It’s fair to say that it’s been a pretty good year for Joe Hart. Last season saw a promising stint as Man City’s number one curtailed by the signing of Shay Given and he must have feared that he would be doomed to warm the bench in a manner akin to Ben Foster at city rivals United, as his abundant talent slowly wilted. Fortunately for him, and for England, though, the sudden wealth of Man City has instead been something of a catalyst for him to step up and become a top Premier League ‘keeper.
And with the World Cup just around the corner and neither David James nor Rob Green making much of a case for themselves with their struggling club sides, one of Fabio Capello’s main dilemmas when it comes to naming his squad and selecting his best XI will be as to the identity of his no.1, a problem that has dogged England managers since Dave Seaman had a funny turn against Brazil in the 2002 World Cup. Luckily for Capello though, City’s millions may just have solved the problem for him.
Joe Hart was recently named as the PFA goalkeeper of the season, a prestigious award as it is voted for by the players themselves, and it genuinely reflects Hart’s excellent season. While there could be some debate over whether Hart has been the very best goalkeeper in the Premier League this season – Gomes, Schwarzer and Cech perhaps run him close – no one could really deny that he has been right up there with the best of them.
Indeed, most impressive really has been his sheer consistency. He’s made very few mistakes, and has been an integral part of a Birmingham side that has defied all expectation and had a pretty comfortable season in the Premier League after arriving from the Championship. Hart has of course been aided by a very able defensive partnership of Scott Dann and Roger Johnson (who have received plaudits a-plenty of their own) but regularly this season have I watched the Premier League Review show and been impressed by a genuinely world-class save from the youngster.
He’s also a lad who is clearly full of confidence. While he may have been understandably frustrated at finding himself on the bench for the latter part of last season, he quickly put that behind him and excelled in England U21’s run to the final of the U21 European Championships last summer, before sealing a year-long loan deal to Birmingham.
The confidence that such fine form and McLeish’s backing have inspired has tallied well with the natural confidence that Hart clearly has in his ability. He’s only young still, but he’s a big bloke, he fills the goal and he commands his area well. He’s not afraid to dish out a verbal lashing to his defenders if need be, and he’s a big personality on and off the pitch – I was in the year below him at school, but you only need to see his antics in the penalty shootout in the semi-final of the aforementioned U21 championships to see his confidence and personality.
Which begs the question why more people aren’t sitting up and suggesting that he should be a shoo-in for the starting spot in England’s goal when we kick off in South Africa. After all, he has blatantly out performed his serious contenders in the Premier League this season. Rob Green has been jittery all season, David James has been injured for most of the season and dodgy for the rest, Ben Foster is back on the bench after some unconvincing showings and Paul Robinson is still a far-cry from the stopper he used to be.
Not only then, has he outperformed all of his fellow English ‘keepers, but as proven by his inclusion in the PFA team of the year he has been one of the better ‘keeper in the league full stop. And this is the Premier League, one of the strongest leagues in world football and home to such highly regarded ‘keepers as Van der Saar, Reina and Cech. These are keepers who have been acknowledged as world-class and have performed well on the international scene (well, except Reina, thanks to Casillas), and who have been outshone by a young Englishman.
Which begs the question: why is everyone still talking about Hart as a back up to a ‘more experienced’ keeper in England’s squad? Every article I read about the PFA award suggested that he has possibly earnt himself a place in the squad for South Africa, as a young backup to Green and James. But why should Hart be the back up when he has been by far the better ‘keeper than his more experienced compatriots all season long?
It is that old footballing paradox. We hesitate to throw youngsters into a side because they lack experience, all the while forgetting that they won’t get experience unless you throw them in. Of course, the World Cup is a very deep end in which to jump, but Hart does have experience of tournament football from his U21 days. And he does have experience of playing at the top-level from his time in the Premier League, where he’s been faced with some of the world’s most potent attackers like Rooney, Torres and Drogba.
Sure, a World Cup will provide him with a tougher test than the Premier League, but likewise he’ll be part of a team that will (or should) be better and more secure defensively than Birmingham are. If John Terry and Rio Ferdinand can keep their minds on the football and play to their best Hart may not have much to do anyway! But even if he is called upon, he has displayed this season that he has got the skills to pay the proverbial bills.
So if Joe Hart is not wearing England’s number one jersey when we kick off against the USA in South Africa, I for one will be appalled. If Capello is serious about picking in-form players then he simply has to play Joe Hart. What he may lack in experience he makes up for in consistency, shot-stopping, and a real command of his area. These are precisely the areas in which his competitors are lacking and I for one would rather see a player with proven skills given the chance to shine than to see a less able but more experienced rival don the gloves.
Have your say:
Who would be your ‘keeper if you were in Fabio Capello’s loafers? Place your vote and leave a comment below…