Joe Hart stumbles towards a career crossroads at West Ham

Words By Nick Miller Image by Offside
December 8, 2017
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So, farewell then, Joe Hart. Well, sort of. The word is that, after his sterling performance against Manchester City last weekend, for this Saturday’s game against Chelsea Adrian will keep the West Ham gloves that he probably should never have relinquished, and Hart will once again have to take up residence on the bench. 

Hart was always an odd signing for West Ham, whose record in the transfer market these last couple of years has been haphazard at best. Of all the things that needed fixing in that team, goalkeeper probably wasn’t one of them. Adrian will never be mentioned in the same breath as David de Gea or Manuel Neuer, but he was a perfectly solid, competent Premier League keeper.

Hart looked like a vanity signing, a recruit just because they could, something that looks expensive but is ultimately not especially practical. It was like a wealthy person buying a boat: nobody really needs a boat, but plenty want one, for reasons of status, pride or whatever. West Ham didn’t need Hart, but they signed him anyway.

But, as he’s on loan, Hart isn’t as expensive as he perhaps should be. If only there was some sort of parallel to be drawn between Hart and another heavily subsidised and ultimately impractical mess West Ham have got themselves involved in. The good news is that they can extricate themselves from this one at the end of the season. 

Hart is a slightly curious character. On the surface he seems like your classic alpha male – or, to be more precise, your classic male attempting to be alpha. The boisterous personality, the obvious attempts at physical domination, the sense that at some point in his past he has almost certainly bullied someone into drinking a dirty pint. 

Here is a man who either gave himself or at least embraced the nickname ‘Hartdog’, and who psyches himself up insensibly in the tunnel before games to the point where you think he’s almost certainly going to punch someone, burst or punch someone then burst.

And yet, while he was at Manchester City you would hear stories that he would be the first to put his hand up when they needed a player to do some community or charity work. During his loan spell at Torino he at least made an attempt to integrate himself, learning some Italian and visiting the site of the Superga crash. It wouldn’t have been a huge surprise if someone like Hart had stuck his head down and sulked his way through the year in Italy, but he tried.  It’s almost as if people are complicated and reaching simple conclusions is unwise.

It was like a wealthy person buying a boat: nobody really needs a boat, but plenty want one, for reasons of status, pride or whatever. West Ham didn’t need Hart, but they signed him anyway.

Of course his alpha schtick is almost certainly a veneer, a front for a much more fragile personality. It’s almost impossible to look at Hart without thinking of a man who is using this ultra-aggressive persona as a cover for some profoundly deep insecurities. That his real first name is Charles, but he chooses to go by the more blokey, solid, earthy Joe, is almost too perfect. 

But you do worry slightly about Hart. In the wild, alpha animals are top of the food chain because they’re the biggest, the bravest, the most fierce, whatever. In crude, childish terms, the alpha lion is so because they’re the best lion. Hart is not the best lion. This weekend may see him ousted from his club spot, and by England’s friendlies in the spring he’ll almost certainly be behind Jordan Pickford and/or Jack Butland, and will probably be lucky just to make the squad. 

Hart does slightly odd things to people. Despite at least three years of error-strewn, erratic performances in which his basic ability to save shots seemed to come and go like gusts of wind, David Seaman said a few weeks ago that Hart should definitely still be England’s No.1. Assorted commentators seemed to lose their minds when Manuel Pellegrini dropped him a couple of years ago.

Perhaps it’s because he puts up a relatively convincing image. The alpha behaviour, combined with the willingness to ‘front up’ after defeats and bad performances, all create an idea of what some may think an English goalkeeper – player, even – should be. Errors are somehow virtually excused if they are admitted to, which on a human level might be admirable, but if a footballer doesn’t make any progress in correcting those mistakes then it’s not much use. 

You do slightly worry about Hart. Seeing him bounce off the walls before games, or slap himself round the chops if he lets in a careless one, the concern is that one day he’ll snap, throw his gloves into the Thames, start walking and not stop until he gets to John O’Groats. It will all get too much for him, and he’ll suddenly decide that he has to live in a monastery in the Bolivian jungle or something. 

Whatever happens, if West Ham decide Hart isn’t good enough for them, it’s tricky to work out where he would go from there. Could he suck it up and be a Willy Caballero figure, a break-glass-in-case-of-emergency back-up? Could he go abroad again? Nice might be nice, given their recent history of rehabilitating troubled figures. Would he accept a hefty pay-cut and drop to the lower end of the Premier League? Or into the Championship?

Maybe he’ll recover his form, maybe this will just be a blip. But for the moment, these are uncertain times for Charles Joseph John Hart. 

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