A throw away comment footballers occasionally make is how they don’t choose to be role models. Joe Hart is fast becoming one with minimum intent and effort, just a demonstration of courage greater than he displayed when Premier League powerhouses would bear down on his goal.
When Pep Guardiola arrived at Manchester he deemed Hart surplus to requirements, preferring to bring in Claudio Bravo, Chile’s Copa America winning keeper. Little did we know Hart’s loan move to Torino would be a nudge down football’s heater skelter, but not life’s.
It was a conundrum for many City fans. Their beloved Joe Hart who for each mistake he made would win you three other games held a special place in their hearts, but Guardiola was viewed as the final piece of the puzzle in achieving elusive continental success. It was a win lose situation but the irony was Bravo proved no better.
Guardiola wanted a bona fide sweeper keeper, an eleventh man. City fans might have accepted tearing Hart from the team for Ter Stegen, but not for Bravo, who didn’t meet the brief either.
Hart’s move to Torino wasn’t the only sabbatical he took from City though. As the Abu Dhabi group went on a mission to build the new Premier League Allstars in a talent acquisition strategy that involved cannibalising rival clubs in the division, Shay Given was brought in by Mark Hughes, from Newcastle.
Whilst preferring Given seemed a sound choice, City finished fifth as their new look side continued to gel keeping eleven clean sheets along the way. Meanwhile Hart flourished on loan at Birmingham, helping them to a 12 game unbeaten run.
Given’s arrival at City would be a test for any 22 year old, a baby’s age by goalkeeping standards. The blue moon was rising and it felt more when would they start collecting silverware, rather than if. An injury or mistake later and the path back to the pinnacle suddenly looks longer and steeper.
It’s easy to dismiss the mental challenges of being a footballer, given its trappings, but for anyone who’s played the game (even at the lowest level) the pint in the pub after a bad game is an awkward one at first. It takes a bit of courage and humility to turn up sometimes, and may of us would have put on the brave face before the lads, only to dwell on it later.
Hart’s journey to the point of Guardiola’s arrival in the envy of many. As he points out in a recent interview with the BBC he’s been to major tournaments, kept clean sheets for England at Wembley, made history as the first English goalkeeper to play in Serie A and still holds the record for the most clean sheets in the Premier League. He doesn’t say these things with arrogance, but gratitude.
Earlier in the year Hart was one of a few of the game’s personalities to appear in ‘Football, Prince William and Our Mental Health’, as the Duke of Cambridge looks to the game as a vehicle to reach out and encourage more men to open up. You might remember the third round of this year’s FA Cup where all matches kicked off a minute late, giving pause for thought and promoting the 'Heads Up' campaign around mental health and the conversation the country needs to have, after generations of stiffupperlipness borne of our post World War generations.
Footballers appear to believe there is a fine line they must tread along carefully when discussing their mental health. In Prince William’s documentary Tyrone Mings confides he has a psychologist - in the eye of the public it’s performances that matter.
The public opinion is often Premier League superstars live privileged lives of fame, fortune and an occupation many of us dreamed of. The reality is this success often comes from a lot of commitment, dedication and sacrifice that a lot us demonstrate but for less reward.
As such the appearance of Hart was not to get on the soap box, but to tread that fine line for the benefit of others. In the middle of a global pandemic many people are either sinking or swimming. Australian mental health charity Beyond Blue are seeing in their research those who had started their mental health journey before hand will cope with the situation a lot better than those who may have had set backs but didn’t manage to explore and understand the mental impacts they would have had.
Hart himself recognises his setbacks and the politicians answer would be to deflect away from the emotional impact not playing has, but he owns it “It’s the lowest point of my football career, yeah I’m sad. It could be a real dark tie for me, but it’s not. I see it as a challenge.”
Being at the top suggests a big fall, but Hart never saw it that way. Torino, West Ham and Burnley; all next chapters, challenges and new starts - and years at Manchester City wouldn’t define who he was.
Hart is humble as far his challenges go, recognising his course may have only been diverted in life by the tip of the mental health iceberg “it’s sound pathetic, but it’s not playing and not being wanted but I certainly can’t talk about the huge depths of mental health. I’ve not been there and I don’t know how it works but the early stages I can work with and understand.”
It’s easy to watch the interview with the Duke of Cambridge and dismiss Hart’s situation. Most of us would take playing in front of thousands every Saturday along side some of the game’s best, even just for a week of our lives.
He is an example of how asking for help, to process a set back, to communicate better is of benefit. Hart sought the help of a mental coach after Manuel Pellegrini dropped him. the reaction could have been to down tools and give up. Instead he addressed Pellegrini in an open discussion worked his way back in to the side, and secured his second Premier League winners medal.
Hart’s story is about avoiding complacency, being grateful for the journey and learning from it. Most importantly it is about acknowledging challenges will arise and being open about them. This is where the real courage comes to the fore, not as much facing Andy Carroll or Christian Benteke in an aerial challenge.
Prince William’s documentary explores other levels of the game too, including Sands United FC; a team set up for bereaved Dads, and how the players are covered helps give us the insight needed to tackle difficult situations victims of mental health feel. In a parallel universe two blokes sit silently over a pint, and it is fodder for a sitcom, so is bottling up life’s challenge becoming.
Whilst we know Joe Hart the footballer, he’s still dad, son, husband, friend to many others. The fundamental take away from Hart is one thing alone in our lives doesn’t define us, now matter how successful we may be at it. The approval a footballer seeks not only hinges on fans but the manager - and as easily as the faith of a manager like Pep Guardiola could have you levitating, a lack of it could bury many.
Though our pay cheques are somewhat smaller and come from much different places to top flight footballers, we are the same, needing those pillars of our lives to support us evenly. Often that’s not in our control, but sitting with that and coping with it takes objectiveness, maturity and resilience that is often on built from suffering setbacks, and the realisation you are the master of your own destiny and how you respond to it.
Football can be a cruel game; when your luck is down the press and public can compile a massive amount of pressure on you. Joe Hart can be unfairly remembered for the wrong reasons sometimes; the victim of a deft Andrew Pirlo panenka and modelling for a shampoo advert. His recent appearances prove he is head and shoulders above many when it comes to objectifying and keeping grounded in the face of adversity, a role model many stoic British football fans can learn from.
As the rumours swirled of Hart’s departure from City in 2016 it was perceived as the beginning of the end for him, but he is still 33 years young. Torino may not have been the renaissance he was looking for, but no doubt that will come, as it is all too clear Hart isn’t just a role model to the public, but he can be in the dressing room too.