City goalkeeper the Hart of England
He is unfazed by the chaos surrounding the national team and looks nailed on as a future captain
Joe Hart turned out to be the best signing of Stuart Pearce's relatively brief career in club management, joining Manchester City from Shrewsbury Town in 2006. He was in Pearce's first Under-21s squad the following year despite the fact he was a relative unknown on loan at Tranmere Rovers and now, when Pearce takes charge of the England senior team tonight at Wembley, it is Hart who is one of the few certainties to be on the team-sheet.
It is unlikely, although not impossible, that England's caretaker manager could announce this morning that Hart is also his captain for tonight's game against the Netherlands, and if it is not today then surely at some point in Hart's career he will get the job.
In fact, for a player who has won just 16 caps – and never been on the losing side for England – Hart's ascent to a position of seniority in the squad since the World Cup finals two years ago has been remarkable. There is no player of his age, 24, and currently fit, who is so crucial to the immediate future of the team, and none who can be more certain of a key role at Euro 2012 this summer.
Consider the contenders. Rio Ferdinand has not played since June last year and Steven Gerrard not since November 2010. John Terry's long-term international future must be in doubt given the decision to take the captaincy away from him. Wayne Rooney is suspended for the first two games of the European Championships and is currently out with a throat problem. Jack Wilshere is among the long-term injured.
It leaves Hart as the one man whose immediate future does not have some kind of question mark hanging over it. He has been in every squad since the last World Cup finals and started every game apart from the November 2010 friendly against France. His dominance of the position has already forced Ben Foster into an open-ended sabbatical and Robert Green required some persuading that coming back into the fold was worth the hassle.
Even Sir Alex Ferguson says that Hart is the best goalkeeper England have produced in 20 years and regrets allowing Pearce to beat United to the punch in signing him from Shrewsbury. Ferguson claimed that he could have got the player for £100,000. Pearce said yesterday that Hart's fee of £600,000, rising to £1.5m was "right on the limit" of City's budget for a teenage goalkeeper back in 2006. "We didn't have much money at Manchester City then," he said, "so he fitted the bill just nicely."
It is one of those unusual features of international football that, because of the few games played relative to club football, circumstances can alter dramatically from one match to the next. In another period of frenzied change for the national team, Hart, who won three caps in two years before he was installed as No 1 by Fabio Capello after the South Africa World Cup, has been one of the few constants in the England team.
Hart seemed to think yesterday that the choice of captain for tonight's game was between Gerrard and Scott Parker. It is worth noting that the last time Gerrard appeared for England there was a dispute between Liverpool and Fabio Capello about him being over-played which may result in the midfielder being used sparingly tonight and could have an effect on Pearce's thinking over the captaincy.
As for whether he could do it, Hart had a pretty straightforward answer for those who questioned whether a goalkeeper was suitable to be a captain when he pointed out that the current world champions, Spain, have a goalkeeper as their captain.
Given that Pearce had made an unusual decision yesterday to delay the naming of the captain, it was telling that Hart was sent out as a safe bat to face the press. When it was put to him that England, without a manager, a captain and three months from a major international tournament do not find themselves in an ideal position, he was blunt in his response. "It never is. You just have to get on with it. No, not [a problem] for me. You've got to roll with it. 'It' happens – obviously I can't say the word – but you know what I mean.
"There's always something interesting going on, let's not lie about it. There's always something going on. That's what we are and the quality shows in the players, we just get on with it."
It also takes a certain degree of confidence in one's position in the team to admit – in as many words – that "shit happens" at the FA, although that is demonstrably the case. Hart, an easy-going Salopian, appears to have the kind of attitude that is crucial for a goalkeeper at the elite level. They cannot allow too much to affect them. He has come through his less impressive performances, like the one against Switzerland last June, without damaging his confidence.
He played two tournaments under Pearce with the Under-21s and was suspended for the final of the European Championships in 2009 after being booked for sledging the Sweden players during the penalty shoot-out that England won. He remains unrepentant in that respect. "I think I was pointlessly booked, I didn't break any rules," he said. "If I had I would have been the hardest person on myself. I think I'm pretty honest and pretty fair. It was so petty the decision. But that is gone."
In the end it fell to Hart to defend his manager Pearce who, despite his willingness to step in tonight, and his eagerness to plan for the summer's championship, has few major allies when it comes to getting the job on a permanent basis. Being so young when he joined City, Hart had little contact with Pearce, the manager at the club, but clearly has developed a connection with him since.
Hart said: "I think he [Pearce] has developed. It's a totally different role from the City role. All three of them were really different. City was a club side, he was a stand-in, did great and became the manager. The Under-21s was all about development and getting people ready and I have only seen him for a day and a half as the senior manager. So all three have been different. He is a passionate guy. Anything involving England is just perfect for him, for who he is and what he is about. Hopefully he can inspire us."
Hart will play behind another new England back four tonight, whoever Pearce picks. There is no Terry, no Ferdinand, and Joleon Lescott was only called up yesterday. "Yeah, it's an extra challenge for me and an extra challenge for them," he said, "but I think potentially it could be the back four for years and could be the best ones potentially in the world so it could be great."
Pearce described his goalkeeper as a "big influence" around the squad who will be around for some time. Hart turns 25 in April, by which time he will have 17 England caps. On his 25th birthday, Peter Shilton had just three more than that and he, of course, ended up with 125. It certainly makes you wonder how far Hart could go.
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