but I think you find that the higher you go in football, that seems to disappear. We are all similar beasts, really; we all like a social, we all like a drink. When you are all like that, you all go out together, do stuff together, go out for food and I think that brings a natural togetherness.
“We’d share stories the next day, we all had a laugh and a joke and naturally, you start to care about each other. In teams, I think that is a big factor in breeding success, especially at that level. Therefore, when you go out onto the pitch, you are all fighting for each other. It’s credit to Andy’s recruitment because he brought in the right characters. Every week we went out onto the pitch, we knew what job we had to do. It wasn’t always pretty football, but it was always effective – we scored goals and we didn’t concede many. We had scrappers in there as well, which always helps.
“I remember going up to Darlington and seeing that it was a big stadium, but we went out to play and it was empty. Fortunately we had quite a few Brentford fans there, we won 3-1 up there and I just remember celebrating after the game with all the fans behind the goal. We all went onto the bus after that and it was the best bus journey home ever! Singing, dancing, everyone was steaming. Then we got back to Brentford thinking we’d all just go back in our cars, but we turned up to the ground and there were people everywhere, you couldn’t walk down the street on Braemar Road.Embed from Getty Images
“But the Luton game was a bit of anti-climax. Some players go through their whole careers without winning a trophy, so to have won one with Brentford and one with Charlton so early on in my career, I was buzzing with that at the time, but afterwards, you want to go and party. I remember just going down to the pub, seeing my family and then we just drove back to Somerset. I was thinking: “I’m in a car here for two hours – I should be out celebrating.”
Ahead of the 2009/10 season, Ben was offered a fresh two-year deal with the Royals, which he duly accepted. Yet after a season of success with the Bees, he made just three first team appearances as Federici’s understudy, all of which came in cup competitions. It wasn’t long before he was making his way back down the M4.
Meanwhile, at Griffin Park there was something of a goalkeeping crisis unfolding. Having been blessed with the presence of Arsenal starlet Wojciech Szczesny for much of the 2009/10 campaign, ex-Watford ‘keeper Richard Lee was brought in over the summer as a permanent replacement. But after a clear lack of confidence led to some questionable pre-season performances, Andy Scott was left in a quandary. Should he thrust rookie stopper Simon Moore into first team action or call on the services of a trusted former employee?
In the end, Andy plumped for Ben, but though it plugged a gap in the short-term, in retrospect, it was a move he feels he shouldn’t have revisited, partly due to the relationship destruction it, ultimately, accelerated.Embed from Getty Images
“Andy obviously knew he could trust me, having done a good job for him in the past. I played about 10 games and then, for the 10th or 11th game, I was on the way to the match when, on the M4, I got stuck in traffic. And that’s when our relationship broke down. I told him what the story was, that I was going to be there and I was going as fast as I could, but it took me about 2.5 hours to do a half-hour journey because there was a crash on the motorway.
“I got there about five minutes before the warm-up and he pulled me into the office and said: “You’re not playing.” I then had an argument with him and I said: “I’m here, I didn’t mean to be late.” Rich played and, to be fair, done well. I think I sat on the bench for about three or four games and then I was getting frustrated because I’d come down there to play.
“At the time, though, you are a bit fierier and you don’t see the bigger picture and you think the world is against you and you think you can say how you feel and whatnot. I was probably a bit naïve back then and should’ve just accepted it, but he had a decision to make, he made it and I should’ve respected it.
“I was due to go back after the Southampton game, so on the way back, he stopped off at the services and though he knew I was going back, we didn’t even say goodbye or shake each other’s hands. That was a bit of a sore ending, to be fair, because he’d given me such a good chance from an early age and I wasn’t as appreciative at the time because he’d dropped me and I didn’t think it was right. I took it the wrong way and would handle it a lot better now than what I did at the time.Embed from Getty Images
“That was a shame, but then I bumped into him about two years later when I was with Charlton and we went down to Tottenham to train one day. Powelly [Chris Powell] took us down there to train, check out their training ground because they’d just moved into the new one in Enfield. Anyway, we finished training and were watching the reserve game and I’ve seen Scotty on the other side of the pitch. We locked eyes and I thought I’d have to go and speak to him. I went over to him and we cleared the air basically. We had a good chat and I said my piece and how I didn’t think he’d handled it right, and he said his piece where he didn’t think I handled it right and we had a nice, honest discussion for about half an hour and we were sound after that.
“Looking back at it now, I shouldn’t have gone back because I kind of ruined the experience. I’d enjoyed two decent years there and shouldn’t have gone back, but I think that was more because I loved playing there.”
Ben reveals there was never talk of a permanent move to TW8 across any of his fourth loan spells as a player, in which he made 80 first team appearances in all competitions. His sights were always set on reaching the top flight and reaching it as early in his career as he could.
And he owes a debt of gratitude to former boss Powell for helping him to achieve that goal, following a hugely successful subsequent three seasons playing in the south of the capital for Charlton, during which the Addicks were promoted to the Championship during his first term at The Valley.Embed from Getty Images
“I think, by chance, I’d always played well against Leicester in the four times we’d played them over two seasons. I remember after playing Leicester away, they beat us, but there was only about a month to go of the season and I think Powelly was ready to leave because there was something going on with the owner at Charlton.
“There were loads of players that weren’t good enough to play for the club, but he was trying to get Powelly to play them and things like that. I think Powelly knew after that that he was going so he then spoke to Leicester, told them I was available on a free and said they should take me. As soon as the season finished, I went and had a medical at Leicester and then signed there for four years.
“I thought I took the right path, really, and as far as planning it goes, I thought I executed it quite well and I managed to get there in the end.”
Unfortunately for Ben, top-flight appearances were few and far between at the King Power Stadium, with Kasper Schmeichel essentially the default choice ever since the start of the 2011/12 season. As a further kick in the teeth, he didn’t make a single appearance during the Premier League winning season, meaning he missed out on a league winners medal as a result.Embed from Getty Images
“To be fair to him, he’s an excellent goalkeeper so I’ve got absolutely no qualms with that. I went there probably a bit naïve in the sense that I thought, if he got injured and I got a chance, I could stay in the team. That was my confidence; to be fair, I had a bit of an arrogance about me when I was younger. I was pretty cock-sure that if I got in the team, that I’d stay in the team and I was quick to find out that wouldn’t be the case.
“I remember he got injured, I went in goal against Stoke and we won 1-0 away in the first win of the season for us in our first time back in the Premier League. I remember being buzzing about it, thinking I’d be playing the next week against Man United. Then on the Friday, Nigel Pearson brought me back down to Earth saying that Kasper was back in the team after I’d kept a clean sheet and done alright.
“That was tough and it knocked my confidence because, believing in myself the way I did, I thought I’d get in the team and stay there. As soon as he was back fit, he was back in the team and I kind of knew from that moment on that, no matter what the case was, he would always play in front of me. Then when you don’t play for as long as I have, it eats away at your confidence. It does knock you back because you go from playing every week to playing once every month or two in the cups or whatnot and then you are getting further and further away from your potential because you are not getting put in that situation week in, week out.”Embed from Getty Images
He made the move to Huddersfield on a three-year deal last summer and started the season ahead of Jonas Lossl in the pecking order, though his progress was quickly halted after a 3-0 defeat to Chelsea on the opening day, a 6-1 thrashing away at Man City eight days later and an injury sustained 15 minutes into the goalless draw with newly promoted Cardiff on 25 August.
Premier League appearances have, once again, been hard to come by, with his last runout for the Terriers coming in the 2-1 defeat at home to Arsenal in early February. Sadly, it’s something Ben has become accustomed to, though at just 31-years-old, as a goalkeeper, time is on his side.
“As a ‘keeper, you need a good run of four or five games to get the best out of yourself, get a rhythm, but I’ve found it hard to come by in the last four or five years now. It’s been tough, but it is what it is and you’ve got to keep plugging away.
“Even at Huddersfield now, I didn’t have a great start and got injured. I got thrown in for the Arsenal game recently and they you are back out again when the other guy is fit. It’s very sporadic and it’s not good for your confidence or your rhythm, but sometimes you’ve got to take it on the chin. When I was younger I’d probably be spitting my dummy out of the pram, but that’s not the way to behave and it’s not going to get you far. You’ve just got to keep being patient and keep getting on with it.Embed from Getty Images
“It is tough at times and when you aren’t playing, it’s the worst job in the world because you are trying to get in the team and it is so frustrating. With age and experience you find new ways to handle it. We work well together in training every day and as a team we all want the same results so if he [Lossl] is playing and getting results, I don’t care, as long as we are winning games. Obviously, we aren’t doing that at the moment.
“You’ve got to be optimistic and say you want to stay in the league, but if you are a realist from the outside looking in, the writing is pretty much on the wall. We’ll keep doing what we can do, but it’s a tough league and you need everything: you need players to be fit all season, everyone to be pulling together fighting every week and I just don’t think we’ve been good enough this year.
“I want to play and I do care whether it’s in the Premier League or the Championship, but I’ve got to look at where I am now and I’m not playing now, so the first challenge is to try and get back in the team when I can and then if I do, try and play well and whatever happens next season happens next season. I just want to try and get in the team before the end of the season and play as many games in the Premier League as possible.”
Originally featured in BEES Issue #19 v West Brom (16 March 2019)