Hart keeps his cool in quest to be No 1 for City and country
He ended the season before last as Manchester City's second-choice goalkeeper, behind Shay Given, and England's No 3 and now, 12 months on, Joe Hart is the first choice for club and country.
In fact, he is considered so far ahead of the pack by his contemporaries that they are queuing up to quit international football. That was the obvious place to start this week with Hart, now officially England's No 1 having started seven out of eight of England's internationals this season and a shoo-in to play in the Euro 2012 qualifier against Switzerland today.
Throw in an FA Cup winner's medal and a place in the Champions League next season and it is hard to think of an England player who will depart for his holidays come tomorrow a happier man.
In terms of English goalkeepers, Hart, just 24, is out there on his own. England manager Fabio Capello and his City counterpart Roberto Mancini both reached the same conclusion back in August that he was ready to step up to be No 1 and neither of them have been disappointed.
There have been wobbles for City -- most notably against Blackburn Rovers in September and Leicester City in the FA Cup in January -- but generally Hart's form has been excellent.
So much so that his deputy with England, Ben Foster, has taken indefinite leave from international duty and Robert Green has had to be talked out of retiring.
"I don't think it was anything to do with me if I am totally honest; I think they have all got their personal reasons for making the decision," Hart said this week, but his fellow professionals recognise that he is the future.
It will take a certain kind of individual to hold down a place as England's No 1 for more than a decade. Since David Seaman, who held the role for 11 years until October 2002, it has gone from David James to Paul Robinson, back to James and finally to Hart, with brief diversions along the way including Green and Scott Carson. Job security has not been good.
Hart is a markedly different character from all of his predecessors apart from, perhaps, Green who, like him, demonstrates the same philosophical approach to the ups and downs of the job (leaving aside Green's "screw you" gesture directed at the Upton Park press box in September).
Hart is a bit more laid-back, opening up this week about his season, from the admission that he wanted Manchester United to win the Champions League final to how his two-year-old nephew can put the occasional goal past him in the park.
The latter came up when he remembered the screamer Xherdan Shaqiri hit past him for Switzerland in Basel in September. The moral of the story being there are some things a goalkeeper can do nothing about.
"I was talking to Rob Green about it," Hart said. "I could be down the park playing with my nephew who isn't even three years old. If he kicks it in the corner, I can't save it. It's as simple as that.
"It doesn't matter who you're playing and what you're doing. You can be humbled as a goalkeeper. Obviously you do everything you can to prevent it, but you have to accept that anyone at any point can score past you.
"I keep my perspective from training every day with world-class players. You can have the best game of your life and there's literally some stuff you can't get to or you can't do. I would like to think at the same time they might take a shot that they should score and we save it. It works both ways.
"Nothing is given, there is a lot of pressure but there is a lot of pressure in everything that you do, whether it is at home looking after the family or whether it is playing in goal for England.
"I think you have to accept that sometimes it is going to happen, but the whole point is that you can't live in fear of preventing mistakes, you just have to try to enjoy yourself and do the best thing you can and try and move England forward."
As for United against Barcelona, was he really supporting City's neighbours on Saturday night? He weighs his words carefully.
"I genuinely do support all English teams. Barca were just on another level, weren't they? I wanted an English team to win the Champions League."
Hart came into the professional game at his hometown club Shrewsbury Town and he talks with great fondness of the opportunity they gave him before he moved on to City at 19.
He does not agree that there is a dearth of English goalkeepers, just that life is hard when you are not playing. He has won his battle with Given, but there are plenty of other goalkeepers who cannot get past their club's first choice.
"There's one spot to play in a team, unfortunately, and in the Premier League we attract worldwide players," Hart said. "It's hard to get that No 1 spot. Really, really hard.
"It's difficult, I think we've got some great 'keepers, some good ones in the Championship and the Premier League. People tend to look at it negatively but you don't need 25 goalkeepers; you only need five or six good ones."
In his own difficult times last season Hart admits only to having had "a little think about what was going on" although he is yet to use a sports psychologist -- not that he is of the old school who might regard that as a weakness. "I wouldn't rule anything out in the future," he said.
He describes Mancini as a "demanding manager" but he has not clashed with him because, as Hart puts it, he does what he is told.
Given his own undoubted ability and -- not to put too fine a point on it -- the absence of much current competition, Hart has the potential to be the goalkeeper of his generation, a 100-plus caps man.
Judging from the way he talks he is smart enough to grasp the opportunity but, as he himself would admit, when it comes to being England goalkeeper some good fortune is required too. (© Independent News Service)
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