When Joe Hart arrived in Turin to sign for Torino there was the usual pageantry to go through; a medical, a photograph with shirt in hand, it was all fairly mundane. In a touching shift from the norm though, Hart attempted to communicate in Italian during his opening press conference.
Admirably attempting a language he had no proficiency in, he stumbled across the words, but was eventually able to explain that he was learning Italian, and also how to communicate with his new teammates, before a small ripple of applause arrived from the journalists in attendance.
Some seven months on, and Hart’s troubles have shifted from scripted Italian to on field gaffes. As recently as last weekend against Crotone the England international was to blame for Torino conceding. Hart advanced off his line to punch a cross but missed the ball, handing an easy equaliser to substitute Simeon Nwankwo — ‘like catching butterflies’ one newspaper quipped.
The 30 year old has now produced five errors leading to goals this season, with only Palermo’s 21-year-old goalkeeper Josip Posavec having made more (7).
“There’s too much being said about Hart,” Torino president Urbano Cairo told Tuttosport. “Since this has been happening, his performance levels have dropped. This is already the third time we concede a goal this way and that’s a bit too much. It happens and I like him, but come on. He’s a great goalkeeper, though, and let’s see how things evolve.”
Among his teammates Hart remains a popular figure. Torino coach Sinisa Mihajlovic says that Hart’s presence “makes the rest of the team feel more confident.”
To both Hart’s critics and Guardiola’s supporters, the struggle has provided validation. Yet, talk to those in Italy, or watching Serie A, and a slightly different portrait is painted. “Hart is having a good season in Italy, often making decisive saves despite the many goals conceded by Torino,” Matteo Pedrosi, Torino supporter and journalist with Corriere dello Sport, told Sky Sports last month. “They have the fourth worst defence in the league.”
A somewhat superficial stat, Hart’s save ratio stands at 60% this season, six percent behind David De Gea and Thibaut Courtois respectively. Implying that actually he is making a number of good saves, or at least being consistent, perhaps Hart is a victim of the social media age, when matches are often condensed into six second clips, lacking context or a wider picture.
Unfortunately for Torino and Mihaljovic, the player’s salary demands are scuppering a permanent stay in Turin. “Hart wants to stay at Torino but we are all aware, both him and the club, that we can’t buy him”, Mihaljovic told La Gazzetta dello Sport. “At the most we could take him on loan for another year but that depends on both Manchester City and him. We will need to know if Hart is going to be here next year because if he’s not then we’ll need to change the way we play.”
As for his prospects in England, it seems Hart’s errors have not dissuaded the top level clubs from attempting to sign him. There is talk Manchester United, Chelsea and Liverpool would be willing to purchase Hart this summer, with Jose Mourinho only doing so if De Gea moves back to Madrid. The fact Guardiola recently stated he is ‘happy’ with his goalkeeping situation implies Hart holds no presence in his plans, meaning his return to Manchester last weekend for birthday celebrations may be one of his last.
Clearly held in high regard, the truth about Hart’s ability sits somewhere in the middle of the two poles that have been so readily erected to define him. A high quality goalkeeper, his proneness to error — whether induced by a lack of confidence or otherwise — means he is not the ideal fit for an elite level club, or one aspiring to be like Manchester City.
However, his ability still sees him sit near the top of his profession, perhaps one rung down from the very best. “After Buffon and Gianluigi Donnarumma, the two real phenomenal players, it is Hart and Samir Handanovic on the list of special goalkeepers in the league,” Gianluca Oddenino, club correspondent for the Turin-based newspaper La Stampa told Sky Sports last month.
When Guardiola was hired by Manchester City it was to take the club to the next level, to bring something new and vibrant to a club that had begun to feel stale. In doing so he had to make difficult decisions, ripping up what had become established in the process. While Hart has not descended to the level his critics claim, he is also not serviceable for Guardiola or City.
For City, this season’s goalkeeping situation has very much been a case of, ‘the king is dead! Long live the king!’ Hart was ousted not long into Guardiola’s reign, and in came Claudio Bravo from Barcelona. At times unconvincing, Bravo has occasionally been swapped out for Wily Caballero, with neither the long term solution, but then nor is Hart.
A victim of City’s ambition to dominate both Europe and the Premier League, Hart will likely find a new home this summer and be happier for it, with both his critics and his supporters right in their own way. As for his time in Turin, that looks like being the break that facilitated the change he needed, and a good chance to learn a new language.