It is not the fashionable view on Joe Hart, but if there is one memory of his recent performances that stands out then it is the first half of England’s friendly against Brazil in the Maracana Stadium in June when he was the most impressive Englishman on the pitch.
Until the two most recent World Cup qualifiers, the victory over Brazi l at Wembley in February, when Hart saved a Ronaldinho penalty (and the rebound), and then the 2-2 draw in June were the standout performances of the Roy Hodgson era. Hart was integral to them both. Yes, he fell below the required standards against Scotland in August, but in 10 World Cup qualifying games he conceded only four goals.
At the Maracana it felt like Hart was in his element, with the pressure on and Brazil tearing into England. Hart stopped a shot from Neymar at the back post on 20 minutes when Glen Johnson could not get the ball away. Later he saved from Hulk from the left and picked himself up to save Neymar’s effort from the rebound.
There have been a couple of blips for England. A touch of uncertainty in the draw with Poland in Warsaw a year ago, and then again in the friendly against Sweden last November, but those were both nights when the whole England team were poor.
Yet the idea of Hodgson dropping Hart remains as preposterous now as it would have done in June. Even if he spent the rest of the season as Manchester City’s second-choice goalkeeper, he would still be the country’s best option come the start of World Cup preparation.
The expectation is nothing less than full backing from Hodgson for his goalkeeper when, on Thursday, he names his squad for the friendlies this month against Chile and Germany. Hodgson has not suffered from Hart’s errors to the same extent as his club manager, Manuel Pellegrini; but the England manager also recognises that keeping faith in a goalkeeper in difficult times can be as effective as dropping him.
As for the incident that finally cost Hart his City place, it is still a personal view that Matija Nastasic got off lightly in the cock-up that let Fernando Torres in for Chelsea’s winner eight days ago.
From an English point of view, Hart, even in a sticky period of form, is the best goalkeeper England have. It will not have escaped Hodgson’s attention that, on the day Hart was dropped by Pellegrini, one of his understudies in the England squad conceded seven at the Etihad.
John Ruddy could not be held accountable for all seven of City’s goals on Saturday, although he could certainly have done better with the second from David Silva. Whatever the case that was made for dropping Hart – and Costel Pantilimon is a better back-up option than any Hodgson has at his disposal – there is a price to pay. Dropping a long-standing first-choice goalkeeper is not the same as dropping an outfield player. It fractures a line of trust that is hard to repair.
Hodgson’s approach is that he fundamentally believes in Hart and is prepared to accept the occasional mistake because he knows that in the long term the player will deliver. “It will take a lot more than a bad game for any player before I start suggesting he needs to be replaced,” Hodgson said of Hart before the final two World Cup qualifiers. While he might give others a chance between now and June, the signs are that his faith in Hart as first choice will not change.
Often high on the list in the case against Hart is the lack of competition that he has faced at international level since taking over as No 1 after the last World Cup finals. In fact, this school of thought has gathered such momentum that it almost seems like it is Hart’s fault the alternatives are so underwhelming.
To recap, Ruddy is Norwich City’s goalkeeper, where judging him objectively has been hard this season, given how poorly they have played at times. There is also the problematic issue of his eagerness to speak to Chelsea last summer when they offered up to £10m, in fee and add-ons, for him to become Petr Cech’s No 2. He has since signed a new contract at Norwich, but he was close to being a cup goalkeeper at Chelsea and spending the rest of his time on the bench.
Putting even that aside, there are few, even among the England coaching staff who would make the case that Ruddy or Celtic’s Fraser Forster, on a good day, are technically anything like the equal of Hart on one of his good days.
The best of the rest is Ben Foster, who has a broken foot and will not be able to play for England until the March friendly against Denmark. A talented goalkeeper and an affable individual, this is, nevertheless, the man who took an indefinite sabbatical from international football in May 2011, finally to be talked out of it by Hodgson in March.
Given how Peter Crouch and Micah Richards had their international careers ended by turning down standby places in the Euro 2012 squad, the leeway given to Foster by Hodgson has always felt hard to reconcile.
No doubt Hodgson knew that there is so little cover in that position he had to swallow his pride and go back to a goalkeeper who played for him at West Bromwich Albion. Perhaps the much sought after competition for Hart at international level will come in future years from the likes of Jack Butland, on loan at Barnsley from Stoke, and Reading’s Alex McCarthy.
There has been the same debate in Italy over Gianluigi Buffon who was judged to be on the wane at the age of 35 yet without credible contenders in the Italy squad. That was until a vintage performance against Bulgaria in the World Cup qualifier in September.
Memories do seem very short where goalkeepers are concerned. Pellegrini has decided his strategy now with Hart and who knows where it will end up? But keeping a proven, top-level goalkeeper in the side when his form has started to wobble is no less radical a strategy, and the rewards are potentially just as great.