After finishing 25 points behind Rangers last term, Celtic were always going to need a solid start to the Scottish Premiership season in 2021-22. And while they trail their city rivals by four points after 12 games, they have become more difficult to break down thanks in part to the influence of a certain Joe Hart.
The veteran shot-stopper has been a breath of fresh air between the sticks, with a string of fine displays under his belt so far. To date, the former England goalkeeper has conceded just five goals in 11 league appearances for the Hoops, keeping six clean sheets. In delivering a regular string of compelling performances, he is already paying back Celtic boss Ange Postecoglou for having shown great faith in him.
“When I signed Joe, it wasn’t just because he’s an outstanding goalkeeper. I felt, the way it was with so many new players, that I had to bring some experience into the dressing room,” Postecoglou told The Scotsman recently.
“I needed someone to help Callum McGregor, who is a new skipper himself, and Joe has been a great influence from day one. He came in with the right attitude, wanting to be successful and wanting to learn. I think he’s enjoying his football, which is important at this stage of Joe’s career.
“I wanted him to enjoy it and get better – and I think he's done that. He's been great for us. On the field, he's bought into the way we want to play and he's an important part of that. He hasn't had too many saves to make. But on Wednesday night, he made two big ones. He'll probably say that's what he's there for but it's pleasing to see and hopefully it continues.”
The statistics echo Postecoglou’s thoughts on the ex-Manchester City keeper. So far this term, Hart has faced 24 shots on target in the league, saving 19 of them at a save percentage of 79.2%. With those impeccable numbers, it is not surprising that Celtic have conceded the lowest number of goals in the league. In 20 appearances in all competitions so far in 2021-22, Hart has kept 10 clean sheets.
It was only five-and-a-half years ago that he was England’s number one, but after a key mistake in the defeat against Iceland in the round of 16 exit at Euro 2016, Hart’s career spiralled. Pep Guardiola arrived at the Etihad Stadium in the same summer and immediately exiled the goalkeeper to Italy, where he had a tough spell at Torino. That sequence of events effectively ended Hart’s career at the elite level of football. Since his deposition at City, Hart was given Premier League lifelines at West Ham United, Burnley and, most recently, Tottenham Hotspur. But with his confidence shot, and arriving at each as a back-up, he never really had a chance to get back to his best.
So, it was good to see the 34-year-old look for a new challenge this year where he would have the chance to make the number one spot his own, and Parkhead is turning out to be the perfect setting for his rediscovery. The four-time Premier League Golden Glove winner needed to find somewhere to rebuild his reputation and there is a sense of growing synergy between him and Celtic. It is credit to him for wanting to prove himself one last time before he retires, and kudos also must go to his manager for giving him the platform to showcase his abilities once more.
His performances are having a positive impact on Postecoglou’s early reign as Hoops boss, and he will be brimming with confidence after his positive start to life north of the border. As his manager has said, he is having an influence on the Scottish giants and is helping the defenders in front of him. With Hart proving to be a shrewd piece of business for Celtic, along with the likes of Kyogo Furuhashi and Jota, there is more than a hope of them closing the gap on their bitter rivals Rangers.
As Celtic look to reclaim the domestic crown, they now boast a keeper with the title-winning experience that makes their new number one such a key asset. And if Joe Hart continues to improve game by game, he could play a huge role in Celtic having a serious say in this season’s title race.
Celtic are 7/4 with Betfred to win the Scottish Premership.