In recent weeks Joe Hart has become no stranger to public scrutiny. A series of high-profile errors for club Manchester City has seen England’s no. 1 drop to the bench in the Premier League, an outcome that has prompted speculation over both his domestic and international future.
And tonight will be no different, as the 6’5 stopper looks set to make his first appearance in three weeks when he lines up in England’s friendly with Germany at Wembley.
To say then that the stakes are high for the goalkeeper would probably be something of an understatement. A solid performance would help reassure fans that he is still a good first choice at international level, and perhaps take the focus off him when he returns to Manchester. A poor game, however, will serve to compound what is an already precarious situation for him.
With the World Cup in Brazil now just a few months away, Hart will be anxious to put his ‘blip’ behind him as quickly as possible – a process that is likely to require a significant, if unwelcome, test of character.
This story though, is one which the majority of us have seen before, when a certain Paul Robinson was the subject of a very similar situation.
Following a freak goal against Croatia in a Euro 2008 qualifier, mounting pressure saw the then Tottenham man dropped for the final match of qualification, which proved to be the end of his time as England’s goalkeeper.
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While that eventuality appears to still be quite a long way off for the 26-year-old Hart, who’s England record boasts just two defeats, it’s fair to say that the jury is further out than it has ever been on whether Roy Hodgson should stick with him.
It was Fraser Forster who took his place when he played against Chile on Friday, turning in a solid display for his first international cap, while Norwich’s John Ruddy also on one cap, is similarly waiting in the wings.
Both are very good goalkeepers, but with a lack of international experience and ability levels that don’t clearly eclipse those of Hart, the odds of them usurping his place for the upcoming tournament seem improbable at best.
But then, it is not Hart’s ability that is really in question. Indeed, it is basically indisputable that when on form he is world-class and perhaps the first player truly capable of taking on the mantle of England’s former international stalwart David Seaman.
What is also indisputable, however, is that at present his top-flight performances are not up to these very high standards.
Such a downturn in form is far from irreversible and most players will go through patches when playing well is a lot harder to come by. The difference of course, is that it is much easier to forget these when it concerns an outfielder as opposed to a goalkeeper.
Goalkeepers are generally played consistently and thus not party to a squad-rotation system. When dropped for any reason other than injury therefore, it is often taken as a statement of lost confidence on behalf of the manager, at domestic level at least.
This, when taken in conjunction with the attitude of the British press, an entity that wastes no time in criticising the individuals it helps to build up as idols, it’s understandable that a player’s and particularly goalkeeper’s confidence could be affected by these events.
Tonight though, could prove to be a turning point. A good display, or failing that, one that prompts no comment, would help stem the flow of unwanted analysis that has been directed towards Hart recently, which could go some way to helping him regain his goalkeeping vigour.
And speculation over the potential of arrival of a new stopper at City in January, unlikely to have done a lot for him up to now, might similarly die down with a return to form.
Speculation over Hart’s future then, is really a little premature. Football is, after all, a very fickle business, a fact that regularly causes us to lose sight of the fallibility of those who engage in it at the highest level. Nobody can play well all the time and if anything, the current questions over his performances are a testimony to how good he is known to be.
Come next summer, I firmly expect him to be lining up in the World Cup, and for Manchester City long before then.
Can Joe Hart get over this rocky patch of form?
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