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
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How a small tax rise exposed the SNP's anti-austerity talk for just that

The SNP refuse to use their extra powers to lessen austerity, says Kezia Dugdale.

"We will demand an alternative to slash and burn austerity."

With those few words, Nicola Sturgeon sought to reassure the people of England, Wales and Northern Ireland last year that the SNP were a party opposed to public spending cuts. We all remember the general election TV debates, where the First Minister built her celebrity as the leader of the anti-austerity cause.

Last week, though, she was found out. When faced with the choice between using the powers of the Scottish Parliament to invest in the future or imposing cuts to our schools, Nicola Sturgeon chose cuts. Incredible as it sounds the SNP stood shoulder to shoulder with the Tories to vote for hundreds of millions of pounds worth of cuts to schools and other vital public services, rather than asking people to pay a little bit more to invest. That's not the choice of an anti-austerity pin-up. It's a sell-out.

People living outside of Scotland may not be fully aware of the significant shift that has taken place in politics north of the border in the last week. The days of grievance and blaming someone else for decisions made in Scotland appear to be coming to an end.

The SNP's budget is currently making its way through the Scottish Parliament. It will impose hundreds of millions of pounds of cuts to local public services - including our schools. We don't know what cuts the SNP are planning for future years because they are only presenting a one year budget to get them through the election, but we know from the experts that the biggest cuts are likely to come in 2017/18 and 2018/19. For unprotected budgets like education that could mean cuts of 16 per cent.

It doesn't have to be this way, though. The Scottish Parliament has the power to stop these cuts, if only we have the political will to act. Last week I did just that.

I set out a plan, using the new powers we have today, to set a Scottish rate of income tax 1p higher than that set by George Osborne. This would raise an extra half a billion pounds, giving us the chance to stop the cuts to education and other services. Labour would protect education funding in real terms over the next five years in Scotland. Faced with the choice of asking people to pay a little bit more to invest or carrying on with the SNP's cuts, the choice was pretty simple for me - I won't support cuts to our nation’s future prosperity.

Being told by commentators across the political spectrum that my plan is bold should normally set alarm bells ringing. Bold is usually code for saying something unpopular. In reality, it's pretty simple - how can I say I am against cuts but refuse to use the powers we have to stop them?

Experts - including Professors David Bell and David Eiser of the University of Stirling; the Resolution Foundation; and IPPR Scotland - have said our plan is fair because the wealthiest few would pay the most. Trade unions have backed our proposal, because they recognise the damage hundreds of millions of pounds of cuts will do to our schools and the jobs it will cost.

Council leaders have said our plan to pay £100 cashback to low income taxpayers - including pensioners - to ensure they benefit from this plan is workable.

The silliest of all the SNP's objections is that they won't back our plan because the poorest shouldn't have to pay the price of Tory austerity. The idea that imposing hundreds of millions of pounds of spending cuts on our schools and public services won't make the poorest pay is risible. It's not just the poorest who will lose out from cuts to education. Every single family and business in Scotland would benefit from having a world class education system that gives our young the skills they need to make their way in the world.

The next time we hear Nicola Sturgeon talk up her anti-austerity credentials, people should remember how she did nothing when she had the chance to end austerity. Until now it may have been acceptable to say you are opposed to spending cuts but doing nothing to stop them. Those days are rapidly coming to a close. It makes for the most important, and most interesting, election we’ve had in Scotland.

Kezia Dugdale is leader of Scottish Labour.