Joe Hart was once considered one of the best in the world; now some will tell you he is a liability. As tends to be the case in football, the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle. But the new West Ham keeper has spent at least a year sliding towards the latter, and now faces a make-or-break season at the London Stadium.
It wasn’t just in Hart’s own mind that he was among the finest stoppers in the game. “Joe Hart is now for me one of the top three goalkeepers in the world,” said Gianluigi Buffon only two years ago, while Wayne Rooney labelled him THE best. Lionel Messi described Hart as a ‘phenomenon’. For a number of seasons, while winning major honours and amassing 71 England caps, the former Shrewsbury stopper was achieving the potential Iker Casillas identified when the Spain legend said: “I expect him to be the No.1 keeper in the world.”
But a series of errors and public humilation at the hands of Pep Guardiola have seen Hart’s stock tumble to its lowest level since he arrived in the Premier League in 2009 as a loanee at Birmingham. Now he’s back in the top flight, being borrowed again, Hart has to start climbing the ladder again too.
His demise, perhaps like his ascent, has been exaggerated in some quarters, but it is still tough to identify where Hart should start as he looks to rebuild his reputation. Technical, physical and psychological flaws have all been picked over during the last year. His head should probably take priority before he looks to his feet.
Hart has always carried the air of a man particularly sure of himself, more because that is the image he feels he should portray, rather than borne of any natural confidence or coolness. The shouting and cajoling in tunnels across Europe; barking the national anthem; the over-eagerness to ‘front up’; it all gives the impression of a man keen to be seen to be leading, without possessing the natural characteristics demanded by the job.
Hart’s performance levels have dropped as the responsibilities – often self-assumed – have increased. He first captained England just over 18 months ago, just before his problems really began when Guardiola was confirmed as his new manager at club level.
The keeper would likely deny it, but only a robot would not have been shaken by the treatment meted out by the new City boss last season. Hart wasn’t the type or personality that Guardiola likes defending his goal, and after six years as undisputed No.1, the England stopper was shunted to third choice in full glare of everyone.
After a dreadful European Championships, during which his flaws were exposed on the international stage too, Torino’s offer perhaps came as blessed relief. “I’m not going to lie, I wasn’t sat there with 25 options,” Hart admitted after moving to Italy, but the choice to escape the onslaught – even as a man who relishes the limelight – was easy to understand.
It was still a gamble, however, and it did not pay off. Hart appeared to enjoy his time in Italy, and perhaps that alone was a victory. But he continued to make mistakes – five which led to goals – while technical flaws in his game appeared to be exacerbated rather than eradicated.
Hart has always looked vulnerable low to his left and that weakness showed no signs of disappearing, nor did his feet appear any lighter. “We probably didn’t expect so many mistakes from an England international,” admitted the Torino president as the club backed away from extending his stay in Serie A.
Every other club that was linked – however tentatively – with Hart, followed Torino’s lead. Like last summer, the offers have hardly been flooding in. Merseyside appeared his obvious destination, but Jurgen Klopp was very keen to rule out that prospect at the earliest opportunity, while Everton opted instead for Jordan Pickford. Newcastle’s offer never came, while Jose Mourinho’s widely reported interest in case Real Madrid coughed up for David de Gea was a non-starter.
That left West Ham as the only serious suitor. The Hammers require Hart to perform equally as much as the goalkeeper needs a solid season. Darren Randolph, the club’s No.2, spent most of last season as No.1 while Adrian kicked his heels amid reports of a fall-out with Slaven Bilic. The club took up their option to extend Adrian’s contract in May, seemingly more as a ploy to recover a transfer fee when he does leave the club, which seems increasingly likely with Hart’s arrival.
Hart, nor anyone else, did not anticipate the last year’s twists when he collected his second Premier League winner’s medal just two years ago, but West Ham offer him the opportunity to rebuild his reputation without the scrutiny he has endured since then. Perhaps that was part of the problem – for a long time, Hart faced no competition for his City or England place, but now, that security should be embraced. Back in a more familiar environment, the 30-year-old can keep his head down, leave the tub-thumping to Mark Noble, and focus only on himself and the task at hand.
Gareth Southgate sought to reassure Hart that he remained England No.1, despite being exposed by Leigh Griffiths’ two free-kicks at Hampden Park, with his stunning save in Slovenia meaning he went to Scotland with credit in the bank. But Jack Butland’s return from injury and Pickford’s progression are likely to give Southgate options he has not previously enjoyed.
While the likes of Buffon, Messi, Rooney and countless others may have been premature in declaring Hart one of the game’s greats, many are in danger of making the same mistake by writing him off too soon. Jens Lehmann probably had it right earlier this year: “I saw Joe Hart play some great games, but I saw mistakes as well. When I saw him after a couple of years, he was still making the same mistakes. His education stopped and he did not work on his weaknesses.”
If the last 12 months have taught him anything, it must be that those flaws should be addressed as a matter of urgency. It is time work on being an excellent goalkeeper rather than a pretty poor tub-thumper.