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
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The dog at the end of the lead may be small, but in fact what I’m walking is a hound of love

There is a new, hairy face in the Hovel.

There is a new, hairy face in the Hovel. I seem to have become a temporary co-owner of an enthusiastic Chorkie. A Chorkie, in case you’re not quite up to speed with your canine crossbreeds, is a mixture of a chihuahua and a Yorkshire Terrier, and while my friend K— busies herself elsewhere I am looking after this hound.

This falls squarely into the category of Things I Never Thought I’d Do. I’m a cat person, taking my cue from their idleness, cruelty and beauty. Dogs, with their loyalty, their enthusiasm and their barking, are all a little too much for me, even after the first drink of the day. But the dog is here, and I am in loco parentis, and it is up to me to make sure that she is looked after and entertained, and that there is no repetition of the unfortunate accident that occurred outside my housemate’s room, and which needed several tissues and a little poo baggie to make good.

As it is, the dog thinks I am the bee’s knees. To give you an idea of how beeskneesian it finds me, it is licking my feet as I write. “All right,” I feel like saying to her, “you don’t have to go that far.”

But it’s quite nice to be worshipped like this, I have decided. She has also fallen in love with the Hovel, and literally writhes with delight at the stinky cushions on the sofa. Named after Trude Fleischmann, the lesbian erotic photographer of the Twenties, Thirties and Forties, she has decided, with admirable open-mindedness, that I am the Leader of the Pack. When I take the lead, K— gets a little vexed.

“She’s walking on a loose lead, with you,” K— says. “She never does that when I’m walking her.” I don’t even know what that means, until I have a think and work it out.

“She’s also walking to heel with you,” K— adds, and once again I have to join a couple of mental dots before the mists part. It would appear that when it comes to dogs, I have a natural competence and authority, qualities I had never, not even in my most deranged flights of self-love, considered myself to possess in any measurable quantity at all.

And golly, does having a dog change the relationship the British urban flâneur has with the rest of society. The British, especially those living south of Watford, and above all those in London, do not recognise other people’s existence unless they want to buy something off them or stop them standing on the left of the sodding escalator, you idiot. This all changes when you have a dog with you. You are now fair game for any dog-fancier to come up to you and ask the most personal questions about the dog’s history and genealogy. They don’t even have to have a dog of their own; but if you do, you are obliged by law to stop and exchange dog facts.

My knowledge of dog facts is scant, extending not much further beyond them having a leg at each corner and chasing squirrels, so I leave the talking to K—, who, being a friendly sort who could probably talk dog all day long if pressed, is quite happy to do that. I look meanwhile in a kind of blank wonder at whichever brand of dog we’ve just encountered, and marvel not only at the incredible diversity of dog that abounds in the world, but at a realisation that had hitherto escaped me: almost half of London seems to have one.

And here’s the really interesting thing. When I have the leash, the city looks at me another way. And, specifically, the young women of the city. Having reached the age when one ceases to be visible to any member of the opposite sex under 30, I find, all of a sudden, that I exist again. Women of improbable beauty look at Trude, who looks far more Yorkie than chihuahua, apart from when she does that thing with the ears, and then look at me, and smile unguardedly and unironically, signalling to me that they have decided I am a Good Thing and would, were their schedules not preventing them, like to chat and get to know me and the dog a bit better.

I wonder at first if I am imagining this. I mention it to K—.

“Oh yes,” she says, “it’s a thing. My friend P-J regularly borrows her when he wants to get laid. He reckons he’s had about 12 shags thanks to her in the last six months. The problems only arise when they come back again and notice the dog isn’t there.”

I do the maths. Twelve in six months! That’s one a fortnight. An idea begins to form in my mind. I suppose you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to work out what it is. But no. I couldn’t. Could I?

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism