WATCH: 'Well pigs do fly don’t they?' - Joe Hart on his 100pc pass completion against Steaua
It was an evening for Manchester City to put a bit of love in their Hart. With an unassailable first-leg lead over Steaua Bucharest and Champions League progression certain, manager Pep Guardiola deemed the circumstances appropriate for what, at times, resembled a testimonial for the imminently departing England goalkeeper.
Having been ignored for the first three fixtures of the season, Joe Hart was even handed the captaincy for the second-leg formalities, victory secured by Fabian Delph’s 56th-minute header.
As the home crowd serenaded him with increasing volume and purpose, all that was missing was the guard of honour. Had City won a penalty, the fans rallying around him would have been demanding he take it.
Twice the emotion of the occasion momentarily seemed to get the better of him. First, midway through the second half when the entire stadium rose to the instruction “stand up if you love Joe Hart”, and once more at full-time when the keeper wanted to soak up what were surely his final on-field moments in a City jersey.
The keeper bowed his head and shook it a little, appearing as embarrassed as he was humbled by the experience. When he made his exit, he clutched his badge, blew kisses and applauded all sides of the arena.
“It does put a lump in the throat,” he said. “This is a special place for me, I don’t think there has been any secret made of that. It is a place I love to be but situations occur in football, but we are men, we get on with it. I really appreciate the people of Man City and it turns out they appreciate me.
“That was a really special night for me. I have had a lot of good nights in football, but it was a really nice night. We all know there is a situation going on but I feel that we are handling it well as a good team with a good management staff.
“We have a top manager the club has wanted for a long, long time and he will have his opinion on things. We will come up with a solution.”
You could not help but feel a little moved. Given new No 1 Claudio Bravo was in attendance, having completed his medical ahead of a £17 million move from Barcelona, this was the most touching evening of Hart’s 10-year City career for conflicting reasons.
Even the commercial department have been active in replacing him, images of the goalkeeper decorating the outside of stadium vanishing in the past 10 days. The club insist that is part of a general rebrand rather than anything sinister. Certainly, the fans’ loyalty cannot be questioned. They are not deferring to their new manager on this issue.
“A Good Hart These Days Is Hard To Find,” was the banner unveiled at the home end, channelling their inner Feargal Sharkey.
The Etihad preferred their renditions of “City’s No 1” – countered by an equally robust appreciation of Guardiola – but they are realistic enough to know the goalkeeper has no intention of improving his possession statistics in the reserves.
“Well pigs do fly don’t they?” he quipped to BT sport when asked on his 100 per cent pass rate here.
His first touch after 40 seconds was met with vociferous applause, as was each thereafter. Not that he had many. He was never going to get much chance to prove a point against such pitiful opposition.
Instead, Hart spent most of the evening standing just outside the penalty area, no doubt visualising the opportunity to emulate the supposedly impeccable first touch and deftness of pass that has made Willy Caballero first choice ahead of him.
From the early stages, it was evident Hart would have to find innovative means of occupying his time as City, despite eight changes from the weekend, continued where they had been a week ago in monopolising possession. The attacking momentum was not so apparent, however.
City effectively earned the longest warm-down in Champions League history courtesy of their emphatic win in Romania. The tempo here was a little more than to be expected in a training drill as Steaua were so bad they ought to have been wearing bibs over their kit.
Delph, who was employed further forward than seen previously, headed the winner from Jesús Navas’s cross and all that remained in the closing stages was for Hart to secure his clean sheet. He duly obliged, pushing Nicolae Stanciu’s free-kick over the bar, and covering enough of his near post to ensure Alexandru Tudorie saw no route to goal when in space on 73 minutes.
The full-time whistle surely brought the last we will see of Manchester City’s Hart. It is now down to Guardiola to make sure such ruthlessness does not disaffect too many of those fans who represent the club’s soul.