Change of Hart
Torino move has brought a noticeable new maturity in England goalkeeper
It was at his introduction as a Torino player that Joe Hart provided a hint that what happened next might be interesting.
It can't be said a life on the bank of the River Po was his choice. "Gutted" was the word he chose to describe the summer just gone, as he prepared to take his leave of English companions on Tuesday night and head back there. But as he started out in Turin that day last month, Hart broke into Italian - prepared, properly enunciated Italian, which actually made him look like he meant it rather than the comical gesture from the shores of post-Brexit England.
"I am studying Italian," he said, earnestly. "I've already learned the words I need. 'Mine, yours, left, right, pass, carry, give, leave. It's going well…" He blew out his cheeks when he'd finished, to broad applause. In a land where the goalkeeper is seen as a huge character, they were hugely impressed that he had picked up the language of his trade.
"He already has a discreet sense of irony," 'Gazzetta dello Sport' also observed.
It was difficult to see such humility coming. It was the bombast and self-importance - the chest-beating routine in the tunnel before games at the European Championships and superiority complex in the off-camera interviews - that made Hart such an unattractive character as his star faded this summer. He seemed to be a symptom of English football's hubris after Iceland dumped the nation out of the Euros and the media said so. The headline on this correspondent's report encapsulated the sentiment. "Too rich, too famous, Hart epitomises everything wrong with England."
The Italians would not have been surprised. Before arriving in their country, Hart had always been remembered for his high-profile parading around the penalty box before the shoot-out against Italy in the Euro 2012 quarter final. No-one has forgotten what Andrea Pirlo said after putting a decisive penalty past him. "I had to take him down a peg or two." Perhaps it has taken Pep Guardiola to finish what Pirlo started but it has seemed to be a different Hart in evidence these past two weeks.
His interviews have meant something. His leadership - circulating among the midfielders during a second-half break in play on Tuesday to encourage them - has been more subtle and substantive. Some players denied the captaincy, as Hart was when Jordan Henderson took it in Wayne Rooney's stead on Tuesday, might have left Jesse Lingard to his own devices when he seemed set on an act of retaliation at Stadion Stozice but Hart did what captains do and restrained him.
"I don't really care," he replied when asked what Lingard's problem had been. "But you can't lose your head like that."
And, of course, Hart kept goal quite supremely against Slovenia. In his discussion of the two-handed stop which may be the best he delivers for England, he managed to marry modesty and sincerity. "It hurt," he said, wincing. "I landed on the frame of the goal."
It's always easier to talk when you've saved the day, of course, but this Joe Hart looked an extremely acceptable face of England. "I just love diving around in goal. Being able to do it for my country is amazing and I remind myself of it every single time I pull on an England shirt," he said - not the kind of observation you hear from a professional footballer every day of the week.
"I would have loved to have saved the two shots that I should have saved [this summer.] But they are gone. You have got to let the ball come to you as a 'keeper. I am trying to grow and I am trying to improve every single day."
Hart's advocates will say that these qualities were there all along, though they had been undetectable at ground level and certainly not part of the picture that much of the English football public have formed.
He doesn't seem set on adopting a Guardiola style of goalkeeping. The critical sentence of Hart's interview with the Sunday newspapers last week came in response to a question about whether he felt there were two kinds, one of them being the keeper-sweeper method. "I don't know. I have to think selfishly about the whole thing and try to be what I'm capable of being," he replied. It was Jamie Carragher who wisely observed that Hart could have spent the time, in the five months between the announcement of Guardiola's appointment and pre-season, working on his left foot and touch to give himself a head start. But Hart's impressive early contribution for Torino won't go unmissed among other Premier League clubs. Chelsea or Liverpool may be tempted if it continues.
In Italy, the football nation looks to Gianluigi Buffon for the definitive critique of goalkeepers, so it has helped that he declared Hart one to watch, four years ago. On the 'Curca Maratona' behind one of the goals at Torino's Stadio Olimpico, they've re-worked the Madness track 'Our House' with the lyrics 'Our Hart, in the middle of our box.' That's precisely where the Italian TV shows have highlighted his presence, shouting instructions to his defenders in Italian.
That old piece of Mahatma Gandhi wisdom about adversity being the mother of progress seems as true as it ever was. (© Independent News Service)