Bucking the bandwagon Richard Brook stands by Manchester City and England’s number one.
Manchester City and England goalkeeper, Joe Hart had a nightmare against reigning European Champions, Bayern Munich on Wednesday. This seems to be the party line amongst football writers following City’s Champions League encounter with Bayern, on Wednesday. Following the match there have been calls for Hart to be dropped from England’s starting line up, or at least question marks over his place, ahead of their crucial World Cup qualifiers against Montenegro and Poland in the coming weeks. Dropping Hart, at this point, would not serve the best interests of either the England team or the player.
The calls have been leant weight by the form of Celtic’s Fraser Forster, also in the England squad. A convenient comparative was provided by Celtic’s match against Barcelona, the evening before City’s encounter with Bayern. Celtic lost 1-0, despite being reduced to ten men, following skipper Scott Brown’s red card. Forster made numerous spectacular saves to keep Barca to just the one goal, including a world-class double save, and this has undoubtedly added to the calls for a change.
It is natural to look at the situation in the following terms: England are approaching a set of must win matches, to cement their place in Brazil, next summer, with an out of form player filling a key position. Those facts being as they are, it is still more natural to react to that by dropping the player for someone whose recent performances are more closely aligned to their ability.
The facts as set out above miss one key fact: the position itself. The position of goalkeeper is different to that of any other. Forget all the nods, winks and knowing smiles that have just entered your head about goalkeepers being “different”, where the word different is a synonym for mentally unstable. The position genuinely is quite apart from any other on the football field, and it does require a particular kind of person to do the job. This is not a reference to the physical attributes that have, either traditionally – such as good spring – or more latterly – such as having a large frame, formed our ideas of what a goalkeeper should be.
Goalkeeping is a continual war within the goalkeeper’s own mind. The only person who can truly beat the goalkeeper is the keeper himself. That is why time and again we are told, that when a screamer of a shot goes in or when a keeper makes a mistake, ‘a good goalkeeper puts that out of his mind’. The keeper is performing an odd form of mental, three dimensional, trigonometry deciding what angle to position himself on, and how far off his line to be, to give the man in possession minimal area either side to shoot at, whilst being mindful of the chance of being lobbed. This calculation is almost a constant process throughout the 90 minutes, and therefore each shooting opportunity is treated on its merits, regardless of the score-line – which is a variable highly likely to affect how outfield player needs to play.
Another major difference from the outfield positions is the goalkeeper’s role of spoiler. The whole purpose of the sport of football is to score goals and win the match. The purpose of the goalkeeper – notwithstanding a corner in the 92nd minute of a cup game – is to prevent goals being scored, to prevent defeat. Even defenders have the centre-halves going forward for set pieces and overlapping attacking full-backs. The goalkeeper is unique in that his raison d’être is to prevent goals: the ultimate anti-footballer.
Goalkeeping is a solitary occupation which again is peculiar to the role. Even in the most defensive formations featuring a lone striker, he will receive support in his job from the midfield. In his team are hammered the goalkeeper knows he will bear the brunt of the criticism from the uninitiated. Rarely does the blame for a big defeat truly rest with goalkeeper. If a defence, which really does start at the front, has been carved open for 90 minutes it does not really matter who is in goal – the defeat will be heavy if enough good goal-scoring chances are created. We are constantly told to feel sorry for the takers of crucial missed penalties, as they are taking a responsibility as an individual in a team game. A goalkeeper does this as a matter of course, knowing that while an outfield player will let a ball roll under his foot several times a season, with little consequence and that if a ball squirms under the goalkeeper it will be a goal followed inevitably by an inquest. There is no one to share the blame and with this isolation there seems to be a tendency to internalise mistakes. There is no need to tell a goalkeeper when he is genuinely at fault.
Goalkeeping relies greatly on self-belief, and while Joe Hart’s form has been questionable for some time, if one believes he is the long term goalkeeper for Manchester City and England then it is important to stand by him. England manager, Roy Hodgson has displayed the sort of backing that nurtures the requisite confidence:
“We have let in three goals in eight games so it’ll take a lot more than one bad game, from any player, before I start suggesting he is replaced. As far as I am concerned he has never let me, or the team, down during the time I have been working with him, so I have every faith that he will have the confidence to put this behind him”.
While Wednesday was not Hart’s finest hour, it is questionable whether he is as wholly culpable for Bayern’s goals as the furore would suggest. The keeper might have got more on the third goal, from Arjen Robben – and he probably got enough glove to the ball to expect to do better than to push it into his own net anyway. Hart may feel harshly judged on the other two. Franck Ribery’s opener looked difficult to judge as it fizzed in, close to the ground, from the left hand edge of the area. The ball either bounced just in front of him and deflected off his outstretched hand into the roof of the net, or hit the underside of his arm, as Hart anticipated an awkward bounce, and found its way into the net. For the second goal the entire City defence stood still as Thomas Muller ghosted into the box. Perhaps Hart might have been more decisive as Muller rounded him, but it is unfair to lay the blame solely with the goalkeeper.
Regardless of the circumstances of the Bayern goals, England have seen the effects of not supporting a goalkeeper before. After allowing a tame effort from Clint Dempsey to turn England’s opening game at the 2010 World Cup, Rob Green was immediately dropped, by Fabio Capello. Green looked a shadow of his former self for some time after his calamitous error in South Africa. Managerial support is more important with keepers than other positions because of its solitary nature. When that is withheld it can be devastating to the player and that could be catastrophic for Hart and England.
Another keeper who suffered similarly to Green, Scott Carson, deserves attention for a slightly different reason. A change of goalkeepers, ahead of the Montenegro and Poland games, would have a psychological effect on Joe Hart, but also his replacement. The last time England changed goalkeepers before a crucial qualifier Carson, failed to get his body behind Niko Kranjcar’s speculative shot, which he spilled into his net. Croatia won 3-2 and England did not go to the 2008 European Championships.
Hodgson is correct to stand by Joe Hart. It is right for Hart and for Forster and John Ruddy. It is also right for England’s future, as Hart is set to be England’s number one for years to come. Most importantly of all, in the here and now, irrespective of Hart’s form, it gives England the best chance of being at the Brazil 2014 World Cup.