Amidst the perpetually calamitous defensive proceedings instilled within West Ham United’s fatally flawed ranks, one man – well, perhaps the second after Slaven Bilić’s sacking – spawns resentment and derision so vitriolic as to render his position untenable. His international career, quite alike, has suffered from a callous media campaign, to the extent that, despite noting two Premier League titles in his repertoire, his position as England’s 75-time-capped mainstay number one is under palpable threat. Yet those within the professional broadcast sectors – so often eager to align ideologically with popular public opinion – of the sport maintain his reputation and prestige, emphasising his continual respect among the game’s realistic kingpins. Charles Joseph John Hart is a relatively unique entity in the modern form of his position, and certainly has drawn into distinct parallels the interpretations of a goalkeeper’s fallibilities and expectations – so much so that his more informal common moniker is now synonymous with the flawed ‘keeper, and the demise of the trust once invested by an anticipating audience. Could such a demonstrable divide be attributable to an enduringly simplistic analysis of goalkeeping in translation from social media to professional punditry, sensationalist tendencies in the journalistic coverage of goals – career-defining events that ‘keepers are so inherently connected – or the immediate blame culture instilled within modern public culture, or potentially each issue, and more?
Masochistic tendencies must define any youthful footballing prospect opting for, and embracing, the responsibilities of goalkeeping. Foolishness, or a highly independent fervour, can be the only other rational explanations for the career path. Only now, quite embarrassingly, are the profession’s tribulations and demands being adequately observed, and the mandate for such investigations realised, by the innovative journalistic facets of FourFourTwo and Tifo Football, amongst others. For Hart, however, you fear this awareness may have arrived a number of seasons late to the fortification of a career that has met rapid demise since the appointment of Pep Guardiola’s disapproving tactical operation at Manchester City; facing, if you believed the interpretations of mainstream media forms, torrid experiences in Turin – quite curiously – and East London. Despite the emergence of Jack Butland and Jordan Pickford, and rise to prominence of both Tom Heaton and Fraser Forster, he has yet retained ownership of the Three Lions’ primary jersey; continuing to belt out God Save the Queen at maximum decibel level in each pre-match procedure under both Roy Hodgson and Gareth Southgate. Many attribute this allegiance to ideological conservatism within the FA’s ranks, particularly while noting his glaring faults against Wales and Iceland in a 2016 European Championship tournament that eventually witnessed Hodgson’s inconspicuous departure, and the more definitive ambition towards the pronunciation of an apparent national footballing identity.
Now threatened with the permanent loss of his authoritative position even in a West Ham side experienced something of a resurgence under Moyes – barring the chance that a similar fate, or alternative misfortune, befalls the reliably competent Adrián – could the ultimate embarrassment and discredit be to capitalise his ticket to Russia next summer? By no means, of course, is he ever an automatic, nor pre-ordained, selection. This is a man, after all, that cut his goalkeeping teeth in the quaint Shropshire town of Shrewsbury – that of his birth – and who announced himself primarily with a context-defying loan stint at Birmingham City, under Alex McLeish, as just a 22-year-old. His career had never been defined with the most fortunate of environs until the Citizens, as early as 2006, invested their future title ambitions in his qualities. Having performed admirably in all but one of the top five English divisions – the Championship – for the Shrews, Tranmere, Blackpool, Manchester City and Birmingham by just the age of 22, his rise was meteoric.
Yet stability has rarely guided his path. Thrice loaned out by Stuart Pearce – at the time also his England under-21 manager, and now with whom his is of course reunited at the Hammers – and Mark Hughes while ousted from a starting jersey by Shay Given, his development was realised in bases divided by services to both club and country, and centred at the Carrington Training Centre, the English’s national team’s pre-St George’s Park outlets at Lilleshall Park and Bisham Abbey, and – albeit briefly – in considerably less prestigious bases in the dilapidated suburbs of Liverpool and the Lancastrian coast. Much hope was pinned on an imposing, 6’5”, figure Sven-Göran Eriksson – certainly the individual to regard, having resigned as Three Lions boss exactly a year prior to assuming control at the City of Manchester Stadium – described as "one of the biggest talents in this country as a goalkeeper"; reasonably so, in an age where one of England’s glaring chinks was in the goalkeeping position, with David James, Paul Robinson and Scott Carson in indefinite respective occupations of the role. As the beacon of national hope leading into a myriad of eminently achievable tournaments under the profound managerial aptitude of relative coup Fabio Capello, the pressure was immeasurable. One can only ponder the upheaval mounted at his credibility when riding the crest of a seemingly endless wave of upwards mobility. The scrutiny he was certain to encounter, however, is now self-evident, and only protracted by an era of seamless social rapidity, and of brutal, immediately elevated, voices with little internal perspective or objectivity.
It goes without saying that for all of Hart’s flaws – for all of his evident blemishes, broadcast live to an extensive international audience in any such case – he is only human. Cliché-riddled as that statement may be, for each of the perceived ‘blunders’ suffered against Wales, in Rob Green-esque grace against Iceland, and reported without objectivity from Turin, there is an employee shrouded behind the reputation cultivated by incessant competition and commercial duties. Yet pity should not define any observation of his performances; to patronise those of the ilk of his achievements is to grossly understate the importance of the debate, in such an intensely monetised, accountable and exacting industry.
Unfortunately, what is often defied in the function of social media debate is pragmatism, while any remorse towards the individual in question is often belied in the circumstance. Equally so, those within the punditry profession appear decidedly hesitant to apply more than an ephemeral, and audience-satiating mourning of a talent that once held such prestige in their interests. Whether these divergent analytical cultures are replicative of the discipleship of religious commentators – perhaps cautious to guard the delicacies of their establishment – and the cynicism of atheists in debate, or merely the product of a vast footballing expanse of many coinciding subjects, is very much open to interpretation.
Performance, regardless, is a reciprocal process; if not equipped with the sufficient managerial, personnel-fixated or economic circumstances on former scales, it is unnatural, and wildly unrealistic, to expect Hart to recapture the form that saw him lift two Premier League titles and claim four domestic Golden Gloves. To be shelved, in such circumspect proceedings, by a dominant domestic outfit under Pep Guardiola where he legally remains contracted, and, apparently according to personal jurisdiction, immerse himself in an entirely divergent cultural context, could have been little other than the toughest challenge of his career. Pursue this example with a return to a notoriously scathing English press amidst a Hammers backline suffering chronic organisation issues under Bilić – achieving just 17 clean sheets in 70 matches since a triple-consecutive shutout series in December 2015, of which four were against sides that would either continue to be relegated, or currently occupy a drop-zone position – and while departing City under a discourteous cloud of Guardiola’s fully refined doubt, and the salvation of his options was bleak. Yet, at the time, it is understandable that anticipation around his career was resolved; Javier Hernandez, ever reliable under Sir Alex Ferguson’s tutelage, arriving for £16 million, former team-mate Pablo Zabaleta employed on a free transfer and Marko Arnautovic, an entity of occasional wondrous ability at Stoke, drafted to the Olympic Stadium for a club-record fee of up to £25 million. Each has since found personal standards befallen, and collective efforts degraded, in a season of dishevelled embarrassment prior to Moyes’ London derby aptitude – seizing four points from consecutive fixtures against Chelsea and Arsenal – and emphatic Potteries victory.
While Zabaleta is reformed under a less culpable wing-back position, and Arnautovic finally achieves offensive liberty without the concern of evidently noncompliant defensive responsibilities – while even Hernandez only finds himself temporarily removed due to injury and tactical demands – however, Hart is defiantly side-lined. It is quite notable that they have not suffered the indignity of Hart’s treatment; a discarding only exacerbated by his position and international distinction. If observing results as a representative gauge of achievement, the decision has proven a masterstroke in reinvigorating and reintroducing stability to a creditable defensive unit. The decision, despite the lauding of Moyes’ bravery in defying years of committed service and reputation, may not be as simplistically principled in practice as on paper; nor, even, as courageous. In many respects comparable to Wayne Rooney’s fallibilities and accused crimes to public frustration over many a year of international service, during which the lynchpin of a gradually ageing ‘Golden Generation’ was burdened with converting the efforts of fellow Premier League, and even Champions League, victors beside him, it is perhaps unfortunate that Hart found fame so young. The 15-year-old schoolboy that travelled occasionally with the Shrewsbury first-team during their 2003-04 Conference National season, and was selected on the bench in the Shrews’ Britannia Stadium-based play-off final, could have scarcely believed future Italian excursions, yet neither may he have conceived a duo of Premier League titles achievable from such humble pedigrees. As he cultivated a reputation as the prodigious youth, it is not one he could ever, evidently, shirk from his foibles. Potentially, it is this constant expectation that has formed a tendency to freeze on the high-profile occasions, and to stall in the fortunes of his club career with it.
Far from beset with glaring errors, however, his authority has been harmed by Guardiola’s dehumanising treatment, while implanted impatiently into condemned teams. Criticism is a much simpler tendency when observing failing sides than when approaching an analysis of outfits charging towards silverware, as finger-pointing emerges so evidently amidst periods of crisis. Thus, it is no coincidence the ‘keeper has befallen the status granted to him by accomplishments at the foot of Roberto Mancini and Mauricio Pochettino’s title-winning collectives. For had it not been for the appointment of a prophetic Spaniard, and the definitive espousal of ‘sweeper-keeper’ qualities, Hart may well have remained a leading light of English domestic goalkeeping. The inquest into the realisation of much-touted ability may never have reached such dramatic heights.
Subsequently, Hart is neither at fault for the lack of a national strategy, nor culpable for the afterthought of any apparent FA contingency plan. Inheriting the starting jersey from the defective Green and expired James, he has continued to outshine those who have rivalled his position from similar stances of relative disadvantage; Ben Foster, Fraser Forster, John Ruddy, Alex McCarthy, Tom Heaton, Jack Butland and now, perhaps, Jordan Pickford, and has earned his position with the trust and rapport of successive helmsmen. These are a series of individuals, from the suburbs of Warwick, Wallsend, Cambridge, Guildford, Chester, Birmingham and Sunderland, who are equally as afflicted by origins from Football League – as opposed to elite-level – and even non-league academies, in the case of Foster, as they are equipped with the psychological resolve from their modest outsets, in all but the steadily deteriorating fortunes of Heaton at Manchester United from the ages of 16 to 24. Contrast this with Germany, Italy or Spain’s goalkeeping selections, and the issue is readily apparent. Current occupants Manuel Neuer, Marc-André ter Stegen and Bernd Leno, Gianluigi Buffon, Gianluigi Donnarumma and Mattia Perin, David de Gea, Kepa Arrizabalaga and Pepe Reina – of Die Mannschaft, Gli Azzurri and La Furia Roja, respectively – all originate from renowned academies at Schalke, Borussia Mönchengladbach and Stuttgart, Parma, AC Milan and Genoa, Atlético Madrid, Athletic Bilbao and Barcelona, and demonstrate the benefits of these practices in competition. Resolving the disparity in English environs, however, has proven an eminent ability under the structure of the St George’s Park programme, with youth products Dean Henderson, and the likes, potentially able to alleviate this systemic comparative weakness.
Henderson – of Manchester United – his 2017 Under-20 World Cup contemporary Freddie Woodman – of Newcastle – and Manchester City employee Angus Gunn, recently elevated to senior responsibilities in preparation for November’s Wembley friendly with Brazil, all represent beacons of hope in enforcing a definite English goalkeeping identity. Though not the immediate products of their current sides – purchased from Carlisle, Crystal Palace and Norwich, respectively – these signatures were enacted at the sprightly teenage years of just 14, 16 and 15, with considerable development yet to elapse. Aside from Henderson – selected in just the under-16, under-17, U20 and U21 stages – and although Gunn’s talents omitted the under-18 squad, each has progressed through the national ranks with caps at each stage of youth development, and alongside trusted coaches, astounding forwards, determined midfielders and resolute defenders they would soon rely on in close proximity. These are a contingent of individuals that have derived from similar elite refineries of talent, and have reaped the rewards of a sustainable and supportive national programme. No longer is fortune required – as with the Class of ’92, relied upon so heavily for Eriksson in David Beckham’s talismanic role, the Neville brothers’ dependability, Paul Scholes’ lauded creativity and Nicky Butt’s often-sacrificed defensive screening – in the formation of a cohesive international outfit, in neither goalkeeping nor team production.
None of this is to argue Hart is faultless. To portion blame entirely on his actions, nonetheless, is an irresponsible, and treacherous, tendency when observing the fallibilities of club and country, and enables chairmen, directors, management and coaching to escape rightful blame. He is very much a victim of his circumstance, and in an era of unprecedented goalkeeping ability – capable of a much vaster spectrum of ability than predecessors Bert Trautmann, Gordon Banks, Lev Yashin, Dino Zoff, Sepp Maier, Cláudio Taffarel and Peter Schmeichel – is posed with intensely accentuated demands. Players are nothing without consistency across multiple platforms now; for each of his acclaimed performances – most memorably against Slovenia, Paris Saint Germain and Barcelona – in recent seasons, there are many sub-par exploits for which, often fairly, he has been criticised. Unfortunately for Hart, many opinions have already been formulated, and cynicisms calculated, prior to this stage of his career.
At an age where his employment should be approaching its poignant pinnacle – 30 – and those of his generation (Manuel Neuer, Salvatore Sirigu, Sergio Asenjo and Kenneth Vermeer, from an age, upon retrospect, largely untouched by outstanding talent) remain, in all but Asenjo and the demoted Sirigu’s case, in Champions League and domestically prevailing exploits, this could prove a decisive season in Hart’s professional occupation; if not a second in succession. Little greater statement of the emergence of rivals could have been bestowed than in Pickford’s impervious Wembley runout against Germany, or Adrián’s triple-shutout against teams that had been denied only twice, thrice and four times prior from 15, 16 and 17 2017-18 Premier League matches. These are not unknown entities either. Their challenge has been arising for weeks, upon months, and now is on the verge of permanently overthrowing their former occupant. Or so the common rhetoric goes. It is not a convincing sentiment, certainly not as yet, to condemn Hart as expired in worth; even at a side previously immersed in, and still not far from, the relegation zone; an area, lest we forget, he survived comfortably when at Birmingham in 2009-10, poignantly in a squad that lacked the international flavour or expense of many rivals that finished below them.
This is not merely an argument that professes non-achievement as reasonable grounds upon which to be dropped. Forced into 38 saves from his 14 matches this term – 2.71 per match – compared to Adrián’s 2.75 from four matches, and loading 8.43 goal kicks to the Spaniard’s 13, it appears that the decision, for Hart, of Moyes to move to a 5-3-2 formation has in fact only increased the burden on any Hammers ‘keeper; statistics, as revealing as about their competitors as personal defensive defects, defining this. Overall, having restricted league opponents to ten shots or fewer on five occasions – four under Bilić – this season, demonstrates the fundamental issues in team cohesion, with each of the three clean sheets achieved with Hart in goal witnessed in these such encounters; vs Huddersfield, Swansea and West Brom. Matches against the two presently lowest scoring PL sides, and David Wagner’s outfit who had, prior to their 4-1 victory at Watford this weekend, failed to score away since an opening-day victory at Crystal Palace, do not define the defensive ability of a top-tier side, however. It is noticeable that while Adrián has claimed ownership of the net, but more so that a 5-3-2 formation has unfolded, that exactly 50% of the 82 shots faced, and 80 repelled, have arrived from areas outside of the 18-yard box, and only 3.5% have been applied from within the six-yard box’s hazardous confines. On the only other individual occasions 50% or more of all opponents’ shots have come from further out that 18 yards, seven goals were conceded from 65 total shots in five Bilić matches.
Even leaky when tasked with warding off a majority of hopefully preventable post-18-yard attempts; defence, unfortunately, did not function under the Croat, and Hart failed to either capture inspiration from his manager’s demeanour, nor apply it with his own experience, leaving the outfit to regularly capitulate. This fact is only exacerbated by the degrading matter of conceding 19 goals from nine matches – six under a boss sacked after the last such occurrence, and thrice under the Scot – when they did not face a single shot from within their own six-yard box; that is, to say, shielding their most vulnerable territory effectively, but failing to repel Manchester United, Liverpool or Everton from registering four times, nor Southampton – who benefitted from careless penalty-area tackles from José Fonte and Zabaleta – three times. Quite simply, the basics of resolute defending were not being performed, and that cost, bluntly, both Bilić his job and Hart his authority. Blame the coaching staff for failing to adapt to alternating demands and remaining steadfast to a 4-2-3-1 system that deferred from the populist 3-5-2/3-4-3 status quo, but apportion causation to a range of parties, as opposed to just one whose cadaver is exposed by mass media, in such cases.
What is pivotal is perspective of Hart’s role in arriving at the Olympic Stadium. Though a relative coup for Bilić in procuring the interests of a multiple-accoladed figure, the burdens that eventually overwhelmed the season-long loan signing were evident in all coverage. He was not merely West Ham’s goalkeeper for the season, nor was he an international-standard figure commanding great respect. He was the dishevelled and extradited scapegoat who returned with an apparent point to prove, and in the secure environment to finally achieve this. Regaining the trust of a nation, while shoring up an East London vanguard afflicted with chronic issues, was depicted as his endeavour. It was realised that he would not be judged on equal grounds as any Hammers goalkeeper, perhaps in the establishment’s extensive history. This is far beyond the adversity that we mere mortals can expect to surmount from the immediate outset of our careers in a totally dissimilar working milieu. Now, to announce Moyes’ dissatisfaction and tactical reshuffle as the death knell of his international hopes, is a totally irresponsible journalistic action. Naturally, to evade the tribulations encountered by Hart is to reduce the psychological impacts of the journalistic profession on his own, and to alleviate intense, persistent scrutiny as merely passing statements of critique. To beguile a gullible audience and coax them into believing likewise is to endanger a nation’s moral compass, and to suggest Hart is now a worthless husk of a once-invested entity, now barred from boarding the outbound flight of 23 English Lions from Luton Airport in early June’s mid-morning sunshine, confounds sensibility. It may be a potent footballing matter if conducted sincerely, but when alleviating the focus of his restrictions, and psychological impressions, the debate miscues the crux of the concern. Address, in both debate and parliamentary inquisition, the disparities Hart has confronted obstinately throughout his career, and we may discover modern English goalkeeping is not a fêted profession, after all.
Sadly, the matter is not always as simple as it appears.
Author - Will Hugall
Now a BA Journalism student at Nottingham Trent University, I divide my time between my base in Radford and back home in East Sussex while watching as much football as I can!