Joe Hart’s terrible form has opened up valid questions about whether he really is the best English goalkeeper. England had similar problems heading into the World Cup in 2010 and must be careful not to repeat the same mistakes.
In 2010, Fabio Capello’s England headed to the World Cup in South Africa after impressing in qualification. The Three Lions finished comfortably top of their group above Croatia and Ukraine. Wayne Rooney had scored nine goals in ten matches and and everything looked positive. However, several team selection questions remained – including who would start in goal.
Capello’s World Cup squad included West Ham United’s Rob Green, Portsmouth’s David James and a young Joe Hart – who just spent a season on loan at Birmingham City from Manchester City. In qualifying the England manager had alternated between Green and James. This was a huge mistake as it meant, by the start of the World Cup, Hart had yet to make his competitive debut. With Capello reluctant to play the inexperienced Hart, he was left with two uninspiring choices.
David James improved with age – by this point he had managed to shake his nickname ‘calamity James’. However, he was now 39-years-old and had just been relegated from the Premier League – finishing bottom with Portsmouth. He was then released at the end of the season.
In the end, Capello chose to start Rob Green. The former Norwich Goalkeeper had just led West Ham to 17th in the table – conceding 66 goals in the process. He had done very little to justify selection. In fact, it is always worrying when England select a player as average as Green. At the time, he was not even a player you could call solid because he regularly made mistakes.
The opening match of the tournament was against the USA. In spite of Green’s presence in goal, England started brilliantly. After just four minutes, Emile Heskey teed up Steven Gerrard and the Liverpool legend slotted the ball home. England couldn’t extend their lead though and just before half time the very thinkable happened.
Clint Dempsey hit a speculative effort from 25 yards and somehow the ball ended up in the back of the net. The shot was right at Green, and not at much pace, but he fumbled it disastrously. With the world seemingly going in slow motion, the ball rolled over the line as a despairing Green tried to claw it back. England never recovered, and the rest of the World Cup was a horrific experience.
England should never have been in that position though as Hart should have been starting. He had excelled at Birmingham – helping an Alex McLeish team to 9th in the Premier League. He was young, but at 22 years old he could have coped with the pressure. Players like John Terry, Ashley Cole and Jamie Carragher were playing so the defence wouldn’t have lacked experience. England would have probably still gone out the World Cup early but at least they would have had a better chance.
Fast forward seven years and the Joe Hart’s role has reversed. He is the new Rob Green – and not just because he plays for West Ham. The manager still retains faith in him despite his obvious deficiencies. Hart struggles badly under high crosses, always seems to be late when he rushes out and doesn’t seem to be able to save anything on his left. And, like 2010, it’s not as if the England manager lacks good, young options.
Both, Jordan Pickford, 23, and Jack Butland, 24, have extremely strong cases to be England’s first choice in Russia 2018. Pickford had an excellent season in 2016-17, despite Sunderland’s relegation, earning him a £30m move to Everton. Butland missed last season through injury, but he is first choice for Stoke City and has already started showing his class again.
Gareth Southgate should spend the next few games deciding who should be first choice Pickford or Butland. Hart simply isn’t in the form to challenge them at the moment. If Southgate doesn’t make a decision soon then the worst could happen. It could be like in 2010, and a goalkeeper ends up playing who simply isn’t the best man for the job.