Joe Hart catches a Vase (Steve Neaves)Joe Hart catches a Vase (Steve Neaves) © Copyright

Joe Hart on training, coaching and staying number one

23 January 2016: Manchester City are away to West Ham. At 1-1, West Ham have a direct free-kick about 25 yards out, slightly right of centre…

West Ham have a few decent free kick-taking options, but Dimitri Payet and Enner Valencia – who’d scored a screamer in the same goal a couple of weeks earlier – look like the most likely candidates to strike the ball. Payet steps up and wraps his right foot around the ball, bending it around the five-man wall and the ball begins curling towards the near post.

The free kick is perfect – were Joe Hart’s goal an envelope, the football would be swinging back towards the small rectangle with AFFIX STAMP HERE printed on it. It’s the type of free kick where the goalkeeper remains rooted and watches – and is justified in doing so. Some shots, after all, are unstoppable.

What happens next happens very quickly.

Hart – who has anticipated the shot – starts moving to his left. The initial movements are rapid and minimal, as he takes five or six tiny tiptoed footsteps before briefly planting both feet and taking off. Mid-air, he contorts and extends his left arm. In his vibrant yellow strip, bent like a banana, and with his hip briefly his body’s lowest point, about a metre above the turf, Hart hits the ball with a strong fist and turns it wide of the post.

The Boleyn Ground is interrupted mid-celebration, and 32,000 cockney heads are held in hands. Hart rises to his feet and chest-bumps full back Bacary Sagna, like a muted but passionate goal celebration.

Hart’s just made what should turn out to be the save of the season – extended over nine feet, he’s demonstrated feline agility to make a borderline absurd stop.

Twitter erupts, Vines circulate. But 140-character remarks and six-second loops are reductive, as is any replay, from any angle. Hart constantly trains and conditions himself for these moments; his life is an athletic dedication to the evolving art of goalkeeping.

Joe Hart saves Dimitri Payet's free kick against West Ham   (Steve Neaves)

 

Optimal Thinker

Ten years ago, Hart was playing in League Two for Shrewsbury Town. He was young, but his talent was obvious. Scouts from every Premier League club were attending games and filing glowing reports on the 19-year-old.

On 24 May 2006, he signed for Manchester City. Two weeks earlier, City had finished 15th in the Premier League. In the ten years that followed, City were subject to two major takeovers, the first by Thai businessman Thaksin Shinawatra and the second by Sheikh Mansoor of the United Arab Emirates, which transformed the landscape of English football.

Since then, the club have spent almost a billion pounds on playing talent, including more than £175million alone on their defence. In January, Hart – now aged 28 – surpassed former defender Richard Dunne to become the player who’d made the most Premier League appearances for the club. He’s Manchester City’s longest-serving player. Joe Hart cost Manchester City £100,000.

While at City, Hart has witnessed wholesale changes. Overseas owners often sell supporters the dream. Their takeovers come accompanied by fighting talk, promising vast expenditure and silverware. Overseas owners, though, often lose interest, and the clubs stagnate. Not City. The boys in blue have gone from poor relations to “noisy neighbours”, and are now not just Manchester’s superior club but also rank among Europe’s elite clubs, having recently announced the impending arrival of the most sought-after manager in world football, Pep Guardiola.

The club have upgraded in almost every department – players, managers, backroom staff – and they’ve also developed one of the world’s finest training complexes.

“I can’t just roll out of bed and perform like I’ve been lucky to do for so much of my career,” begins Hart, when we sit down with him to talk about the changes that he’s experienced during his career.

“I’ve had to change my lifestyle, begin thinking about my diet. The club’s grown a lot, and it’s allowed me to progress. Being here, I’ve always felt I’ve needed to impress. Work-wise, everything adds up to the really simple task of keeping the ball out of the net. More and more, I feel like I need to be at my optimum in terms of fitness.”

At the dawn of the Premier League, goalkeepers were a burly bunch. Seaman, Schmeichel, Southall, Flowers, Pressman; they were all hulking men, built like nightclub bouncers, who elbowed their way through penalty box traffic to claim crosses, men who finished last in their pre-season cross country.

Like everything, though, keepers have evolved. The essence, described tersely by Hart as “keeping the ball out of the goal”, remains the same, but the league’s elite keepers are big men, who have agility that seems to belie their height. The revolution, spearheaded by stoppers like Cech, Lloris, De Gea, Courtois and Hart, requires outside-the-box thinking, opponent-focused preparation and post-game reacclimatising and debriefing.

Joe Hart poses in suit (Steve Neaves)

 

Fitness Fanatic

Standing at 6ft 5in, Hart is tall, but unlike the previous generation of big keepers, he’s remarkably slight, showing no sign of excess muscle. His off-field conditioning all serves to prepare him for business on the pitch.

“Before and after training, I do Pilates on the reformer machine and strength sessions around that. I’ll do leg-based strengthening, but I don’t really do any prison weights. It’s much more isolated work, to keep fit. I’m an old man now [28], and I need to keep myself as strong and able to train on the pitch as much as possible.”

Hart confesses that this degree of focus is a relatively recent progression. Always a talented goalkeeper, he was previously able to rely on natural ability and instinct.

“Earlier in my career, there were times when I was less directed and I misdirected my energy in the gym,” he explains. “I looked at body types in magazines and sort of presumed I knew what I was doing. Now we’ve got some amazing professionals at the club who are employed behind the scenes to keep us in the best possible condition we can be in.”

One of those professionals is Xabier Mancisidor – the club’s goalkeeping coach since 2013. Mancisidor made only nine professional performances as a player, but has since carved out a career as an elite coach. At the tail end of last season, City manager Manuel Pellegrini credited Mancisidor as a key factor in Hart’s transformation into one of the best keepers in the world.

“He’s a real breath of fresh air, because he’s from a very different school of goalkeeping,” says Hart of Mancisidor, who previously worked with Iker Casillas at Real Madrid. “English goalkeeping is very ‘smash the ball and make saves.’ He’s Spanish and he focuses more on small techniques and different, constant ways of improving.

“He tailors training sessions to our next opponent. Not over the top because anything can happen on the day, but we’ll incorporate striker’s names and finishing styles into sessions. We then discuss in depth a lot of stuff about who we’re playing against, and what we need to quickly improve on – if they score a lot of goals with crosses to the back post, then we go and focus on that in training.

“We played Crystal Palace recently, for example, and a lot of their work is done by tricky wingers beating the full back, so my job is to be facing out for the cross, then getting set for a cutback and the shot. It’s sometimes difficult because of the schedule, but when we’ve got a week we can have a really good time doing a lot of useful things.”

After games, Hart and Mancisidor reconvene for a debrief. Win or lose, they discuss positives, negatives and areas for improvements. As well as dictating future training sessions, the debriefs allow Hart to rationalise – and move on from – errors.

“The process only works if we’re honest,” says Hart. “He’s open and honest, and I think I am too about decisions I made in games. I’ve always tried to stay level – good, bad or ugly, I try to have a similar debrief, but it’s the same when you’ve had a really strong game.  It’s tough, mistakes are mistakes and they’re going to happen. I’ve done things wrong in games, and I’ve lost us points, but that’s not how I leave a game, thinking about just the bad that’s happened. There’s a lot more to focus on, and a lot bigger picture than a mistake in a game. You’ve got to think about the whole season. Have I prepared right? Have I trained right? And can I move forward? The answer has to always be yes.” 

Joe Hart extinguishes fire (Steve Neaves)

 

Global Goalkeeping

Last season, while serving as understudy to Thibaut Courtois in the Chelsea goal, Petr Cech uploaded a video analysing David de Gea’s goalkeeping technique, focusing particular praise on de Gea’s unconventional preference for making one-handed saves with the opposite hand to his direction of movement. The video, and Cech’s heavy foray into social media during 2014/15, stunk of a man with too much time on his hands, but also goes some way to illustrate the nature of modern elite goalkeeping. The game’s best number ones are constantly learning from each other.

Traditionally there were clear distinctions between the English and European styles of goalkeeping, but Hart insists that those differences are beginning to disappear.

“Things have come together a lot more. Growing up in Shrewsbury, training was more traditional, but the Premier League is different now, it’s more multicultural.

“Different managers from all over the world, different goalkeepers and different goalkeeping coaches from all over the world – it’s now tying the styles together. The league takes all the great elements of the way that people from around the world play football and blends it into one.”

Hart speaks rivetingly on the learning process he’s constantly undergoing. Always encouraged to think outside the box, it’s not just football that he acquires techniques from, but also the many other hand-based sports.

“There’s basketball, volleyball, handball – in all those hand-based sports, the narrowing of angles and the jumping styles are crazy. Even stuff like cricket, I study wicket-keepers. It’s a sport I watch closely anyway; I think they create lots of opportunities for learning. Not all of it is correct for football and going to change your life, but it’s nice to have an open mind in case something is interesting.”

Bruised and Battered

Upon arrival in Manchester, Hart served as deputy to Shay Given. His breakthrough season came while on loan to Birmingham City in 2009/10 where he played every Premier League fixture (except for the fixtures against his parent club). Upon returning to City, Hart was an ever-present for more than three seasons, before a dip in form saw him briefly dropped for Costel Pantilimon. Hart took it personally. He’s competitive, and quickly won his starting place back.

While City have managed to upgrade in every department, they’ve never managed to attract a goalkeeper of a high enough calibre to challenge Hart; for a footballer with a limited career, it’s simply not a fight worth picking. He goes on to speak about maintaining the number one shirt.

“I wouldn’t say I’m ever 100 per cent established. I’ve just managed to keep my place for a long period of time, and I’m really lucky because both my positions [with club and country] are positions that a lot of people aspire to. Even if we don’t sign anyone, the competition is constant. As established as I might be perceived, I’m never more than two bad performances away from losing my spot. That’s the type of competition that I like and I enjoy; that’s what drives me to perform.”

Joe Hart's hands (Steve Neaves)

 

While there hasn’t been much direct competition at Manchester City, the rise of Stoke City’s Jack Butland, who trained with the senior team at Birmingham while Hart was on loan there, provides him with a challenger at international level. How does Hart respond to this threat?

“He’s just another strong English goalkeeper,” he begins. “Since I’ve been involved, there have always been three strong keepers in the squad. There’s always been people knocking on doors. [Jack] is doing very well, as are a lot of goalkeepers, like big Fraser Forster; and Tom Heaton’s done very well when he’s been in the squad, too.

“Everyone’s doing their own thing, and we come together and work well together. I’ve always worked well with the goalkeepers I’ve been with because we understand that it’s not down to us who plays, it’s down to the manager. Whether I’ve played or not played, I’ve always remained the same with the people I’m with.”

Straight. Bat.

If, like us, you spend chunks of time watching football on YouTube, you might have seen the videos the “England Football Official” uploaded a few years ago of Hart, Forster and John Ruddy doing saving drills.

Goalkeeping coach Dave Watson shouts words of advice and encouragement, and throws underarm lobs across the goal as the keepers palm shots away. “Win us a football match!”; “Make a big save here!”; “Don’t let me beat you on this last one!”

All the leaping about looks fun, but very painful. How much training does Hart do like this? Is he permanently battered and bruised?

Hart begins his answer by laughing.

“I watch those sessions back, and it’s pretty miraculous how the body deals with it. But you know, it’s my life, I’ve been doing it my whole life and the body adapts. Sometimes it hurts more than others but we’re lucky because we get to play on well-groomed football pitches, and I think I’ve got the respect of the coaches enough that if it’s a day where it’s not for that, we just don’t do it. Ultimately, though, that’s what I’m geared up for, and what I’ve got to be prepared for.”

Noisy Neighbour

Joe Hart’s a vocal goalkeeper (get back on YouTube and search “The REACTION of Joe Hart after Andrea Pirlo’s free-kick”), but when he’s not barking expletives at Brazilian ballboys, he can be his team’s key defensive coordinator. From his withdrawn position, Hart can see the game, and he can provide his defenders with vital information.

“I’m just constantly trying to keep them aware of the shape we like to play,” he says. “Especially with City, we’re a very attacking team, so I try to keep the defenders aware and remind them that if maybe the left or right back is attacking, the other one has to be aware that a counter-attack might be on.  We’re a team that are constantly going to be counter-attacked, because we dominate so many games. Keep people on their toes, pass on to the players as much info to the players as I can pass on. I tell my defenders before a game that they’re probably going to hear me shouting their names even if they’re not doing anything wrong. Sometimes it’s just to keep them switched on, and keep me switched on.

“The players around me know that I only give out information to help. I’m never going to belittle anyone, nor make it any more difficult for anyone. Football’s a tough game, and I need to give out as much information as best as I can. And sometimes in a loud stadium, you’ve got to really bark it. But I think everyone who plays with me knows that I’ve got their best interest at heart.”

Joe Hart poses in a suit for a studio shot (Steve Neaves)

 

Hart has played – and barked – behind a revolving cast of outfield players over his time at City, and the club’s ambitions have hugely changed in that time.

“We haven’t been a dominant club for years and years. We’ve got amazing history at Man City, but not necessarily constant triumphs at the top, top level. We’ve got the team and the squad to aim for these things. The idea that we would win everything might get laughed at, but I can’t have any other mindset than to try to win every game we go into, then be judged at the end of the season. For instance, last season was a very bad season. We didn’t come home with anything; that can’t be repeated.”

Not since David Seaman’s penalty heroics at Euro ’96 has an English goalkeeper made the headlines for the right reasons. The eight-year period from Ronaldinho’s lob in Shizuoka to Robert Green’s fumble in Rustenburg is punctuated by a series of embarrassing howlers by a rotating cast of English keepers.

Then along came Joe. He roared at Andrea Pirlo during a shootout at Euro 2012 and screamed at a ballboy in Manaus, but otherwise there’ve been no headlines, no slip-ups, no mistakes, no mess. What does he feel like he needs to work on?

“You can isolate things, general build-up play and playing out from the back we don’t work on too much, but it’s one of the things I am definitely trying to improve on.

I feel like the more I’ve played, the more I’ve grown into my role. I feel like my anticipation and my sense of positioning come naturally, so the shots and the blocks take care of themselves. It’s everything else that needs working on constantly.”

Between posing for photos, talking about his role as a Head & Shoulders ambassador, and our interview, we’ve known Joe Hart now for about an hour. He seems like a decent guy. I scribble his qualities in my notepad: “assured”; “trustworthy”; “reliable”; and the more abstract “the kind of man you’d want to be best man at your wedding”.

Basically, I already trust him: he cares about his job and seems calm at all times – the perfect qualities you want in a mate and, fortunately for all of us, your national team’s goalkeeper.

Joe Hart is an ambassador for Head and Shoulders

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