Hart of England is playing for keeps
Sunday 21 June 2009
If there is one shirt in Fabio Capello's England team on which a new name could be inscribed before the World Cup finals next summer, it is the goalkeeper's jersey. Glen Johnson, by returning from Portsmouth to one of the big four clubs, will secure a season of Champions' League experience that should confirm him as right-back, and there are few vacancies elsewhere in the squad – though Arsenal's Kieran Gibbs is compiling a strong case to be understudy to Ashley Cole in the other full-back position.
The unpredictable David James, however, 39 in August, remains the most vulnerable of Capello's first picks, fortunate that not one of the younger generation has yet demonstrated the necessary consistency to displace him. Paul Robinson should have done so long ago, but is only just emerging from a dark tunnel of lost confidence; Robert Green at West Ham United played the last two internationals of the season while James underwent a shoulder operation but hardly managed to touch the ball; Chris Kirkland and Ben Foster are injured as often as fit; which leaves the two most recent products of the England Under-21 team.
Two years ago Scott Carson, signed by Liverpool from Leeds as a teenager, was the high flyer who played in every game at the European Under-21 Championship finals, then went straight into the senior squad. Alas, when his chance suddenly came, on that wet Wembley night against Croatia, he fluffed it and under Capello has subsequently managed one 45-minute appearance as a substitute.
On Friday, Joe Hart of Manchester City sat in a corner of England's windswept beach hotel here expressing the hope that he might be the next beneficiary of fast-tracking between the Under-21s and the senior team. England's remaining matches here – they play Germany tomorrow, already guaranteed a place in Friday's semi-finals – will be his last at this level, and the next step is the big one. Hart has so far taken it only on a temporary basis and, like Carson, was allowed one 45-minute cameo, and he knows there is a specific problem to face now that City's new money has allowed them to install the outstanding Shay Given as the No 1: he needs to be playing regularly, not sitting in a dug-out.
"I imagine that's what they're looking for," he said of the England management team, who had goalkeeping coach Ray Clemence watching him in last week's 2-0 win over Spain. "That's what he [Capello] has been saying, that you need to be playing. That's what everyone wants to do anyway, regardless of whether it gets you in the England team or not. Everyone wants to play for their country and I've got more chance of playing in goal than anywhere else! So that's the role I'm pushing towards. You have to do well at club level, do well when you get opportunities like this tournament and get in the eye of Mr Capello and Stuart Pearce."
Bluntly, he will have to leave City, won't he? "I don't know, I don't know how it's going to work out. I'm not really focusing on it too much at the moment. This tournament is taking a lot of my time and I think everyone respects that back home with regards to moving, and when this is out of the way, hopefully that will be resolved. They're leaving me be at the moment to concentrate on this tournament."
Birmingham has been touted as his most likely destination, where, like Carson in loan periods at Charlton and West Bromwich Albion, he could expect plenty of work.
In two games in Sweden, he has been beaten only by a penalty against Finland, but picked up a yellow card for time-wasting that may persuade Pearce to leave him out tomorrow rather than risking another one. Not that Hart is expecting the manager to take a half-hearted attitude against German opposition: "He wouldn't let us go half-hearted against a pub side."
Clearly not one for looking too far ahead, Hart is nevertheless prepared to contemplate the possibility of England lifting a Uefa trophy of any sort for the first time since 1991: "It would be huge. It's the kind of thing we need to be doing as a good, strong football nation. That's our plan but we've still got all sorts of hurdles to overcome."
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