England v Montenegro: Bayern Munich 'banter' helps Joe Hart to bat away recent crisis of confidence ahead of crucial World Cup qualifiers
The Manchester City keeper has been at error in recent matches
The rehabilitation of Joe Hart, if that were ever the requirement in this England set-up, was achieved around a table deep in the Staffordshire green belt. This being a football community, the medicine that snapped Hart out of lingering introspection following a trying seven days was that old football staple, banter, and the table came with a net.
There really is no hiding place in the testosterone-wrapped St George's Park. Any weakness, sensitivity or embarrassment is quickly addressed. So Hart's blunders against Bayern Munich and in Saturday's game against Everton, became a tool in the battle for dressing-room supremacy when he met Phil Jagielka across the net. The result, claims Jagielka, is a goalkeeper purged of doubt and ready to prove his value in the coming games.
"He's someone who loves the banter more than anyone. It's the same with me, If I'd made a mistake the first person I'd be looking for is Joe to be straight on it. That's the way you've got to take it. You just throw it in, especially losing 10-9 at table tennis and I'm waiting for the next point, you just say 'Bayern Munich' or something, stuff like that," Jagielka said.
"Obviously he comes back to me and they beat us 3-1 at the weekend so I didn't have a leg to stand on. Joe's a great guy and a fantastic goalkeeper and if he can take it like he has done all the power to him. We all make mistakes. We're all human and it's about how far you guys and outside influences want to take it that makes it as bad or not as bad.
"It is always hard. I speak to Joe quite a lot. He sets such high standards, when there is a slight error of judgment, it gets jumped on. He knows himself, as England's No 1, playing at Manchester City, playing in the Champions League, if something goes slightly wrong it is magnified. But he has been his bubbly self. It's the same old Joe. He is delighted and looking forward to playing on Friday [in England's World Cup qualifier against Montenegro]."
The support mechanism around Hart is absolute and understandable, as is the acclaim for Leighton Baines, who comes into the England defence following the withdrawal of Ashley Cole. That Baines has made only 13 starts for England is a measure of Cole's quality in an area of the pitch in which football's mother country can reasonably claim to have world-class representation.
"He has been fantastic for us at Everton, player of the year for the last few seasons," said Jagielka, "but unfortunately for him, the person he has tried to nudge out of the way has also performed very well, particularly in an England shirt. Bainesy has had to be a little bit patient.
"It was widely publicised he was one of the leading chance-makers in the three divisions. Maybe we rely more on Bainesy to create chances than Chelsea would with Ash. He has fantastic quality delivering the ball but he is also a very clever footballer. Let's hope he has a fantastic game on Friday. If a free-kick comes around we have people desperate to take it but not selfish. We can assess which specialist we need to use."
It is less the set-piece flourish that is holding back the national team but the failure to bond cohesively. Jagielka speaks of a quiet confidence in this group, borne of their position at the top of the group and a feeling that England have the offensive players to answer the critics that would have them rooted in the Dark Ages.
"We are a proud nation. We expect our team to go out and give any a game and beat most people," he said. "That's the way we have been brought up. The biggest thing for us is it would have been a disaster if we had gone there [the Ukraine in the previous qualifier] and lost. We went there to put on a performance. We knew a point would be good enough to put us in the driving seat. We need to put both aspects of our game together. With the players [we have] in the squad it looks very positive."
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