As mea culpas go Joe Hart’s could not be more searing: “I apologise for ultimately costing us the game and the tournament,” the goalkeeper said after his mistake allowed Kolbeinn Sigthorsson’s winner in Iceland’s victory that knocked England out of Euro 2016.
On a torrid Monday night in Nice Hart’s earth-swallow-me moment came after 18 minutes. The 29-year-old dived to his left but the weak hand pushed at Sigthorsson’s attempt was, as he conceded, just not good enough.
How many blips make a crisis? The question is posed because Hart was also at fault for Gareth Bale’s opener for Wales in an earlier Group B game. That day ended in England winning 2-1 but they were needlessly placed behind the eight-ball when Hart lacked the strength to keep out Bale’s 42nd-minute free-kick.
Again he held his hands up, offering a half-time apology to team-mates. The honesty is welcome but saying sorry for costly errors has become an unwanted career leitmotif. As far back as four years ago, after a mistake led to Kamil Glik’s equaliser and two dropped points against Poland in a World Cup qualifier, Hart felt obliged to offer a post-match apology.
Roy Hodgson fell on his sword immediately after the debacle at the Stade de Nice but the next England manager must decide if the time has come to drop Hart.
Since Hart replaced David James as the No1 following the 2010 South Africa World Cup he has enjoyed an unchallenged six-year reign. During this time he has performed brilliantly and disappointingly for club and country. For Manchester City Hart has accumulated two Premier League titles, two League Cups and the FA Cup. He has 63 England caps since his debut in June 2008 from which he has accumulated 33 clean sheets.
Yet this is a stellar career strewn with errors. The mistake against Poland in 2012 followed Roy Keane’s claim Hart is “cocky” and the Irishman also mentioned the need for sterner competition. This has never occurred, though. At City first Costel Pantilimon then Willy Caballero failed to dislodge him, and for England the story is similar. Fraser Forster, the No2 in France, is 28 and has only six caps. In spring 2013 Hodgson persuaded Ben Foster to return from international retirement apparently to vie with Hart. Yet Foster, 33, has since made three further England appearances in a total of eight and the last of them was two years ago. Jack Butland, who like Foster was unavailable for Euro 2016 because of injury, is 23 and he has played four times. But Butland, as with Foster and Forster , is yet to feature in a competitive England match that has mattered.
Burnley’s Tom Heaton travelled to Euro 2016 as the third-choice keeper. But this was due to the injuries to Butland and Foster, and at 30 and with only one cap, he does not appear ready to make Hart yesterday’s man.
The truth is the closest Hodgson came to giving another keeper a chance to be first choice was to warn Hart his place was not safe following bad form.When Hart allowed James Morrison to score Scotland’s opener in a friendly at Wembley in August 2013 the manager said: “I will be watching him closely in the coming games and hopefully he will produce a few wonder games for City.”
The Morrison goal was similar to those conceded from Bale and Sigthorsson as the ball beat Hart low and to his left. The three-year timespan between these errors suggests Hart has an issue here: diving in this direction to balls coming at ankle height. And he may decide it is an area for improvement.
Yet in the two seasons before Euro 2016 Hart enjoyed close to immaculate form. Last season he made only one mistake in the Premier League that led to a goal. In the term before there were three. In 2013-14, when Manuel Pellegrini dropped Hart for seven league outings from late October to late December, the count was four, in 2012-13, five. In 2011-12 there was one, in each of the two years before zero and in 2007-08 and 2008-09, one apiece.
In 39 Champions League appearances, made across five seasons from 2011-12, only one Hart error accounted for a goal.These are impressive statistics. But the concern is that, in a tournament’s tight format of three group matches then knockout football, there is close to no margin for error, as Hart discovered on Monday on the French Riviera.
England’s next fixture is not until 4 September when they travel to Slovakia for a World Cup qualifier. Whether Hart retains his place depends on his early season City form and on how Hodgson’s successor views him. But given no warm-up game is pencilled in before the Slovakia match, the new manager may decide he cannot take a gamble.
Because this is what Hart currently represents: a risk.
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