Joe Hart, an intelligent and articulate young footballer, is diplomatic enough to agree with the suggestion, which has just been put to him, that training with England in the north London sunshine without any other recognisable international goalkeeper around must be a curiously lonely experience. "Yeah, it did feel a bit strange," he says, reflecting on the injuries to Scott Carson and Ben Foster which left him alone with the Arsenal rookie James Shea on his club's London Colney turf earlier this week.
The events of the past 18 months might mean that Hart relished the solitude out there. He was the established first-team goalkeeper at Manchester City in January 2009 when he caught the early whispers about Shay Given's impending arrival and was pitched into the season-long journey of discovery, to Birmingham City on loan and back, which has finally convinced the two important Italians in his life – Roberto Mancini and Fabio Capello – that he should be their man for the future.
Today, with his supremacy at Eastlands re-established and a first competitive start for England against Bulgaria at Wembley just a day away, Hart should feel that he has the football world in the palm of those capable hands. Yet there is no sense of him resting on his laurels. He might appear capable of remaining the custodian of the England gloves for just as long as David Seaman, the man who was his inspiration in his formative years, but Given's decision this week to stay put and fight for a place at City – Mancini has convinced him he will not win trophies anywhere else – means that there is still one international-class keeper too many at that club. For Hart, you might say it's still a case of two's company and two's a crowd.
The question "Are you pleased Shay is staying?" is an invidious one, which invites another of those diplomatic replies of his – "It's great," Hart says, without a hint of irony – though the 23-year-old has been buffeted enough by the vagaries of the top-flight game in the past two seasons for the sympathy for his club-mate to have its limits. "It's obviously Shay's situation to deal with," Hart says of Given's decision to forego a reunion with Mark Hughes at Fulham. "I've no doubt he had endless clubs wanting him, but it's not quite as simple as saying, 'I want to go there', and turning up. We both know it's not our decision so we've not been malicious towards each other. It doesn't really need to be discussed. Us discussing it would solve nothing."
All of which makes Hart's England future by comparison seem remarkably uncomplicated. The going so far has been smooth. Hart is yet to concede to an opposition player in his four appearances in friendlies, Phil Jagielka's own-goal against Hungary last month being the only England goal he has shipped. The international jersey did bring one of Hart's more difficult moments in the summer of 2009 when, having helped England to the final of the European Under-21 Championship, he was suspended for being booked in the semi-final against Sweden, his crime being the "ungentlemanly conduct" of trying to put off his opponents during the penalty shoot-out. Hart, suspended for the final, said in the immediate aftermath that "football is supposed to be fun" and that he was "just trying to act in the traditions of Bruce Grobbelaar" and he remains indignant about the blot on his reputation.
"I wasn't shouting at anyone. I don't shout and scream," he says. "I don't know what I got booked for because [the referee] told me not to say anything and I didn't say a word throughout the whole thing. I was just stood off my line looking at the guy who was taking the penalty. He was a long way off taking it, the ball was nowhere near the spot and the referee must have had a problem with me."
But Hart has travelled a long way since that June afternoon in Gothenburg; the work he did with Birmingham's goalkeeping coach Dave Watson has been instrumental in the development of a keeper whose domination of the penalty area is, in Mancini's mind, where he scores over Given. Capello's decision not to use Hart in South Africa makes him one of those players who, a little like Theo Walcott, enters the European Championship qualifying campaign with a clean slate. "Coming back from our clubs, though, it is a lot fresher [than at the World Cup] and there is a lot more to talk about. It's a whole lot different. Exciting times."
Recent England times have of course demonstrated how the self-assurance of a young goalkeeper can be so cruelly torn apart by events on the field. Carson, Paul Robinson and Robert Green will always live with the errors they committed in an England shirt. Hart addresses this with the exuberance of youth, a quality that has meant he has not yet felt the need to work with Capello's sports psychologist Christian Lattanzio. "Thinking, 'What if I do this wrong?' is a terrible way to think," he says. "You just have to go out there and try to do your best and believe in what you can do. It's got me this far, so I just have to try to carry it on. If something did happen I would have to cross that bridge when I came to it. You can't live in fear."
One scenario Hart is, hesitatingly, prepared to envisage is how it would be for the nation to say, as they did about Seaman, that Hart is the undisputed No 1. "David Seaman was just the man," Hart enthuses. "When you said England goalkeeper it was David Seaman and that was it. He turned out on a regular basis and made the job look so easy." Seaman did it for club and country. Hart can only try country first and hope club takes care of itself.
Take Hart: Goalkeeper's rise by numbers
4 international caps won. England have won all four games in which the goalkeeper has appeared.
180 First-team appearances since his debut for Shrewsbury at the age of 17 in April 2004.
12 Number of clean sheets kept in 41 games on loan at Birmingham City last season.
3 Clean sheets in his four England appearances. The only goal he has conceded came in his only start for his country.
58 Appearances for Shrewsbury. Hart was named in the League Two team of the season while at the club.
£600,000 Fee paid by Manchester City to sign him from Shrewsbury in 2006.
21 Age at which he made his England debut, a 3-0 win away to Trinidad &Tobago in June 2008.
6 Matches played for City before he tasted defeat - a 6-0 thrashing at Chelsea in October 2007.Reuse content