Believe it or not, Joe Hart was once good. And by good we mean really Well.
It’s easy to forget how reliable he was in the wake of such a sudden decline. But in his prime, Hart was excellent, and the thought of Jordan Pickford being his successor in England would have made you sick.
Hart was the first stop in a Manchester City backbone that had developed as a unit after their very first Premier League title win in 2011/12. From that point on, his status on the team grew and he won the Premier League’s Golden Glove awards faster than John Cena swept the WWE title reigns, winning four seasons in five from 2011 to 2015. , including three consecutive.
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And while winning League titles and Cups has been great for City, who rose through the football ranks without remorse for their neighbors going the other way, personal accolades for Hart will always be sweet, no sweeter than his heroic performance at Camp Nou. in March 2015.
Despite all of their domestic successes, City’s riches still hadn’t brought in much Champions League fortune. In 2014/15, they found themselves 2-1 on aggregate after the last 16 first legs. Not only did they have to produce a return to epic proportions to avoid getting knocked out at the second hurdle, but they had to do it at Camp Nou.
And against MSN; no, not the online messaging service you used before social media was a part, but rather the three deadliest fronts on the planet in 2015, and possibly throughout the 2010s: Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar.
Hart, with his team already at 2-1, had to go to their backyard and deny them a goal in the hope that his field mates would reciprocate and reverse the tie. He did just that. Kind of.
City had started March by winning the Coupe de la Ligue and should have had a spring in their stage, but were without Gael Clichy after being sent off in the first leg. With a full back four of Bacary Sagna, Vincent Kompany, Martin Demichelis and Aleksandar Kolarov in front of him, Hart was on top from the first whistle. This enticing three forward was too and obliterated Manuel Pellegrini’s fourth back to have fun in the opening stages.
It took them 31 minutes of teasing and turning around, but La Blaugrana finally found their shooting boots and drew the first blood after pinning City for half an hour. Ivan Rakitic found himself with acres of space and knocked the ball over on a hurried Hart who couldn’t do much to stop him.
Barca turned up the heat after taking the lead and, with the score now 3-1 on aggregate, it was like a tie. City had resorted to bumps off the side that they just couldn’t keep pace with, and it was up to Hart to make sure they walked away with their dignity intact. He was incredibly quick out of his line each time to read the danger and stopped Jordi Alba from finishing a nice ball from Lionel Messi by going big and stifling the opportunity.
Messi had already tried his luck with free kicks, but to no avail, and after forcing a decent Hart save from outside the box in the second half and often being the creator, this time he went alone, dancing in the zone seeking to round off the English international. Hart held on as long as he could, narrowed the angle cleverly and was cleanly down to clear the ball away for a corner, leaving the lying Argentinian bemused with a fine and final save.
His confidence grew as his camp waned. At this point it was ground training for Barcelona. Hart was the only City player who still looked alive and was out of his line in a flash to fearlessly stop Messi, Neymar and Suarez. Neymar hung on to a viciously whipped cross from Messi at close range but was again denied by Hart who was quick to make another formidable save.
Of the ten saves he made that night, he denied each of the lines three times in individual situations. There was absolutely no way to beat him after having already conceded once.
Hart’s performance was nothing short of heroic. There is still the most saves to be made in a single Champions League game by a goalkeeper, and would be held to a much higher level if his team had done him justice at the other end of the pitch. Messi admitted after the game that Hart was ‘phenomenal’ and Barcelona manager Luis Enrique also referred to his side’s 23 chances on the night, calling Hart’s performance ‘incredible’.
It wasn’t enough to see them through, or even convince Pep Guardiola in the stands that Hart would be the man for the job when he eventually arrived in 2016, but it was a personal reward like no other. The Englishman produced a night neither City fans will ever forget, keeping such a terrifying front three at bay and almost stimulating his side on a comeback.
It wasn’t, but it is a reminder of how he was in his prime.