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
Photo: Getty Images
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What's going on in Northern Ireland?

Power-sharing and devolved rule are under threat. What's going on? Ciara Dunne explains. 

The UUP will formalise their decision to withdraw from the Northern Ireland executive on Saturday. The DUP then announced that it may consider voting to remove Sinn Fein from the executive effectively ending or at least suspending devolution. This is due to a statement by PSNI chief constable George Hamilton stating that former IRA member Kevin McGuigan may have been murdered by people connected to the Provisional IRA (PIRA). However Hamilton also stressed that there was no evidence to prove that the murder occurred due to PIRA orders and there are claims that it was a personal vendett.

The UUP declaring that they will withdraw from the Executive is not particularly destructive. They only have one minister and their vote share has been steadily declining since they signed the Good Friday Agreement to the benefit of the DUP. By acting so dramatically, they run the risk of this seeming like the death rattle of a party trying to remain relevant in a world so different from its heyday rather than a principled stand to protect the fundamentals of the Good Friday Agreement.

Nesbitt voiced disgust that the IRA was still in existence. However the IRA is not one group and many of its splinter groups such as the Continuity IRA (CIRA) and Real IRA (RIRA) didn’t sign up to the Good Friday Agreement and have been active since it. They were not the only paramilitary groups that did not sign up, fragments of extremism have existed since the PIRA decommissioned and it seems likely that they incorporated those who had been PIRA members who were disillusioned by the agreement. Bertie Ahern, former Taoiseach and Good Friday Agreement negotiator, explained while the PIRA had to decommission as part of the agreement, for various reasons it was allowed to exist in a non-armed state. News of its existence shouldn’t come as a shock to the only major unionist party that engaged in Good Friday Agreement negotiations. If the PIRA were proved to be armed and active then this response would be understandable but that is not the case.

What this stand does however give the UUP is a unique selling point compared to theirwe rivals the DUP and it can somewhat tackle the perception some have that the UUP betrayed the unionist community when it agreed to work with Sinn Féin in government.

The DUP has been less drastic. Although they have stated that they would consider pulling out of government, they have described it as temporary suspension of government rather than a total breakdown of trust. Jeffrey Donaldson, a DUP MP, said that if they are to continue to power share with Sinn Féin, they must ensure the PIRA issue dealt with ‘in terms that gives everyone the reassurance that this isn’t going to happen again’. This is a reasonable request and something Sinn Féin must do. They should be unwavering in their condemnation of any paramilitary organisations. However so far they haven’t done otherwise, several senior figures have denied that the PIRA have rearmed. Pearse Doherty, a prominent Sinn Féin TD, insisted that when it came to the IRA “the war is over, they’re not coming back”.

The best way to tackle paramilitaries is to tackle the reasons people joined them. This can be done not by threatening to withdraw from the government but standing together against sectarianism. Parties must ensure that there is a functioning government that works for the good of everyone and gives people a genuine stake in society. It is important that representatives of both communities condemn paramilitaries, in actions as well as words. All parties will soon have the opportunity to move away from old associations, as the old guard age and move aside and the younger members who are untainted by such associations, take charge of the party.

However, it is vital that parties take a considered stance in anything controversial for this to work. In this case, it is not yet certain whether the connections are historical or current. Garda Commissioner Noirin O'Sullivan has stated she has no reason to believe that the PIRA are active in the military sense. Bertie Ahern pointed out that it is possible that ‘these atrocities are being done [by those] who might have been on the inside but are now long since on the outside?’ Political posturing could have terrible consequences for the Good Friday Agreement, especially if results in a party with a large electoral mandate being removed from government when there is no proof it has broken the agreement.

If the UUP and the DUP are truly concerned, a more constructive reaction is to push for the reintroduction of the Independent Monitoring Commission (IMC). The IMC monitored paramilitary activity from 2004 to 2011 and its final report stated that ‘transition from conflict is a long slow process’. This latest incident shows this is true and it is likely that the IMC was disbanded too soon. Reconvening the IMC would offer a way to monitor paramilitary activity and to find patterns and evidence rather than allowing a single incident to destroy progress. If reconvened however it should address the issues that resulted in Sinn Féin’s criticism of the body. A more balanced panel, one agreed by all parties, would address this, the previous one was described as three spooks and a lord, but would still add value to the peace process.

If political parties pull out of the power sharing agreement over an incident that the police have not yet connecting to a sophisticated paramilitary organisation with political connections, they are handing extremism a victory while taking democratic choice away from the people of Northern Ireland. The majority of people in Northern Ireland have been clear, both in referendum and in their actions, they want peace and stability. If the parties of Northern Ireland don’t fight to protect this then they are betraying everyone who believed in the Good Friday Agreement and reconciliation.