If 2018 has been a bad year for Joe Hart, then it is the third bad year in succession. From being exiled from Manchester City in 2016 during the same summer he made a catastrophic error against Iceland to 2017, spending an uncomfortable exile at Torino and then West Ham, to joining Burnley, his career looks in marked decline.
After escaping one ginger football man and a struggling club in David Moyes’ Hammers, he has pitched up with Sean Dyche and become a scapegoat for Burnley’s lurch towards disaster. Only Fulham, a team notorious for being unable to defend, have conceded more than the Clarets’ 41 goals in 19 matches. A squad once hailed for its indefatigability has become one of the softest touches around and languishes in the relegation zone. That they finished seventh last season is the clearest indicator of their fall from grace.
On Sunday, unless he is dropped by Dyche, unlikely considering he has played every minute of the Premier League season, Hart will come up against West Ham. The performances of Lukasz Fabianski have cast him into a darker light at the London Stadium, with the Pole excellent against Southampton on Thursday night.
Hart, meanwhile, is coming off the back of conceding five goals to Everton on Boxing Day. From not moving for Yerry Mina’s opening headed strike, to waving Lucas Digne’s free-kick through for the Frenchman’s first and then being beaten down to his left for Digne’s second, Hart cannot have been happy with three of those goals.
“Down and to the left” has become a mantra to describe a glaring weakness in Hart’s game, one that he has been unable to correct. The confidence of old, a cocksure braggadocio which could annoy but was one of his main strengths, was not much in evidence as Everton ran riot amid a chorus of disquiet from the Turf Moor crowd.
Hart has conceded 90 goals in his last 41 league games, a rate of 2.2 per game or one every 41 minutes. At 31, which used to be young for a goalkeeper, his chances of returning to the levels he once reached at City, and won him 75 England caps, appear to have disappeared over the horizon.
When Pep Guardiola discarded him in favour of Claudio Bravo in that summer of 2016, Hart had many City fans and several pundits on his side, and especially when Bravo proved so unsuited for English football. But once Ederson came in, Hart was finished at City and he became as distant part of the club’s history as Francis Lee, Peter J Swales and Martin “Buster” Philips.
As someone who either chose not to – or could not – adapt to the swift evolution of his position’s requirements, Hart stayed as a shot stopper rather than ball player, but now the doubts centre on his ability to stop shots. Hart has only ever conceded more than 41 goals in one season, when letting in 42 as Birmingham City player by the end of the 2009-10 season.
“We defended so well last season and clearly this season at some points we haven’t done,” said Dyche this week, embracing the art of the understatement. Hart has been little aided by a defence ahead of him that has dropped a level from last season’s heroics, when they conceded just 39 goals in 38 games.
Dyche’s team have won just three Premier League games, with their 4-0 September defeat of Bournemouth now registering as one of the freak results of the season so far. Bournemouth are in a similar position to Burnley last season, punching above their weight, and Eddie Howe might well use the club he briefly managed as an example of where a progressive outfit can swiftly come unstuck.
Last season, Nick Pope was a revelation as goalkeeper, and even went to the World Cup in Hart’s stead as a back-up, but his shoulder injury and the slow recovery of club captain Tom Heaton from the problem that gave Pope his chance last season pushed Dyche into the transfer market. Hart was bought by a club amid a short-lived European campaign, a first since the 1960-61 season, and became its highest-paid player. And one who failed to improve the team he joined.
The blame is not solely his, of course. Playing for Burnley as a goalkeeper is no easy life. Where defenders like James Tarkowski and Ben Mee were hailed last season for their ability to block shots and then clear their lines, Dyche employs a style where opponents are invited on to pick Burnley off. An exposed Hart has been asked to make the most saves of any Premier League goalkeeper.
But damningly for a flagging career, he has conceded by far the most goals.