“(Joe) Hart made a few mistakes, especially when coming out for the ball. He is an important goalkeeper. We probably didn’t expect so many mistakes from an England international…”, (Source: eurosport.co.uk). These were the words of Torino Chairman Urbano Cairo back in May when talking of goalkeeper Joe Hart’s unsuccessful season long loan stint at the Italian side in the 2016-17 campaign. The much maligned England number one is now back in his native country after signing for West Ham United this summer on another season long loan from Manchester City for the 2017/18 season.
A major plot twist came when Pep Guardiola took over at Manchester City in the summer last year. With Manchester City favourites with Bet365 and other bookmakers to win the league title, City could not afford any mistakes in goal. Hart had been poor in the 2016 European Championship, most notably making an unforgivable mistake that led to England being embarrassed by Iceland in the last 16. In addition it was well documented that Guardiola wanted a ‘sweeper keeper’, (a keeper who was comfortable with the ball at their feet) and if needed be able to start attacks. Hart it seemed had not made an attempt to improve this part of his game and was immediately informed by his new manager that he was surplus to requirements.
City wanted Hart to go out on loan and were not prepared to release him permanently, so interest was not quite as prominent as would have been thought for his services. Regardless of whether or not it was a loan, with the name Joe Hart, you would have expected there to be numerous serious suitors. This may have been humbling for him. Hart subsequently signed for Torino on loan for the 2016/17 season.
Hart was once dubbed a world class keeper by various sections of the media. The nosedive Hart’s career has taken is perfectly illustrated by Cairo’s comments upon him joining Torino, when he believed the Italian club had gained a top keeper. Initially when Torino secured the loan deal, he had said “Joe Hart is a world class goalkeeper, with considerable experience from both Manchester City and the English national team, where among other things he made his debut at age 21”, (Source: football-italia.net). These high expectations as we will see were not fulfilled.
The 2016/17 season could not have started any worse for Hart at his new adopted club. On his debut, Hart with Torino 1-0 ahead, flapped at a corner away against Atalanta and defender Andrea Masiello slotted in. This equaliser was just two minutes after Torino had taken the lead and they went on to lose Hart’s baptism of fire 2-1. The ‘hartache’ continued throughout the season as Hart conceded a whopping 62 goals in 36 league games. This included five individual defensive errors by Hart, which was the second most in any of Europe’s top five leagues, (Source: Squawka). Only Palermo’s keeper Josip Posavec had more with seven errors and Palermo were relegated from Serie A. Hart can thank striker Andrea Belotti for his 26 league goals for Torino which managed to squeeze them into ninth place or things could have been a lot worse.
Cries were coming from the British press and throughout social media during the season that Manchester City should never have let Hart go on loan; his replacement Claudio Bravo had not been enjoying the best time in goal as he started life in England. This goes to show how blinkered fans of the Premier League are and how little attention they pay to other leagues. They were so caught up in the Premier League that they did not realise Hart was having a terrible time himself in Italy.
One has to think what exactly Hart’s mentality is going into this season. Through his trepid time in Italy he still started all of England’s eight internationals. This included friendlies against Spain and Germany where Southampton’s Fraser Forster or Burnley’s Tom Heaton could have been given a chance to stake their claim. Now Hart is back in England, will this mean any errors like he made in Italy will be scrutinised differently and be more significant?
Sensationalism is a mainstay within the media, now he is back in England surely this gives England coach Gareth Southgate and the pundits a better opportunity to track his performances. If Hart is not producing the goods then it could be perilous times for him and Southgate surely has to eventually drop him. Hart can ill afford to be too overconfident. With Stoke’s 24 year old keeper Jack Butland back from injury and with Everton bringing in 23 year old Jordan Pickford from Sunderland, Hart could lose his place to someone who could be England’s number one for the next ten years. With the World Cup coming up in the summer, a continuation in poor form could be detrimental for years to come. So far to start this season, West Ham have already leaked ten goals in their opening three league games. So let us picture this, with last season’s hapless year in Italy; England’s number one will end the season having conceded well over 100 league goals in 2 seasons. 100 goals! If this does not make his position untenable for the World Cup then this just sums England up down to a tee. Hart is not the only one, but England’s loyalty to some individuals is why they never make an imposing statement when it really matters at the highest level.
Hart’s first game after finishing the season in Italy was for England in June and this saw his positioning questioned as Scotland’s Leigh Griffiths beat him with two late free kicks in a World Cup qualifier. It was felt that if Hart had arranged himself and the wall more adequately then Griffiths would have had less of a target to aim at. Hart was bailed out as Tottenham’s Harry Kane scored a goal in injury time to rescue England a point. Hart’s technicalities were summarised last year by Everton legend and former Wales International goalkeeper Neville Southall. Back in June 2016, he gave a candid assessment of Hart stating, “He’s never improved…he goes at everything with two hands and he keeps smiling every time he lets a goal in, (what’s all that about?)”. He continued “I think Butland will overtake him and be miles better than him”. On Butland, Southall further added, “He’s got one of those bodies that attract the ball, which is what you need”, (Source: telegraph.co.uk). In relation to this, the idea of Hart’s body not being able to attract the ball the way Southall is deploying can be displayed by the latest goal he conceded for England. In the World Cup qualifier against Slovakia, he maybe did not come off his line as quickly as he could have. Hart then made a highly questionable attempt to make himself ‘big’ and Slovakia’s Stanislav Lobotka casually knocked the ball past him and gave Slovakia the lead in the third minute. England won the game 2-1 in the end through Manchester United striker Marcus Rashford’s winner, who will now spare Hart’s blushes keeping the keeper away from the headlines.
In his defence, in the past Hart has done some interviews and been his own biggest critic. Back in June 2014, he mentioned, “I’ve got to keep working hard because potentially I could go through another bad patch again”, (Source: dailymail.co.uk). Overall though his cockiness and lapses in concentration have come to a head and clearly in recent seasons whatever work he has done has not been good enough. His competition since he came into the England setup has never been higher than now and there are no excuses for there not being change sooner rather than later if he falters. At club level, West Ham’s former number one, Spaniard Adrian is a decent goalkeeper and manager Slaven Bilic if he is still in a job later in the season may have to look to him unless Hart shows coming ‘home’ can help him reignite his old form. Hart won four Golden Gloves (the award for having the most clean sheets) in five seasons from 2010-15, through some tough times and now has to show he is not a busted flush. Unfortunately if Hart does not roll back the years, Bilic, Southgate and England will realise in this world sometimes you need to be ‘hartless’.