Footballers! For the sake of your legacy and your ego, follow my advice: if you’re going to be good, be good later on in your career. Look at Brad Friedel: already 29 when he joined second-tier Blackburn after a disastrous spell at Liverpool, the American is now regarded as one of the finest and most dependable goalkeepers in Premier League history. Meanwhile, thanks to the way our stupid brains work, the late-career travails of Fernando Torres, the original Ronaldo, Iker Casillas and especially Michael Owen have massively obscured the collective memory of just how unbelievably good they once were.
It feels a little bit like that is happening with Joe Hart. While he was never at the level of Casillas or Buffon, he was head and shoulders above every other English goalkeeper for seven or eight years and could reasonably be counted among the top ten goalkeepers in the world. Paradoxically, Hart has been around for so long that we forget just how young he was when he rose to fame.
Hart’s Premier League debut came in October 2006, when he was just 19 years, five months and 25 days old. That is so staggeringly young for a goalkeeper there hasn’t been a single younger goalkeeper used in the Premier League in the 12 years since.
A regular starting place was his from the following season, and he made his international debut at 21, ascending to be the firm first choice for both England and Manchester City at 23. If further context were required for that achievement, have this: all but six of the 35 goalkeepers to appear in the Premier League this season were aged 30 or over, and the youngest was Jordan Pickford, who turned 24 in March.
Now, at 31, Hart’s place among the elite seems well and truly over. His failure to make Gareth Southgate’s World Cup squad marks the nadir of a dismal couple of years for the goalkeeper: ousted from Pep Guardiola’s side after just one game and forced to go abroad to Torino for a year before heading to West Ham, where he was dropped midway through the season by new manager David Moyes, playing just nine times since November.
When a player goes through such a precipitous decline, it is natural to ask why; but with the available information, none of the usual explanations appear to hold true for Hart. His poor form is too extended to be a case of the yips; if he has any distractions (Tiger-Woods-serious or dyeing-your-hair-trivial) they have been well hidden from the media; he appears to be in as good physical shape as ever; and his flaws, such as a tendency to parry straightforward shots directly into the six-yard box and a weakness diving to his left, have been so well-known for years to raise the question of why they are suddenly such an issue now.
Former goalkeeper and now excellent pundit David Preece is best placed to comment on the issue, and he believes a level of self-contentedness may be the culprit, writing in the Times last month that he may have stopped working on his weaknesses and become over-reliant on his strengths, which have now also abandoned him.
His decline is strikingly similar to those suffered by Torres and Casillas, which were respectively precipitated by fallings-out with their club (Liverpool) and their manager (Jose Mourinho) and continued long beyond the apparent inciting incident. Although plenty of City fans will tell you Hart’s downward trajectory started long before, it is therefore difficult to look beyond Guardiola’s cold shoulder in the summer of 2016.
Whatever started it off, it seems reasonably clear that the now-former England man’s major issue has been confidence, a malady that is not necessarily terminal (look at David James, who played top-flight football until he was 40 despite more than his fair share of ups and downs) but is likely to prove chronic. The two years Hart has endured must have been devastating, and missing out on the World Cup is a massive scoop full of salt and vinegar onto the keeper’s itchy, flaky scalp.
There are two routes for Hart from here, and like two shots low to his left, neither of them is truly in his hands. One is to follow in the glovesteps of fellow former England internationals Paul Robinson and Scott Carson by going abroad or taking the step down into the Championship, hoping to recapture his form away from the spotlight but never quite making it; or he could go the way of James and Friedel and enjoy a late-career renaissance that restores his reputation and secures the legacy that, on balance, his role in elevating City and reassuring England fans probably deserves.