On 23 May last year Aston Villa announced on their website that Brad Guzan was one of three players being released, thanked him for his efforts and wished him all the best. By that point Guzan had already cleared his locker, bid farewell to his team-mates and was back in the United States wondering what the future held. The answer – being a leading contender to be named Villa's player of the year 11 months later – would never have entered his head.
Guzan looks a little embarrassed to be singled out for such praise, although when it comes to Villa's standout performer this season, it is a straightforward choice between the 28-year-old American goalkeeper and the striker Christian Benteke. Brought into the team for the third game of the season at Shay Given's expense, Guzan seized his chance and has fully justified Paul Lambert's faith in him. One statistic perfectly sums up his contribution in a turbulent season for the Midlanders: he is the only Premier League goalkeeper to have made more than 200 saves.
"Football is so funny, you don't know what is going to happen," Guzan says, reflecting on last summer's events. "I had said my goodbyes and technically I was released. I think there was a mutual respect where we said we'll continue to talk, but for me the most important thing was to be given a fair shake at it because under the last manager [Alex McLeish] it didn't feel that was going to be the situation. If [McLeish] had stayed, the writing was on the wall that I was going to have to go. I know my agent had spoken to other clubs.
"But when the new manager was named, Terry [Gennoe], the goalkeeping coach, said [Lambert] wanted to have a chat. I spoke to the manager on the phone and said: 'I'd like to continue this conversation but I'd like to come to England.' Face to face you get a better vibe for what is being said. I got an overnight flight to Chicago on the Tuesday, flew into London on the Wednesday morning, had a two-hour drive to Birmingham, had the meeting, got back in the taxi to Heathrow and was back in Chicago on Wednesday night, all in less than 24 hours.
"For me this was a big point in my career, the national team picture was starting to fade away, I hadn't played consistent club football for four years, so that [journey] was the least I could have done to give myself the best chance to make the right decision. At the meeting the manager said to me: 'Listen, everyone starts fresh. I don't make the decisions, the players do in terms of performances.' All things considered, I felt I could give it a real go."
While Guzan has relished the chance to establish himself as Villa's No1, after spending so much time in the shadow of Brad Friedel and then Given, it has been a challenging season facing the threat of relegation. Villa go into Monday's game at Manchester United in decent form, after picking up 10 points from their last five matches, but much of the campaign has been a struggle, in particular when they were knocked out of both cups by lower league opposition in January on the back of some humiliating defeats in the Premier League.
The 8-0 hammering at Stamford Bridge, where Guzan was praised for preventing Chelsea from racking up double figures, was as bad as it gets. "On a day like that you don't want to talk about it, you kind of want to shut down," Guzan says. "But, at the same time, you have to analyse it and look at it in the same way as if you won 1-0. You have to be man enough and say it was a shit day at the office. Unfortunately for us, a shit day at the office is not only in front of 40,000 fans but all over national television and all over the world."
When Villa lost their next two games at home, 4-0 against Tottenham Hotspur and 3-0 to Wigan, the flak was flying. "As a team, everyone criticised us and said we were terrible and we had no chance. But we never let it affect us," Guzan says. "I have continually said: 'We understand the quality and the ability that we have in the dressing room and the belief and the confidence we have in each other.' And probably people looked at me as if I was talking rubbish. Now all of a sudden people are saying we have come out better for it. Well, we knew we would."
Guzan is a likable character, loquacious and generous with his time. Born in Illinois, he was a model student at school but always had a passion for football, so much so that he was happy to play anywhere on the pitch until well into his late teens. "I played outfield in a national final when I was 18," he says. "Afterwards I found out that the under-18 national team coach had heard about me as a goalkeeper and came to see me play. He said to my coach: 'I've come to see Brad.' My coach said: 'Right, well he's playing outfield today.'"
He went on to study sport management at the University of South Carolina but left after two years to play in the MLS for Chivas USA, which was where he came to Villa's attention. Guzan signed for Villa in 2008 and was prepared to bide his time initially, picking up experience in cup games, where he made four penalty saves against Sunderland en route to Villa reaching the 2010 League Cup final. Having played in every round, Guzan was distraught when Martin O'Neill picked Friedel to start against Manchester United at Wembley.
"It was a massive blow," he says. "But as big a disappointment as it was, I could have used it one of two ways. I could have sulked and let everyone know about it. Or I could have continued to fight and say: 'I respect the decision because he is the manager, I don't agree with it but there is nothing I can do about it, I have to go out and support my team-mates.'
"Don't get me wrong, I'm not trying to deny I wasn't pissed [off] because I was beyond pissed. But you use those tough times to make you stronger and it's how you respond to difficult times that makes you the person and, ultimately, the player you are."
That sort of mental fortitude resonates in a week when Guzan has been closely following events back home in America, full of admiration for the inner strength people have been showing in Boston in the wake of the marathon bombings.
"I know the goalkeeper for the team in Boston in the MLS, the New England Revolution. His father-in-law was injured in the attack so hopefully he has pulled through some of the surgeries," Guzan says. "I think he still needs prayers and well wishes. It is tragic what has happened."