Matt Maher: Plenty of football left at top level for driven Joe Hart
There are two ways of looking at Shrewsbury Town’s audacious bid to sign Joe Hart.
The first is as a clear statement of ambition from manager Sam Ricketts. Convincing the former England international, who still believes he can resurrect his career at the highest level, to drop down to League One was always going to be the longest of long shots.
Yet the fact Ricketts was bold enough to try it indicates how serious he is about achieving success at Shrewsbury after a first (not quite) full season in charge which never really sparked.
The counter, more cruel argument is to look at things from Hart’s perspective and ponder how far his stock has now fallen that a third tier club even considered such an approach in the first place?
That is no knock on Shrewsbury. This, after all, is a player who barely four years ago looked secure as England No.1 and had been a dependable presence between the sticks for Manchester City for more than 300 matches.
The same goalkeeper who just five years ago was described as a “phenomenon” by Lionel Messi after a superb performance for City at Barcelona.
For Hart, Euro 2016 and the arrival of Pep Guardiola at the Etihad Stadium would appear to have been the turning point. High-profile mistakes against Wales but more particularly in England’s embarrassing defeat to Iceland sowed serious seeds of doubt about his temperament (though Hart would still go on to feature in the bulk of the World Cup qualifying campaign).
It was after returning from the tournament Guardiola, newly-appointed by City, made clear he did not see Hart as part of his plans.
Hart, to his credit, did not waste time sulking and quickly set about trying to re-establish himself, first with a loan move to Torino for the 2016-17 season, before spending the following year with West Ham. Yet neither move worked out in the manner he would have hoped. At West Ham he was dropped in November after a series of below par performances and though a permanent break from City in 2018, courtesy of a £3.5million move to Burnley, looked a shrewd decision at the time, his fortunes did not improve at Turf Moor either.
Faced with competition from both Nick Pope and Tom Heaton in his first campaign with the Clarets, Hart last started a Premier League match on Boxing Day 2018 and news this week of his impending release did not come as a surprise. His problem has nothing to do with attitude, if his own words are to be believed. Speaking to The Guardian last month, Hart described his current situation as ‘a challenge rather than a dark cloud’ and revealed he frequently uses a sports psychologist to help deal with the mental strain.
“This lockdown has made me realise how much I want to play football,” he said. “All I want to do is be a big part of something. I understand I’m not going to be part of Real Madrid.
“I don’t think I’ve lost the ability, but I know how football works. I just want to be a big part of a club and give my all to them. That’s all that burns through me.”
Still at the age of 33, time is still very much on his side, though the next move needs to be chosen carefully, with playing time and the right environment in which to rebuild the priority. The last few years might not have panned out the way he wanted but it feels awfully early to be writing Hart off.