Nice, France, 2016 – Aron Gunnarsson, Iceland’s captain, tore off his shirt and charged over to the travelling fans, who were in raptures. The thunderous sound of the Icelandic Viking clap could probably have woken the old Norse gods, stirring from years of slumber to congratulate a momentous victory for the smallest nation in the competition’s history; there would be no Valhalla for England. Instead, England would be crucified by the press the following day and, most damningly, by Icelandic commentator – and now cult hero – Gudmundur Benediktsson: “You can go home. You can go out of Europe. You can go wherever the hell you want!” he hollered, in his immortalised celebration to Iceland’s second, referring to England’s recent, controversial, vote to withdraw from the European Union.
Joe Hart cut a solitary figure laid in the goalmouth, he had desperately tried to defend in the fleeting hope plucky England would knick one in the dying embers of the game. As the time ticked down, and the impossible became possible, it dawned on Hart that it would be his mistake that would cause one of the biggest upsets in modern footballing history.
As the next months played out, there were constant attacks on the, frankly, embarrassing England side. Raheem Sterling and Joe Hart became the scapegoats. Hart was singled out and deemed not worthy to wear the shirt again – he did, but not for long and eventually was left out of the 2018 World Cup squad as England embarked on their redemption campaign. Hart wouldn’t experience the same renaissance, he tried; In Italy, he appeared on a balcony in Turin with Il Toro’s shirt to announce his arrival. In his inaugural press-conference he explained how former City teammate Micah Richards had told him about his time in Florence and how Italy would be perfect to escape England for a while. Upon his return, he was benched at West Ham and Burnley, and now finds himself at a career crossroads.
Many will point to Iceland as the downfall of Hart’s career, but the seeds had been sown months prior, in Manchester, with the appointment of Pep Guardiola. From the first day, there had been speculation that Guardiola wanted a goalkeeper who was good with his feet. If you believe reports, Guardiola and Hart always had a strenuous relationship – the keeper and the idealist never seemed to be on the same page and so the minute Hart reported for pre-season training, he was shown the door.
It was a strange alien feeling seeing Hart standing on the Italian balcony; it was a callback to Calcio’s golden era in the 90s with top English talent making the journey to the peninsula. It was a scenario nobody wanted to accept. Many City fans, including myself, assumed he’d stick around forever – much like I thought Vincent Kompany would (and to an extent, Mangala, when will he leave?!) – it was naive thinking.
When a young Joe Hart signed for Manchester City in 2006, it was an entirely different beast to the club we know today. It was one season later City would effectively step into the 21st century, leaving behind the torrid memories of the late 90s when exiled former Thailand prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra bought the club and appointed Sven-Goran Eriksson. The partnership would only last a season and soon Shinawatra was on trial and the Abu Dhabi group was at the helm of City. The heights that the group would take City too were beyond all our wildest dreams, even the biggest optimist wouldn’t have guessed quite how the future laid out.
In 2011, Hart walked out onto the Wembley turf for City’s first shot at a major title since 1976. The semi-final against Manchester United was one of the noisy neighbours’ greatest moments. It was the moment they truly announced their intent. Yaya Toure’s goal separated the sides when Kenwyne Jones bore down on the City goal. It was Hart who stood tall, strong, and kept the Caribbean native at bay. A year later, Hart would play an integral role in City’s Premier League push. There were moments when we may have doubted: Sunderland’s surprise victory on New Years Day, the 8-point-gap and, most infamously, being 2-1 down to QPR in stoppage time, on the final day of the season.
Although, Hart made countless incredible saves throughout the campaign. There is one moment that, for me, sticks out more than others. It’s not a moment of goalkeeping heroics, in fact it was quite the contrary. It’s the 90th minute in the Round of 16 in the Europa League, and Manchester City are on their way out of the competition. Up-steps Joe Hart. He had remained up from a corner just moments prior and now the ball was making its way into the box again. He met it with an emphatic header that seemed destined to nestle in the Sporting Lisbon goal, had it not been for an incredible save from Hart’s opposite number, Rui Patricio. The final whistle followed immediately after. The image of Hart, laid on the Etihad turf, juxtaposed with Patricio celebrating was plastered on the back page of every major British newspaper the following morning.
It’s all fun and games bringing up the times he almost scored, but there is one performance that tops everything he did during his time at Manchester City.
The 2014/15 campaign was a crossroads for City. Off the back of a second league title under manager Manuel Pellegrini, City were determined to cut their teeth in Europe. They had the perfect opportunity in the Round of 16 against Barcelona. This wasn’t an ordinary Barcelona. It had the three-headed of the beast up front, Cerberus – Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar; Andres Iniesta, Xavi and Sergio Busquets controlling the midfield and Carlos Puyol and Gerard Pique commanding at the back.
What followed was a career-defining performance from Hart. City limped away from the Camp Nou, battered and beaten, knocked out of Europe again. It wasn’t the mauling it should have been thanks to Hart. Going into the fixture, City were two goals down and had it all do. However, they now had nothing to lose. Joe Hart had kept the quarter-final dream alive with a penalty save in the final minute at the Etihad, and that would set the standard for his performance in Spain.
Hart did not bow to Messi, Suarez or Neymar, even as his defence crumbled before his eyes. It was a showing of the lost art of defending at all costs from Hart, who used anything necessary to defend his goalmouth. There was a moment when a bewildered Lionel Messi looked at Neymar astonished, at how Hart had managed to scramble back in front of his goal to deny the little magician. The boy with humble beginnings in Shropshire had successfully stumped the three kings of South America.
There are plenty of moments I could highlight – that incredible 80-yard-dash against Manchester United, where Hart channelled his inner Usain Bolt to deny Wayne Rooney. But the truth is, Hart was so reliable over the years, every game should be celebrated. His achievements were recognised by the club last October, when the club named a training pitch after him.
For younger fans, it’s easy to forget how incredible Hart was in sky blue. He was Mr Manchester City before Vincent Kompany took up the mantle. He was a rare fossil that pre-dated the Sheik Mansour era. Hart served as a constant reminder as what the club had come from – a walking reminder of Paul Dickov’s Wembley heroics, a windy Georgi Kinkladze run to relegation to the third tier. However, above all else, he was one of our own, who genuinely loved the club that had given him so much. He watched us grow from the noisy neighbours to the kings of Manchester, and onwards to kings of England. His celebration when Aguero found the net was comparable to any fan in the Etihad Stadium that day.
And so I say, on behalf of City fans, thank you, Charles Joseph Hart.
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