Some think of him as world class, a shining light in a sea of mediocrity. Others demand questions be asked about a man who seems immune to blame. There seems to be very little middle ground when talking about Joe Hart.
It’s fair to say that Joe Hart has not had the best of weeks. On Sunday against Tottenham Hotspur, he was to blame for the match’s opening goal, deflecting a header off his chest into the back of the net. On Wednesday night, in Sweden’s shiny new stadium he had a torrid time, failing to build an understanding with the new-look defence in front of him, undoubtedly at fault for letting Sweden’s third goal past him, before perfectly setting up Zlatan Ibrahimovic for his wonder-goal with a weak header once the ball had held up after bouncing.
All this has prompted the floodgates to finally open, and for many to question the merits of Englands’ number one goalkeeper. Neil Ashton of the Daily Mail agreed with Roy Keane, namely that Hart had become too cocky having won the Premier League. Keane commented some weeks ago that there was a fine line between confidence and cockiness, and Hart had crossed it. I don’t see this at all in him, but looking online it seems it is a view shared by many fans in this country. Apart from the fact that Keane and Ashton don’t have a clue what goes on in Hart’s head, I do wonder what character traits they want him to have as a high-profile keeper? Shyness? Self-doubt? Low self-esteem? This is a very unique position to occupy, a very lonely one at times, and it requires strong mental skills and a certain level of character. Goalkeeping was what I was best at as a child due to my good reaction skills, but I couldn’t handle the weight of responsibility that came with the position. But having said all that, Roy Keane spent £9m on Craig Gordon, so he clearly knows his onions.
But for Hart the backlash has begun. Some are questioning why a man who has been fallible before has been virtually criticism-free. Perhaps the lack of criticism has been due to the fact that Hart is so far ahead of the competition as national keeper. He is protected, and housed in something of a cocoon because we need him to be good. Without him, England would really be in trouble. Others add that this lack of competition is not beneficial to his career, to his development, as he is not being pushed and could become complacent. This is something Keane also said, and Gordon Banks has commented that it hasn’t helped him not having another goalkeeper “breathing down his neck”. Although a couple of younger keepers are showing signs of possibly breaking through, Hart has no chance of being displaced in the near future, barring a disastorus loss of form.
As mentioned, it is a difficult job to perfect. Sergio Aguero can fall over in front of goal, and it will probably be soon forgotten. Hart makes a mistake and it stays on his CV forever. He is 25 years old, which for a keeper could be up to 10 years away from his peak. For an outfield player, the best years could be just around the corner. But being a goalkeeper is different – it is not a skill that can be perfected in youth, it is the one position that gains more than any other from experience.
There can be no doubt that Hart has his weaknesses, and there’s no doubt he has work to do to continuously improve. He is not great on crosses, and seems to have a blind spot with shots to his left (the same problem I had as a youngster, though at a slightly lower level, ahem). But despite all the accusations I hear of his cockiness and arrogance, from what I have heard he is extremely level-headed. He is intelligent, sensible, hard-working. He is professional, and keeps out of the newspapers, and most importantly of all, he is his own worst critic – he doesn’t need the public criticism to spur him on, he will be well aware of every mistake he has made.
City saw the promise in him all those years ago when he was signed from Shrewsbury. They also saw the promise when installing him as City’s first goalkeeper, a move that did for Shay Given’s City career. City could not keep loaning him out forever to aid his development, and had to make a decision or risk losing him altogether. That decision has borne dividends, until now. It is only now that the odd eyebrow has begun to be raised, as it would when any top player goes through the inevitable rough patch.
Joe Hart is not the world’s best goalkeeper. He may not even be world-class, however that is measured. He makes mistakes, and he needs to work hard to improve. For him, his career has hit its first bump after a steady rise to stardom, and he has to deal with that and work on his weak points. It’s ok for the press to point out if he has a bad game, and it’s ok for City fans to accept the same, without become traitors to their club. For every bad game, there is the flip-side of a performance like that witnessed at home to Borussia Dortmund, the best I have seen from a City goalkeeper in decades. And when criticising Hart, when criticising any goalkepper, the only caveat is that keepers need some level of leeway as their mistakes are more costly than that of a badly-positioned defender or a misfiring striker. What I do not doubt however is that Hart has the mental toughness and desire to overcome any difficulties, and that one day he may well be one of the best goalkeepers in the world. He just isn’t there yet.