Hart restores reputation of English goalkeepers
After being afflicted by gaffe-prone goalkeepers for years, England arrives at the European Championship with one that is being lauded rather than laughed at.
Joe Hart is no ''calamity `keeper.'' Far from it. His agility and assuredness between the posts helped Manchester City win the Premier League this past season and led England through Euro 2012 qualifying unbeaten.
Goalkeeping should be the one department not troubling coach Roy Hodgson as he prepares an injury-ravaged squad for the opening match against France on Monday.
''(Hart) will be vital. His form for Manchester City has been superb,'' Hodgson said. ''When he has played for England he has done very well. If we are to do well there is no doubt we will need Joe Hart in top form.''
Hart, who has won 18 caps, is arguably one of the few world-class players in England's 23-man squad for the tournament in Poland and Ukraine.
''Joe Hart is one of the best goalkeepers in the world,'' said Patrick Vieira, the former France captain turned Manchester City executive.
How different from two years ago, when yet another English goalkeeping blunder set the tone for a disappointing World Cup under then-coach Fabio Capello.
In the opening game against the United States, Rob Green allowed a routine shot from Clint Dempsey to slip through his grasp as England was held to a 1-1 draw.
Hart still didn't get a chance a play when Green was dropped for David James, and he became frustrated when Capello's goalkeeping coach Franco Tancredi called him `John.'
''I just ended up saying it to myself, `My name's Joe','' Hart recalled last week. ''That's just a bit of banter but they did call me John.''
James was handed the goalkeeper's jersey in South Africa despite being known as ''Calamity James'' after allowing a shot to squirm under his body into the net during 2006 World Cup qualifying.
England didn't even reach that last Euros in 2008 after a pair of blunders by two different goalkeepers in qualifiers against Croatia.
Paul Robinson went to deal with a routine backpass in Croatia, but the ball hit a divot and bounced over his foot and into the net. And in the final qualifier at Wembley, Scott Carson should have dealt comfortably with a shot, but the ball bounced past him in a 3-2 loss.
But since Hart emerged as England's first-choice goalkeeper in Euro 2012 qualifying, England is yet to lose a competitive match.
The 25-year-old Hart has helped to restore the reputation of English goalkeepers who were the envy of the football world when Gordon Banks, Ray Clemence and Peter Shilton were playing. Shilton made a record 125 appearances for England, the last in the 1990 World Cup third-place match.
''If you look at the top England teams of the past and the teams that have done extremely well in the past, we have often had a goalkeeper that people have suggested is one of the best goalkeepers in Europe or in the case of Gordon Banks, one of the best in the world,'' Hodgson said.
''I agree 100 percent with Brian Clough's situation (when he won the European Cup twice with Shilton at Nottingham Forest). He always placed great faith in goalkeepers. He felt that got you a lot of points every year. He produces the save that a normal goalkeeper wouldn't. That lifts your team higher up the league. It also gives confidence.''
But the lack of English goalkeeping talent in the Premier League has been exposed by the inclusion of 19-year-old Jack Butland as third-choice keeper in the squad despite his only senior experience being in the third tier last season with Cheltenham. Green is the backup to Hart.
''Joe Hart is the top goalkeeper in the country without any shadow of a doubt,'' Shilton said. ''He has really improved over the last couple of years and has now played a number of times for England too, so he is getting plenty of experience.
''But I am a little bit frightened about what happens if he gets injured because we don't have anyone good enough to fill his shoes.''
And Hart knows how quickly the fortunes of a goalkeeper can change. One minute, you're being compared to Spain's Iker Casillas, the next you have gained a mocking moniker.
''You can be as good as Casillas but then when things go wrong you are overhyped and a waste of space and they need to replace you,'' Hart said.
Rob Harris can be reached at www.twitter.com/RobHarris