When the final whistle blew on that dark night in Nice at the Allianz Riviera, the initial feeling of sheer disbelief masked the diabolical individual performances from Roy Hodgson’s side. England had just lost 2-1 to Iceland in the last 16 of the European championships, in what was quite probably the worst result in the nation’s history.
The whole team were to blame—that goes without saying. Hodgson’s team looked anxious in defence, confused and bewildered in midfield, and completely void of ideas going forward. But, despite the impuissant display, the reason Iceland ultimately went through to the quarter-finals was because of a blatant individual mistake—a goalkeeping mistake. Only days earlier, Joe Hart almost cost England three points in the group stage. Gareth Bale’s swerving but manageable free-kick was pushed into the net by an overly worked-up Hart, and he repeated the feat against Iceland’s minnows.
Kolbeinn Sigþórsson’s low effort was struck powerfully, but Hart should, without doubt, have kept the score’s level. England’s failure to break down a national side managed by a part-time dentist represented a bigger issue, but it has also been the catalyst for Hart’s downfall.
Since that deflating summer night in France, Pep Guardiola decided Hart was surplus to requirements at the Etihad stadium. What followed was an inconspicuous season in Serie A with Torino, but some were still optimistic Hart would be included in Guardiola’s plans this season following the fairly disastrous appointment of Claudio Bravo as City’s number one last term. But it wasn’t to be. Hart has again been loaned out, this time to a club on the verge of peril. Hart has already been criticised for his part in West Ham’s calamitous start to the new campaign. The Hammers sit bottom of the Premier League, with Hart having conceded eight goals in the first three league games. Of course, its still very early days, and like with England, Hart isn’t solely responsible.
Despite his dip in form, the question you have to ask is this: who will take over the reigns for Gareth Southgate’s young side? Is there a suitable alternative? The only two candidates are Stoke City’s Jack Butland and Everton’s Jordan Pickford. Joe Hart is 30-years old—that is, of course, still unfledged for a goalkeeper, but it may be time for fresher blood to enter the fray. Regardless of age, England’s goalkeeper should be dependant on who is the best option. And on current form, it’s probably not Joe Hart. Pickford, 23, has had a solid start to the new campaign, producing a wonderful save against Stoke on the opening day. Butland, 24, has also made another consistent start with his club.
You also have to consider who is playing at the best level. And, at the moment, Pickford is the man doing so. Everton may not be title contenders, or even top four adversaries, but they will, you expect, be competing for higher-up positions in the Premier League than Stoke or West Ham this season.
Lamentably, Joe Hart has struggled to regain his best form since his England performances at the Euros, with many believing he has been on a decline ever since, while Jordan Pickford has been on the rise. Jack Butland should not be overlooked, both are burgeoning young goalkeepers and both possess the potential to be England’s new number one.
Although on a lesser scale, it is a dilemma which mirrors that of Gianluigi Buffon. The Italian legend, one of the greatest ever goalkeepers, isn’t the same keeper he once was. The Juventus veteran is approaching 40-years of age and despite still being an astute leader, the world’s next best shot-stopper eagerly lies waiting in the wings. And that is, of course, AC Milan’s Gianluigi Donnarumma—Buffon’s understudy, and heir to his throne, is the most exciting young keeper in Europe. The 18-year old is already helping spearhead Milan’s resurgence in their bid to again become one of Europe’s elite, and his already existent quality is clear for all to see, as is Buffon’s declining mobility.
Nothing should be predetermined before the World Cup until the season reaches its climax, but it looks as though Joe Hart could be taking part in a relegation battle while Jordan Pickford will be playing in Europe. Hart will be desperate to put his England wrongs right in Russia next summer, and will not want to be remembered for his part in one of England’s worst ever showings at a tournament. Until then, there is plenty of football to be played, and with West Ham, Hart will have plenty of work to do but plenty of opportunities to prove himself. If he fails, then much like Donnarumma with Italy, Jordan Pickford, or potentially Jack Butland, will be waiting eagerly on the sidelines.