With just less than two months to go until England embark on another World Cup adventure there are still question marks about how Gareth Southgate will line up in his first game against Tunisia. There are big question marks over who will start in goal with a choice of Jack Butland, Jordan Pickford, Nick Pope and Joe Hart. However, the latter has the biggest question mark over him as there is speculation he will not make the cut. So does Hart deserve to make the final 23?
Hart has been on a major decline in recent years from being a Premier League Champion and England first choice to being reserve goalkeeper at West Ham. It was a big surprise when Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola shipped the 30-year-old out on loan to Torino after being deemed surplus to requirements. The English media laughed as new arrival Claudio Bravo did not live up to the bill, but they were made to eat their words as the Catalonian brought in Ederson, who is on target for the Golden Glove, and Hart continued to make mistakes.
The word mistake is vital here. If a goalkeeper makes a “mistake”, then it can be brushed off and you the team goes again. However, when a goalkeeper is making “mistakes” then there are serious issues. Hart has had pressure on him ever since he left Manchester City and he has not dealt with it. With mistakes in Torino, quite frequently, Hart went under the radar because he was in Italy and not the Premier League. However, high profile mistakes at Euro 2016 were there for all to see. Mistakes against Wales and surprisingly Iceland, led to England’s elimination and Hart to question himself about his “passion”.
His latest calamity did come off the back of a superb performance against Chelsea where he gained his side a massive point. But the joy was short-lived as he dropped a clanger to allow Stoke to get a point against West Ham. These inconsistencies are not what England need so close to a tournament.
To be brutally honest this discussion should not even be happening as all three of the other goalkeepers mentioned have a better record in the Premier League this season. According to Opta, Pope has saved 80% of the shots he has faced this season, 68.7% for Butland, 67.3% for Pickford and 57.8% for Hart. The West Ham goalkeeper has played a significantly less amount of games as Adrian is the first choice at the London Stadium.
It would go against everything Southgate has stated with the old England manager cliché “I will only pick players on form, not reputation” as Hart would more than likely be going to in place of Pope. But how is that fair? The Burnley stopper has been exquisite since stepping up and replacing the injured Tom Heaton. It would be a major disappointment if he missed out on the tournament because of reputation.
The word that is banded around in Hart’s defence is his experience. He was number one at the European Championships in 2012 and 2016. But also the World Cup in 2014 and was named in the 23 at the 2010 World Cup. However, where has that experience got him on the international stage? Criticised in 2012 for his penalty antics against Italy, criticised in 2014 for his swearing at a ball boy and England failed to make it out of the group. In 2016, it highlighted how weak Hart was at going down to his left as he was punished by a Gareth Bale free kick. He did not look comfortable all the way through the tournament after a tough year in Italy.
It begs the question as to why Southgate continues to select him and why it is only recently he has tried other alternatives. He has run out of time to test the younger goalkeepers in bigger games and will now be throwing them in at the deep end.
Former England goalkeeper Gordon Banks has lauded Butland but Pickford looks like he may take the number one spot for the opening game. So does Hart go as number three choice? It would be more logical to take Pope as the third choice keeper so that he knows what it is like being in the England fold at a tournament and he would be rewarded for his fine form.
However, it is more than likely Hart will get his ticket despite his calamitous ways in recent months but you cannot see him getting any game time in Russia. Southgate would have some serious explaining to do if he does play and is caught out – once again.