WHEN Richard Foster found himself among the 14 players released by Ross County last May after the Highland club declined to take advantage of government furlough scheme, he was suddenly faced with a stark choice.

The 34-year-old could retire from the game altogether after 17 seasons as a professional footballer. Or he could join relegated Partick Thistle in League 1.

For a former Rangers right back who once squared up to a Manchester United side that contained Dimitar Berbatov, Wayne Rooney and Paul Scholes in a Champions League group game at Ibrox, moving to Thistle and turning out in the truncated third tier would be quite a change. The prospect did sting a little at first.

“When you are playing in the Premiership in Scotland, don’t get a new contract and find yourself dropping down the leagues, your pride does hurt,” said Foster. “I felt I was still good enough and still fit enough to play in the top division.

“My wife (Scottish singer Amy Macdonald) said to me on numerous occasions ‘you’ve had a decent career, you don’t need to prove anything to anyone’. But I don’t think I wanted to prove anything to anyone, I just wanted to prove it to myself.”

A player who was aggrieved at how he had been treated amid the Covid-19 outbreak opted to move to, well, a club that was aggrieved at how they had been treated amid the Covid-19 outbreak. It has proved to be a beneficial union for both parties.

The match against Montrose at Links Park on Wednesday night was far removed from an encounter against Sporting Lisbon in the Estadio Jose Alvalade or a showdown with PSV Eindhoven in the Phillips Stadion. Still, it brought an end to one of the most enjoyable campaigns of Foster’s lengthy playing days.

His one year contract is due to expire imminently and he is once again unsure what the future holds. There were no talks about an extension while it was still unclear what level the Firhill club they would be competing at next term. But he is now eager to remain and help the League 1 champions’ push for the Premiership.

“When you get to my age and you don’t have a contract if becomes more difficult to try to sell yourself,” he said. “So getting the opportunity at Thistle was actually amazing.

“I spoke to the manager Ian McCall and I got a really, really good vibe from him. I pretty much decided there and then that was what I was going to do, sign for another year at Thistle. It has turned out to be a very good choice.

“I didn’t know him personally. But my agent Allan Preston knew the gaffer through football and through the BBC and he said I would get on really well with him and he would be good for someone of my age. That has proved to be correct.”

Thistle – who were relegated from the Championship after the SPFL clubs voted to decide final league positions on a points per game basis despite being just two points behind Queen of the South with a game in hand to play and nine matches remaining – were every bit as raw as a club as Foster was personally when he first arrived in Maryhill.

Yet, the former Aberdeen, Bristol City, Rangers, St Johnstone and Ross County player admitted they used that, and the subsequent criticism they were subjected to after making an underwhelming start to their promotion bid, to spur them on to what was an emotional triumph.

“I obviously knew what had happened to Thistle when I joined,” he said. “You get more into it just by being there. You did get a sense of the injustice they felt. But you said: ‘You know what? We want to prove everyone wrong. We want to get Partick Thistle back where they belong’. In my opinion, they should be in the Premiership. That is the next step.

“As the season went on and we weren’t performing as well as we could or wanted to be, we were getting kicked. There were days when it was tough, after poor results and poor performances. But we just tried to use all that negativity towards us to galvanise us which I think it did.

“Because I have enjoyed being at Thistle so much I just thought: ‘I don’t need to prove it to myself, I just need to enjoy the experience and try to get Thistle out of the league’. I got over that. We went on a fantastic run and dealt with the pressure better than the other teams latterly.” 

Foster won the Premier League with Rangers during his first spell at Ibrox, helped them secure the League 1 trophy during his second stint in Govan and was in the Ross County side that lifted the League Cup five years ago. The latest success was as sweet as any of them given what both he and the club had been through in the past 12 months.

A group of around 150 Thistle fans breached coronavirus guidelines and gathered on the banks of the Forth and Clyde Canal to watch their game against Falkirk last month and then partied as their team romped to an emphatic 5-0 triumph that ensured they will be playing in the Championship next term.

“You can’t condone gathering in large numbers because of what is going on in the world,” said Foster. “But it was still pretty special to see. It was great to see how happy they were. There was a real buzz in the dressing room and although there was a wall separating us you could almost feel the energy coming in from the fans.

“If there is one disappointment or downside from all of this that is it – the fact there has been no fans. I know it is the same across the board, but I think having fans there becomes more special when you win something. You want them there to see it.” 

Foster credits McCall with helping him perform at a high level following the lengthiest lay-off from the game of his life and is positive he can continue to contribute in the 2021/22 season if he is given the opportunity. He is certainly keen to do so having found contentment amid the chaos of Covid.  

“The gaffer has looked after me in terms of the training schedule,” he said. “He knows if I am fit and able I will give him everything I have got. He hasn’t pushed me to play when I’m not fit. He’s allowed me to do a half session from time to time. But that’s allowed me to play most of the games. It has worked well. I have manged to play Saturday, Tuesday, Thursday recently as well.

“My biggest concern with the lockdown and the time off was how my body would respond. How would I feel? When I first came back last year it was tough. My body was hurting when I first went back. But the longer we trained the more accustomed my body got to it. I started to feel really good. I have felt really fit, really strong. I feel I can play on for at least another year.

“But being happy has got a lot to do with it. Even when I was in a bit of pain it made it much easier to be where I was. Physically and mentally I feel really good. There is no reason in my head why I can’t have another year at it.

“I feel like I’m in a good place. I want to stay. I don’t know what road the management team and board want to go down. But if I get the opportunity to stay at Thistle I will bite their hand off and stay no problem at all. I am in no rush to see what happens. I am just enjoying us being league champions.”