Saturday 17 March 2018

COMMENT: Too rich, too famous, too much ego - Joe Hart epitomises everything that is wrong with England

England goalkeeper Joe Hart looks dejected after the final whistle
England goalkeeper Joe Hart looks dejected after the final whistle

Ian Herbert

Joe Hart was doing his Neanderthal beating-the-chest routine again before kick-off, pumping up the team like he seems to have decided he needs to at this tournament, when all England needed from him was some poise and security.

It was how it had become with Hart – a lot of extraneous preening and attitude which tells you that this is an individual who has forgotten the elementary part of his professional role. The same unpleasant strutting is there in the interviews with him: not the ones on television, in the full glare, but those behind the scenes where he, as one of the senior players of this England side, is asked to articulate some sense of leadership.

It’s always too much trouble for Hart. You know not to hold your breath waiting for something intelligent because he doesn’t want to give it. The barrel was being so scraped on the last of these occasions that, for the purposes of levity, he was asked about the team darts matches that he is supposedly organising. Dead bat. Nothing. He didn’t want to know, or to share any insight for the hundreds who have spent a fortune following England around this country.

That’s why the 18th minute moment - best viewed behind the sofa - on Monday night had such a vast amount of hubris about it. The shot which Kolbeinn Sigthorsson stroked towards Hart after his strike partner Gylfi Sigurdsson had lifted a pass into his path was the kind of present which Hart should stop ten times out of ten. It disappeared under his left arm as he leapt towards it and squirmed over the goal-line, to send Iceland into the lead they never let go off.

England goalkeeper Joe Hart (left) England's Gary Cahill (bottom) and England's Dele Alli show their dejection after the final whistle

For the England players who watched this in despair, the group stages was on repeat mode. It was the same Hart leap to his left which proved so useless when Gareth Bale struck his free kick in Lens which vanished behind the goalkeeper, too. Hart thumped his forehead with his fist and in the moments that followed he paced up and down the edge of his area, alone with the scale of the disaster.

The psychological effect on him was self-evident. When Ragnar Sigurdsson hurled one of the long throws for which Iceland are very well known and England must have been prepared, a few minutes later, he flapped at it in a way which provided no connection.

It doesn’t fill you with optimism when bookmakers are emailing at half time to say that the nation’s goalkeeper is 9/4 to be dropped for England’s next competitive game but William Hill had a point. At the time Iceland’s second goal went in, England had faced five shots and conceded four goals in the tournament, with Hart at fault for two of them.

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There were other offenders at the back of the England side. Sigthorsson, of French club side Nantes, had time to receive the pass, look up, pause, and strike the tame shot with both Gary Cahill and Chris Smalling helpless to do anything about it.

And then there was the broader and more desperate failing on a night of greater indignity than England have known which leaves the side in such a desperate place that who knows where to start. It was that incapability of England to conjure the most fundamental commodity required to win football matches, whether it be on the street corner to the Sunday League pitch to the Premier League. It is that something unexpected; the pass, feint, the run which deceives, surprises and open ups a field of opportunity.

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England's Jamie Vardy (left) is substituted onto the pitch for teammate Raheem Sterling

England, for all their individual talents, lacked so much as one. Raheem Sterling was re-introduced to provide that component but flickered so intermittently that you despaired. A spin around Birkir Saevarson - one of the weakest pair of full-backs at the tournament - gave him space, but the defender made up the lost ground and halted him. A five-second opportunity on the ball in the opposition half five minutes later but no pass, just delay and dither. Two Sterling vignettes which told the story of the entire unconscionable spectacle.

Hodgson will pay the price for this. He was no clearer how the pieces should fit last night than he ever was. But the reason why the nation struggles to feel empathy or connections with many of these players is the ego. Too famous, too important, too rich, too high and mighty to discover the pace and the fight and the new dimensions to put it on when against one of Europe’s most diminutive football nations. That is this England.

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Darren Randolph poses for a picture as crowds gather. Picture: Caroline Quinn
Darren Randolph with fans on returning to Dublin

And Hart is the epitome of that disease. This was the day when we watched two goalkeepers – David de Gea and Gianluigi Buffon deliver performances of the highest level in the Italians’ defeat of the Spanish. It has been the tournament when two Irishmen, Darren Randolph and Michael McGovern, have provided the same.

McGovern does not begrudge interviews. After Northern Ireland had been eliminated from the tournament on Saturday afternoon, the discussion with him revealed that he had taken photographs of some of the French newspaper articles reflecting his part at the tournament. He was named in L’Equipe’s team of the group stage. “I’ll look back on them,” he said. “Once this is over, when I’m on my holidays probably, I’ll look back and think: ‘Great.’”

It was kind of candour and modesty which Hart would never dream of offering. His dismal night continued in myriad ways as England sunk to the most desperate depths – firing several passes out to his full back Walker at such pace that simply to control them and keep the ball in touch was a feat. He sat, arms around knees, staring into space at the end but it was he, the symbol of an English disease, who had most to answer for. You would hope he might reflect on that, and these three weeks might change him. We won’t be holding our breath.

(© Independent News Service)

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