The official announcement came over 24 hours after the rumours had first emerged. Joe Hart and Jack Wilshere were expected to be the high profile casualties of Gareth Southgate’s World Cup squad, and so it proved. Both have had a difficult couple of years for different reasons, but Hart’s fall from grace has been by far the most dramatic.
It started with the arrival of Pep Guardiola, who has taken Manchester City to a whole new level, but left some significant players behind. When the Catalan first arrived in England two years ago he set about reimagining how it was possible to win the Premier League title, and his dream came to marvellous fruition this season.
Plenty of money has been spent and ruthless decisions made along the way. One of the first, and most significant, was discarding Joe Hart. Despite a poor Euro 2016, where he was beaten from range by Gareth Bale, and let Kolbeinn Sigthorsson’s relatively tame shot squirm underneath him, he remained a popular and highly-regarded goalkeeper. There was little thought as to how soon that would change.
Hart was England and Manchester City’s undisputed number one, and had been for six years. Nobody realistically expected that to stop being the case. At least not as brutally and suddenly as it has. Failing to make the cut for this summer’s World Cup, and losing his place to the previously unheralded Nick Pope in the process, rounded off his humiliation. The reasons why this has happened are worth exploring in more detail.
During the 2015/16 season, Manuel Pellegrini’s last in charge at the Etihad, Hart started 47 games in all competitions. Perhaps destabilised by impending managerial change, which was announced midway through the campaign, they finished fourth as Leicester City claimed a shock title. Hart still kept 15 clean sheets, the joint-second highest total in the league, and was far from the squad’s most obvious weak spot.
A confident and voluble character, he’d helped City to win the title in two of the previous four seasons and since returning from a loan spell to Birmingham City in 2010 his place had never come under serious threat. Some questioned Hart’s cockiness on occasions, and felt he was prone to the odd error, but nobody could foresee him being quite so unceremoniously dispatched.
The trouble was that he was an utterly conventional goalkeeper, and Guardiola wanted much more from the position. His distribution with both feet wasn’t strong enough and the intention to move Hart on became clear once the limited Wily Caballero started the season ahead of him, whilst the manager searched for a permanent replacement.
Barcelona’s Claudio Bravo was identified as that man. He signed for £17million but was often a liability. Struggling with crosses and letting in some fairly straightforward shots, it was deemed that Hart, who was sent out on loan to Torino, had been harshly treated. He remained as England’s first choice goalkeeper and played regularly as his new side finished mid-table in Serie A. There were a couple of blunders along the way but he looked secure enough.
Then came Ederson. Unconvinced by Bravo’s suitability to English football and the task at hand, Guardiola staked everything on a young and relatively inexperienced Brazilian goalkeeper. During a record-breaking season, he vindicated the decision several times over. An incredibly accurate passer of the ball, both long and short, he helped to set the tone for this new-look City. They conceded 27 goals, the fewest in the league, and Ederson helped to initiate numerous attacks.
The unloved Hart had been shunted to West Ham. It was confirmation of his diminished status and, as the Hammers battled against relegation, he was dropped for Adrian. A weakness at dealing with shots struck low and to his left had become painfully apparent and even more rudimentary mistakes were creeping into his game as his confidence drained away.
He clung on gamely to his status as England’s number one, but his grip was weakening. Jack Butland and Jordan Pickford were performing more consistently in struggling sides, and Nick Pope took advantage of Tom Heaton’s injury to press his own claim for a place in the squad. Tournament experience was the major factor left to recommend Hart but he remained on the bench for England’s friendlies against the Netherlands and Italy in March.
While Hart has 75 caps to his name, his three rivals have just nine between them. If he hoped to travel to Russia on this basis alone, Gareth Southgate has evidently thought better of it. Someone who was his country’s first choice at their last three major tournaments, and looked destined to become an England centurion, will be watching on TV this summer. His future at both club and international level is far from clear.