Let's all stop kicking Joe Hart

The footballer deserves our compassion. Not cruel psychological abuse.

Few understand the appeal of playing in goal. It's an acquired taste and in many ways a masochistic experience. You get battered regularly and find yourself in periods of dark isolation. You are the chosen one bestowed with the sacred power of hand use in a game whose exclusive selling point is the use of feet, you are the team freak by default. Such special pitch status means you are only one fumble away from damnation. You are the whipping boy, the scape goat, the hunchback of Notre Dam. Oh but the upsides! The spoils of battle, the glory of winning a penalty shootout or pulling off a miraculous reflex save to the acclaim of onlookers, that is why we do it, we are narcissists.

My own performances in goal (no higher than University level) were as much a reflection of my mental health condition and confidence levels at a given time than the result of a training regime. Successful goalkeeping is far more a consequence of good instincts and positive cognitive energies as it is refining yourself in to a "trained product" as Zlatan described Cristiano Ronaldo. My own flirtations with mental health problems probably best explain my own performances in goal. At my best I stepped on the pitch with a confident swagger, fearlessly diving at the feet of superior physical specimens to stop conceding at all costs. At my worst I was a yielding coward, a hesitant wreck that would claim a cross with the conviction and authority of a snapped Peperami. The worst thing about those periods is you know fatalistically what is coming, but you stand there duty bound paralysed by fear. You remonstrate with yourself, "CONCENTRATE! BE CONFIDENT!" but you know inside it's futile. A dark sprite of malevolence within whispers, "you're going to fuck up son, you aren't up to this today". At my lowest in my teens my centre back approached me and said "Josh, you used to be fucking crazy (in a good way), what happened to you?" To no longer be regarded as boarder line insane for a goalkeeper is the ultimate insult...

My experiences persuade me that goalkeeping can amount to a form of real mental torture. I watch goalkeepers at the top level in front of tens of thousands of scrutinisers with a sick curiosity. I simply cannot imagine how they cope, however habitual it may be. Admittedly the exhilaration of performing heroics to thunderous admiration is surely unsurpassable (unless you try the Adrian Mutu method), yet the lows must be horrendous. A goalkeeper is unable to hide in the comforting camouflage of ten outfield team mates in identical shirts. I seriously believe without wishing to express hyperbole, that the long term consequences of such lulls in form, or high profile mistakes, may lead to serious mental health disorders. Myself playing in front of 21 male peers and feeling fragile was one thing, but 60,000+, the world beyond, and the ensuing barrage of critical savagery from the national media is another thing entirely.

Make no mistake, Joe Hart is a fantastic goalkeeper, I'm something of a connoisseur on the subject. He has a dose of arrogance that is essential, he's commanding, has fantastic distribution and absent David de Gea few can match his shot stopping abilities. For so long he was the darling of English goalkeepers, our Obi Wan Kenobi, our only hope, the exception to the rule that goalkeepers rarely peek until their early 30's. Yet now he finds himself impaled on a scathing nationalist sword of condemnation. A victim of the age old rule of British sports journalism; build em up fast and smash them down as hard and fast as possible. There really does seem to be a cult of critical savagery against national football icons in our country. You almost sense the gleeful zeal as journos mentally mutilate the already confidence deficient. They behave like those despicable parents I recall in my youth who lambasted small children during games for failing to meet their own high expectations/personal fantasies. How refreshing it would be to hear a prominent national journalist ask, how can we support Joe Hart? Instead they react like predictable simpletons - the hall mark of their profession increasingly seeming to be stating the obvious, "ball go in goal, Joe Hart bad, did not stop goal, stop him play!". If an otherwise exemplary driver was in a car crash we wouldn't stand back and shout over to the beleaguered victim "fucking hell mate, you've made a right old mess of that, you are shit!"

Joe Hart's fantastic ability is indisputable, even if currently lurking beneath a shaky surface. Yet all too often in football a residual serpent's head rears up and exposes a cold dumb brute masculinity: careless, compassionless, unsympathetic and believes it virtuous to crucify in public in the pursuit of a survival of the fittest vision of a football dream team. They care nothing for long term perspective nor former service, they only demand to be instantly gratified with an impatience for anything less than perfection. The tale of the hyper self-critical German goalkeeper Robert Enke and his resulting suicide is a cautionary one. Although his death was not exclusively the result of football pressures it at least partly demonstrates how a normalised culture of criticism can lead to devastating outcomes, again vividly demonstrated in Clarke Carlisle's documentary on football related depression. So we have two options: we can either collectively drop kick Hart whilst on the deck, or we can help pick him back up, restore his confidence and improve football's culture in the process. We need only look at Aaron Ramsey this season for evidence that writing off a struggling player can be proved horribly short sighted.

Footballer Joe Hart. Photograph: Getty Images
Getty Images.
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George Osborne's double U-turn allows him to change while remaining the same

The Chancellor abandoned cuts to tax credits and the police but stuck to his target of a £10bn budget surplus. 

The U-turn is an underrated manoeuvre in politics. At a stroke, it reduces opponents to complaining that the government has done what they told it to do. As long as the U-turn is in the right direction, the voters, who pay little attention to such matters, are usually content.

The best climbdowns are often the fullest. In his Autumn Statement and Spending Review, George Osborne proved this not once but twice. As so often, the Treasury briefings that the Chancellor would merely provide "transitional" support for tax credit claimants were designed to lead reporters off the scent. Rather than modifying the cuts to in-work benefits, Osborne abandoned them entirely. In the face of the formidable coalition of Boris Johnson (his chief leadership rival), Tory backbenchers, the Sun, the work and pensions select committee, Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Adam Smith Institute, he capitulated.

He does so at the cost of breaching his self-imposed welfare cap for three years. But this will only have the effect of amplifying his generosity. In fact, the cuts have merely been deferred (till 2020 as tax credits are absorbed by Universal Credit), rather than abandoned. But today at least, the Chancellor has got the headlines he wanted. 

After the Paris attacks, another formidable coalition of interests had inveighed against police cuts. And again, Osborne met their demands in full. Having suggested as recently as last weekend that there would be signifcant cuts (another bluff), he revealed in his peroration that there would be none at all. "The police protect us, and we’re going to protect the police," he declared. Just as his tax credits U-turn shielded him from one leadership challenger (Boris), so this move shielded him from another (Home Secretary Theresa May). The Foreign Office budget, he also announced would be protected in real-terms, joining health, international development and defence behind the ring-fence. 

The skill of Osborne's statement was to change while remaining the same. Against expectations, he announced that his promised budget surplus in 2020 had not fallen but risen to £10.1bn (up £0.1bn). Gross tax increases of £28.5bn, including the new apprenticeship levy (£11.6bn), higher council tax (£6.2bn) and higher stamp duty for second homes and buy-to-let purchases (£3.8bn), as well as lower debt interest payments mean that he is still forecast to eliminate the deficit (albeit years later than originally promised). Staring intently at John McDonnell, he vowed that the Tories would "fix the roof while the sun is shining" (the shadow chancellor having told me that he would "throw up" if he heard the line again). 

But Osborne's decision to avoid the most hazardous cuts should not distract from those that remain. The average cut to unprotected departments, including transport, business and communities and local government - is 19 per cent. After the reductions in the last parliament, any fat has largely been eliminated. The Chancellor will be cutting into bone. If past experience is any guide, today's U-turns will not be his last. But as history also shows, that may not be to his cost. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.