Social media was awash with debate as to whether Joe Hart should have been dropped for the match against Norwich City this weekend. There is no debate. If he was a keeper not from these shores, then he would have been dropped long ago.
For Hart, read Manchester United’s Massimo Taibi. Taibi actually took the man-of-the-match award in his first game against Liverpool but was sold after only four appearances for the club having been labelled ‘the Blind Venetian’ – however, if his errors were catalogued alongside those of Hart, they would pale into insignificance.
Is Costel Pantilimon good enough to replace Hart in goal long term? In short, no. While he did not concede on his Premier League debut – that achievement must be given context: prior to the game, Johan Elmander, Gary Hooper and Ricky van Wolfswinkel had mustered a total of only six shots on target this season. They fared little better against City.
This was not a rigorous test of Pantilimon’s credentials but he was shaky enough at the three corners the visitors did muster to confirm that he is no solution to City’s goalkeeping woes. Don’t take my word for it though; take the word of Victor Piturca, his national team coach, who dropped him from the Romania squad for their World Cup play-off against Greece.
The question remains though, who or what is the solution. Is Hart? At the moment the answer is no. However, was he ever? How good is Joe Hart?
There is no doubting that he is a great shot stopper but that is a pre-requisite of a goalkeeper. If he were to be ranked in the list of England keepers of the modern era he would probably fall somewhere alongside Nigel Martyn. Martyn, a purveyor of the great saves but not a great keeper. This is not meant as a slight on either man. They are both solid Premier League goalkeepers.
The only shame is that England have no modern day David Seaman. The media, Hart’s coaches and the fans had Hart down as Seaman’s heir apparent long before he had a true test of his credentials.
England’s short-sightedness is the stuff of legend abroad. It is mocked. Take for example Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s quotes after he scored four against England in a friendly last November.
"That's the way it is with the English," he said. "If you score against them you're a good player, if you don't score against them you're not a good player. I remember Lionel Messi before the 2009 Champions League final for Barcelona... then he scored against Manchester United and suddenly he was the best player in the world. Maybe now they'll say something like that about me."
There was hyperbole before the Euros in 2012 that Hart was on a level with Gianluigi Buffon, Iker Casillas and Manuel Neuer. He grew into that talk; at the time the hype bred confidence and for any player – but particularly goalkeepers - confidence is paramount. Look at Gareth Bale. Shorn of confidence, he was almost a makeweight in a deal that would have seen Spurs pay Middlesbrough £15 million and Bale for Stewart Downing; buoyed by confidence, he later became the world’s most expensive player.
However, as soon as that confidence becomes arrogance, it is a slippery slope to comeuppance – Hart’s descent commenced at the quarter-final stage of the Euros. Arrogantly shouting in the face of wily old dog Andrea Pirlo as the maestro stepped up to take his penalty. Pirlo’s response? A panenka. The result? Comeuppance.
Hart has not been the same since. It is a long road to redemption for a goalkeeper whose confidence must be shot to pieces after a terrible run of form, but it can be done. Look at the example of Bale or David De Gea, who could have fallen to the wayside in the same vein as the much maligned Taibi after a tumultuous start to his Manchester United career but showed great mental strength to improve as a player.
Can Hart do the same? Only time will tell. He must know his limitations and work on those – decision making can be worked on, so too command of the area but with Hart there is a reason there was hype. He is a good goalkeeper but he needs to work extremely hard to be talked about at the top table of world goalkeeping.
‘World class’ is an overused term but central to any player who has left a mark on the world game is an inner mental strength to rise above doubts but also to not let the hype go to his head.
Hart has failed at the latter, it is now time to see whether he can make a better fist of the former.