Few players’ rise to the top of the English game has been as graciously welcomed as that of Manchester City keeper Joe Hart. For decades, England have been plagued by their lack of an assured presence between the sticks, the regularity of crosses flapped at and shots spilled in high profile international matches as much a trope of the national game as brass bands, bulldog spirit and penalty shoot-out misery.
But Hart’s emergence has brought about a fresh optimism. Not since Peter Shilton has England had such a commanding, agile shot stopper at their disposal, and with his performances growing in spectacle and assurance each week for the Premier League champions, there’s a genuine sense that Hart may be the man to return England to the world-beaters they once were.
At club level, he has proven himself to be up there with the very best. When Manchester City claimed their first title in 44 years in the dying seconds of last season, it was Sergio Aguero who scored the goal but Joe Hart the cameras panned to. The irony was rife – for all the billions of pounds spent turning Roberto Mancini’s squad into one of the best in Europe, the man who had driven them to a much sought after Premier League trophy was bought for just £600,000.
Hart made 20 clean sheets in 2011/12 (a feat made all the more remarkable by the fact his defence are considered the weak link in Mancini’s team) to put the Blues on their way to glory, pulling off stunning save after stunning save to deny opponents. But it was more than his performances that made him the face of Manchester City’s most glorious campaign. In a glitzy, star-studded squad during a season marred by Carlos Tevez’s petulance and the outlandishness of one Mario Balotelli, Hart was its likeable counterpoint: consistent, dedicated, professional. To the Eastlands crowd, that title-clinching goal belonged to him as much as it did Aguero.
That the 25-year-old, who started his career for Shrewsbury Town while still studying for his GCSEs, was recently chosen to appear on the cover of the latest in EA’s popular run of football games, FIFA 13, is further proof of his currency – usually the honour is bestowed to goalscorers and forward-drifting midfield maestros. Maybe it helps that Hart is not without his own attacking acumen – in addition to his astonishing athleticism and agility in goal, he’s regularly seen chasing the game in the opposition’s box, running up for corners and causing havoc.
A determined performer and a born leader, he is as well rounded a keeper as the world has seen. “Iker Casillas is regarded by many as being the best in Europe, if not the world,” says Hart’s England predecessor David James, “bur Joe Hart kicks a better ball than him, fills his area better than him and can produce any save that Casillas makes. Everything about him is superb.”
A more surprising admirer, though just as full of praise, is Sir Alex Ferguson. The Manchester United manager isn’t famed for dishing out compliments to opposition players, let alone those from his fiercest rivals, but admitted last year that missing the opportunity to sign Hart was one of the biggest regrets of his career. “I could have bought Joe Hart for £100,000 so we all make mistakes," said Ferguson. "If you look at the England goalkeeper situation for the last 20 years, I would think he's easily the best."
At this summer’s Euro 2012 he left that beyond any doubt, arriving at his first international tournament in the number 1 jersey with the confidence of a World Cup veteran.
His organisational presence was felt as England looked a transformed side, their discipline in wins against Ukraine and Sweden a world apart from the shambolic performances in South Africa two years previous, engineered on the pitch by the City keeper. Roy Hodgson’s team of course eventually went out on penalties to an impressive Italy team, but that Hart and co. were able to keep the likes of Andrea Pirlo and Antonio Di Natale at bay for 120 minutes was an achievement in itself.
So talismanic was Hart during those matches that people have begun to whisper. Steven Gerrard, the current England captain, is 32 now and his inclusion in the 2014 World Cup is not guaranteed. Might the Manchester City man take the captain’s armband? Time will tell. In the meantime, if the Sky Blues wish to retain their Premier League crown, they’ll be relying on Hart to produce the same incredible feats in goal that brought frustration to strikers and crowds to their feet last season.
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