By Liam Twomey
When England host Denmark at Wembley on Wednesday evening, three days after watching Manchester City claim the first trophy of the Manuel Pellegrini era from the bench, Joe Hart is again unlikely to feature.
Four months ago it is a situation which would have been interpreted as the latest blow in a dramatic and public crisis of confidence. Now it is merely a sign of his renewed status as undisputed No.1 for club and country.
Relegated to the position of cup goalkeeper by Pellegrini after a humiliating last-minute mistake against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge in October, Hart had to re-focus himself and work hard to regain the trust of his manager as he watched Costel Pantilimon, the giant Romanian brought to the Etihad Stadium for just £3 million from Politehnica Timisoara in the summer of 2011, given his chance to impress between the sticks.
Media hysteria ensued at the thought of Roy Hodgson being forced to turn his back on England's outstanding goalkeeper for the tournament that will define his legacy. But Hart picked himself up, dusted himself off and fought his way back to the heart of a City side chasing an unprecedented domestic treble, conceding just six goals and claiming four clean sheets in the eight matches he has started in 2014.
Hart's swift comeback has impressed and relieved many - not least Peter Shilton, one of England's greatest ever goalkeepers and still the national side's most capped player.
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"It’s encouraging that he’s back to the form we knew but he’s got to build on that. You can have one or two games where you’re not 100 per cent but [his slump] was over a period of months, which was worrying."
No one in football is immune to criticism, but the lot of a goalkeeper is harsher than most. Their work is constant yet they are judged almost entirely on moments, many of which arise from the mistakes of others. But the last mistake is invariably the most memorable, and the man between the posts is, by nature, the last line of defence.
It is an unforgiving environment but top goalkeepers have never been men who look for excuses, and Shilton is happy that Hart has not sought the easy option in his moments of sombre reflection.
"Unfortunately it’s the name of the game and always has been," he insists.
"It’s something you have to put up with. I used to say to Gary Lineker, ‘You could miss five and score one and be a hero, whereas I could make five saves, let one in and be an idiot’.
"You saw it in the 1970s when Peter Bonetti came in for Gordon Banks and was blamed for the loss to West Germany in the quarter-finals in Mexico [in the 1970 World Cup], as well as Gary Sprake making mistakes for the great Leeds United team of that era.
|“All goalkeepers make mistakes, but the best ones make fewer.”
- Peter Shilton
"People still go back to a goal I conceded in 1973 against Poland, although I played against them many times afterwards and had a blinder when we qualified for Italia 90.
"All goalkeepers make mistakes, but the best ones make fewer."
Fitness permitting, Hart is now guaranteed to make his World Cup debut in Brazil this summer, and if England are to succeed he may well have to face the problems which have undermined them in countless previous tournaments - heat, isolation and, of course, penalties.
Hart already has experience of the latter, emerging on the losing side as the Three Lions crashed out of Euro 2012 to Italy in familiar circumstances. Hodgson is determined to avoid a similar fate this time round, employing Dr Steve Peters, the renowned psychiatrist who played a key role in the phenomenal recent success of British Cycling, to work with the players on their mindset.
But when it comes to penalties, Shilton believes there are more pressing issues for Hart to address than what goes on between his ears. "Against Barcelona [Lionel Messi in the Champions League last 16 tie at the Etihad Stadium] and against Italy [at Euro 2012 against Andrea Pirlo] the ball was put down the middle of the goal and Joe had gone very early.
"Every time you go early you leave yourself open to that. You can make up your mind where you want to go, but leave it a bit longer before committing. That way, if the ball’s mishit or played down the middle at least you’ve got a chance of re-adjusting."
Before he departs for Brazil, Hart's immediate aim will be to re-establish his reputation as one of the best goalkeepers in Europe while providing a solid foundation for City's trophy charge. Shilton believes he has work to do if he wants to be compared with the Premier League's finest once again.
"I think Petr Cech is very consistent and Chelsea are playing very well in front of him, though I’ve seen him dip in form when Chelsea haven’t been so good, and Simon Mignolet is doing well at Liverpool," the 64-year-old adds. "Cech is probably the most consistent and has been for the past few years. The fact that Joe was left out of the Manchester City team means you can’t really put him up there with those guys.
"He’s coming back to form but he’s still got a way to go to get back there. On ability he’s up there, but performance and reputation-wise he’s still got to get back to that level."
With 125 appearances, Peter Shilton is England’s most capped football player. Celebrating the launch of the Wasgij Original 21 Football Fever jigsaw puzzle, Jumbo Games is running a promotion & offering the chance to watch England take on Uruguay alongside Shilton on 19 June 2014.
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