|Venue: Ibrox Stadium, Glasgow Dated: Sunday, April 3 Kick-off: 12:00 BST|
|Coverage: Listen on BBC Radio Scotland, live text commentary on the BBC Sport website, highlights on BBC Scotland from 19:15|
The internet is full of pieces documenting the demise of Joe Hart as a top-class goalkeeper. The rise and fall… Whatever happened to…? What’s gone wrong with…? Where now for…?
The man who went from winning two Premier League titles and four Golden Gloves awards with Manchester City, who won 75 caps for England, who was described as a “phenomenon” by Lionel Messi after he made 10 big saves in a Champions League knockout match against Barcelona in their pomp.
What went wrong? It’s been a puzzler ever since Hart was escorted through the door of the Etihad.
Hart might not be Ange Postecoglou’s most celebrated recruit, but he’s been one of the most significant. He’s brought saves where previously there weren’t many.
He’s brought leadership where before there was uncertainty. He’s brought presence where last season there was the musical chairs of Scott Bain and his 23 games, Vasilis Barkas and his 22 games and Conor Hazard and his six games.
Going into the big Old Firm match on Sunday – if it goes right for Celtic they’ll be able to smell the Brasso being applied to the Premiership trophy – Hart has more clean sheets than anybody else in the league.
He has conceded a goal every 168 minutes, not far off a mark set by Craig Gordon in 2016-17, the best of the club’s treble-winning seasons. He’s only three clean sheets short of the number Gordon achieved in that campaign and only one behind the number posted by Allan McGregor in Rangers’ unbeaten league season, with plenty of games left to pass him by.
He needs two more clean sheets to match, and three more to beat, his best total as a professional footballer.
These things are about the collective, of course. Hart’s stats wouldn’t look so hot if the guys in front of him weren’t doing their stuff, which takes us back to Postecoglou hitting the bullseye with so many of his signings.
We know where they all came from – the clubs and countries – but it’s not so easy to determine where Hart came from. It wasn’t a place, as such, it was more a state of mind.
He had trophies, money, caps, recognition, but none of that was all that relevant to him when Postecoglou got him on the phone. Hart was at his lowest ebb. He needed a job. He needed somebody to show him some belief.
Celtic door opens as football world closes
Hart’s rejuvenation matches Celtic’s own revival. Together they’ve found a solution to their problems – a stalled career in the case of Hart, a recurring issue in goal in the case of the club.
All of this happened quietly and quickly. Given his dwindling career, there was a hesitancy about declaring Hart’s capture a coup, but he has been a critical cog. There’s been some moments of anxiety as opponents applied the high press, but mostly there’s been authority.
The fact he came from such a lonely place mentally, and talked so honestly and eloquently about that journey, only gives you greater understanding of his determination going into Sunday and beyond. Hart had done it all, but for the longest time he’d felt like a man who’d done nothing at all.
We know the outline of his story. Pep Guardiola arrives at Manchester City and instantly decides Hart is not the guy for him. He moves to Torino in the summer of 2016, concedes 62 goals in fewer than 40 games and leaves. He moves to West Ham in summer 2017, plays 23 games and wins just four, then loses his place and leaves. He misses out on the World Cup.
He arrives at Burnley in summer 2018. He concedes four goals against Fulham, Chelsea and West Ham and five against Manchester City and Everton, then after a while he loses his place. He’s on a two-year deal but the club tell him he can leave after one. And he tries. “I couldn’t find anything,” he said. “The football world was closed. I was done. I can’t be given away.”
The ‘Where Did It All Go Wrong?’ stuff had long since roared into view. As he put it recently: “One minute the king of the world and the next minute…”
He plays 24 games in two seasons with Burnley and then he’s away. He joins Jose Mourinho’s Spurs. Ten games, none of them league matches. Nine wins, though. Hope at last. Then Mourinho exits and Nuno Espirito Santo arrives and the worst episode of all starts to unfold.
He’s 34. Younger than team-mate Hugo Lloris. Younger than Kasper Schmeichel of Leicester. Younger than Lukasz Fabianski of West Ham. Younger than Vicente Guaita of Crystal Palace. Younger than Ben Foster of Watford. Nuno sits him down and doesn’t just say it’s over, he gets out a metaphorical flamethrower just in case there’s any confusion.
As Hart recalled on the In The Stiffs podcast: “He just went, ‘In my opinion, we all reach a point in our career when the body won’t allow you to play football. We’re at it now. I would not feel comfortable with you playing one minute for me. The ball’s too quick for you, you’re too old, you’re not moving, you’ve got no strength in your body’. He literally buried me…”
And that, not surprisingly, was that. The footballing psychoanalysts had a field day. A once gregarious, outgoing and imposing character had been diminished by a succession of rejections and a vicious cycle of poor form.
His charisma was gone, beaten out of him by a run of managers who didn’t believe in him. Used to playing in a winning and driven team (Manchester City), he couldn’t deal with life on the other side. The decline was rapid and terminal. Joe Hart was done.
There was revisionism, too. How good was Hart really? Was he a fine goalkeeper who just had a few bad years or an average goalkeeper who just had a few good years?
Even when he played well, even when he made the saves and commanded his penalty area, there was chat about this being some kind of sad and fleeting glimpse of how he used to be in the glory days rather than how he still could be.
‘I just need a bit of love’
And so to Celtic. “I spoke to Ange and I told him how I was feeling, how I was happy to go and play apart because I don’t need this any more. I said you can take this as me being vulnerable. I just need a bit of love.”
Modern footballers rarely open themselves up like this in public, particularly those who’ve had a stellar career like Hart. If he had a reputation for cockiness, that character was long gone. Now it was just humility he was giving off. He said that Postecoglou had him at hello.
The move has worked out well for both parties. Of course it’s not the rarefied air of the English Premier League and his game is not being tested in anything like the way it would be down south, but this new chapter means the world to him, you can tell. After six years searching, he’s found in Postecoglou and Celtic exactly what he’s been looking for.
The endless conversations about Barkas and how much he cost and about Gordon and how daft Celtic were to let him go and Fraser Forster and how they really needed to do the deal to keep him in Glasgow seem like an eternity ago.
Hart turns 35 this month. Given that Gordon is 39 and Allan McGregor is 40, he’s got some good years left if the hunger remains. It sounds like he’s done with looking back. Looking forward is what it’s all about now.