One suspects that when, one nondescript July day, David Sullivan proclaimed Joe Hart to be the “best goalkeeper I have ever worked with”, he did not expect the West Ham loanee to be sitting on the bench for a crunch London derby against Chelsea in December.
Sullivan, famed in footballing circles for loose lips that can lead his managers into trouble, was, of course, speaking on the day that West Ham acquired Hart from Manchester City for a season-long loan.
He waxed lyrical about the ability of the 30-year-old, with whom he had first come into contact at Birmingham City. It mattered little that he had been cast aside by City manager Pep Guardiola in favour of the younger, more tiki-taka friendly Ederson. Hart joining the Hammers was a statement of intent from a club desperate to move forwards, instead of backwards. Wearing England’s No.1 shirt still holds some sort of allure, some sort of sex appeal, and, given the business in which Sullivan and his co-owner David Gold trade, one can understand their desire to lure Hart to London.
Come he did, and in 14 games for the Hammers he has shipped 30 goals, seen his first manager at the club sacked and he has now been demoted to the bench under David Moyes, with the straightforward, skilled Adrian going on to keep two clean sheets against Chelsea – in a 1-0 win – and Arsenal, in a 0-0 draw.
Reading Sullivan’s words back now seems akin to torture; Sullivan was not to know that, as one West Ham source described it, Hart is “a busted flush”.
Yet they bear repeating due to the reaction elicited from Adrian, who has since shown that he is very much suited to being first-choice at a Premier League club.
“Joe was absolutely fantastic for us at Birmingham City eight years ago” Sullivan said. “He is the best goalkeeper I’ve worked with and I fully expect him to be equally as good for us this coming season.
“I have been working on this transfer for some months and to see Joe wearing a West Ham United shirt is very satisfying. I expect him to be a great player for our club and can’t wait to see him in a Hammers shirt at London Stadium for the first time.
“Joe has gone from strength to strength since his season at Birmingham, when he was voted Player of the Year, and it would not surprise me at all if he is in the running for the Hammer of the Year award come next May.”
Adrian tweeted, mere minutes later: “Thanks for your sincerity! But you still having (sic) two great professionals respecting, fighting and defending this badge.” In true West Ham fashion, he capped his message with the Hammer emoji.
Fans lapped it up, expressing their support for Adrian, the goalkeeper who has been runner-up in the aforementioned Hammer of the Year vote, and who was once so confident he would score a penalty in an FA Cup shootout that he took his gloves off first. He had never before taken an official spot-kick, but he found the net and the Hammers beat Birmingham City.
Sullivan’s words could have prompted a feud between the two men, but Hart’s demotion has been handed with class from all parties – Moyes did not take the decision lightly, despite fans howling for the Spaniard’s inclusion. Indeed, a poll taken by West Ham blog ClaretandHugh – issued after Adrian’s stand-out performance against Manchester City in a narrow 2-1 defeat – saw fans back the Spaniard for selection by an overwhelming majority of 94.57 per cent.
Moyes has even had to fend off suggestions that Hart could be sent back to City in January. There is no recall clause in Hart’s contract, neither an early termination clause – West Ham cannot send him back even if they want to.
That was, perhaps, an oversight from Sullivan, such was his bullish belief that Hart could be the Hammer of the Year. It has been suggested in the past that the Hammers did not even scout Hart, merely signing him because, well, he’s Joe Hart.
His flaws have been all too apparent at London Stadium, though. Once a promising young shot-stopper under Sullivan’s watchful eye at Birmingham, he now struggles to get down to his left, and is better known for swearing at a ballboy than for making saves.
Moyes has said that it his job to pick the West Ham team, instead of the England one, but Hart will be aware that, as the World Cup looms, his hopes of selection diminish just a little for each day he spends outside of the starting XI.
Sullivan’s ebullient assessment of his club’s now second-choice goalkeeper’s abilities now looks faintly ridiculous. After the season he has had, so too does Hart.