Joe Hart excites me. Not in a Kickette way, just in an England fan kind of way. He’s already a brilliant player and his rate of improvement has tongues wagging about just how good he’s going to be. Manchester City’s goalkeeper is the most thrilling prospect produced in England since Wayne Rooney, and there’s every chance he’ll be as good in his respective position as the Manchester United star, if not better.
That’s a big statement, but it’s difficult to argue that Rooney is likely to go on from his current status to become the best player in the world in his position; that’s exactly the discussion that now surrounds 24-year-old Hart. A good showing at UEFA Euro 2012 and the buzz about England’s first choice stopper will only escalate, and his name will have edged that little bit closer to the likes of Iker Casillas among the best in the world.
For me, Hart is already a genuinely brilliant goalkeeper. There’s no question that he has the very best saves in his locker, combined with excellent concentration, good technique and the kind of freakish agility that makes the best goalkeepers look as if they’re always playing within themselves.
His raw ability has been there since he was a teenager at Shrewsbury Town and it was there that his highest profile suitors began to pay attention. A week or so before England’s friendly against the Netherlands in February, Manchester United boss Alex Ferguson revealed that he had the opportunity to sign Hart – for the remarkably low fee of £100,000 – from the Shrews in 2006. “We all make mistakes,” he said. And for the manager of a club still unsure whether David de Gea will be capable of replacing Edwin van der Sar between the posts, this particular mistake could well prove to be right up there with Ferguson’s biggest.
Hart ended up moving to Manchester City in the same year and has progressed steadily since then. He spent a season on loan at Birmingham City in 2009/10 after brief spells with Tranmere Rovers and Blackpool, and it was during his time with the Blues that another sizeable Premier League club came calling, this time Arsenal and their manager Arsene Wenger, who enquired about Hart and gave a glowing review in December. “He has something that is needed for a goalkeeper to play at a big club,” he told Arsenal.com. “I am not surprised that he made it as number one.”
Even in the short period since his year with Birmingham, Hart has improved immeasurably. The ability to do so is a key part of his make-up and was highlighted recently by interim England manager Stuart Pearce, who signed Hart for City and told the press in February that he has matured well on and off the field, and that he’s come a long way since signing for the club in 2006 and has “developed brilliantly”. There’s no doubt about that. After returning from St Andrews Hart was given the nod in goal over Shay Given, one of the Premier League’s most respected and most highly rated goalkeepers, who eventually moved to Aston Villa in order to regain first team football.
Hart was there to stay and it’s easy to see why. As well as being England’s best goalkeeper at a relatively early age, Hart is a big character and is mature beyond his years. Pearce refers to Hart’s personality as infectious, and describes him as having a big influence in the England squad. That’s no mean feat for a 24-year-old with less than 20 international caps in a camp that’s both bursting with egos and notoriously prone to the occasional political game.
On the pitch he’s loud and aggressive, dominating his area extremely well for a man of his age – in fact, more than any other player it’s possible to hear Hart from the stands. It’s reassuring for an England supporter, and it must be reassuring for City fans and for his defenders too. He also has an edge, something unidentifiable that he shares with the most recognisable goalkeepers. It’s a swagger, a willingness to stand out that’s necessary to be a star in the game’s most visible and punishing position. To a certain extent it’s something that marks the most high profile goalkeepers as extroverts – it’s Peter Schmeichel’s deafening berating of defenders, or Bruce Grobbelaar’s spaghetti legs.
Hart has that same supreme confidence, and isn’t afraid of the spotlight. In goalkeeping terms, that’s part of what separates the men from the boys at the very highest level. His superb header for City against Sporting in the UEFA Europa League last week won’t be the last we’ll see of him in the opposition box and I’d put money on him one day doing something outlandish like taking a penalty for England, if only in a shoot-out.
It’s impossible to know at this stage whether Hart will go on to be the world’s best goalkeeper, and he’s certainly not there just yet. The personal honours have already started to arrive, beginning with the 2010/11 Barclays Golden Glove, awarded to the goalkeeper with the most clean sheets in a season. His City team-mate Gareth Barry believes that this season has proved that Hart is already one of the best in the game, suggesting that his young age and the fact that he tends to contribute at least one or two top-class saves in each match will stand him in good stead. City coach Roberto Mancini expects big things of him too, but moved to remind him that his potential has not yet been achieved, and that there are better goalkeepers at present.
Another accolade that might be heading Hart’s way during his career is that of the England captaincy. Currently held by Scott Parker and still afforded far too much importance, the role of England captain will be handed out more than once in the remaining years of Hart’s career, and he’ll probably be in the reckoning every time. He should arguably be in with a shout already, and when he sat alongside Pearce in his pre-match press conference before the Netherlands friendly it was clear that Hart is already a player of some standing in the England squad.
Long may that continue.
(Photo credit: Blue Moon 505 via Flickr)