“Three days ago against Spain, I felt like crying,” said Vikash Dhorasoo. “I’m not a supporter, I’m not a spectator, I’m a football player and I’m not playing football.”
Filmed before and during the 2006 World Cup, the docu-film Substitute details the existential isolation felt by the France international as he watches his team-mates reach the final in Germany. Released a year after the tournament, the film is an intriguing insight into life on the bench but it also spelled the end for Dhorasoo’s international career after the manager, Raymond Domenech, took exception.
That scenario is unlikely to befall Joe Hart given his close relationship with Gareth Southgate but the West Ham goalkeeper’s place in the England squad is under scrutiny again after another mistake against Stoke in Monday’s 1-1 draw at West Ham.
With the England manager watching on at the London Stadium and the game live on television, Hart’s timing could not have been worse. Having lost his place to Adrián earlier in the season, a run of three matches including a brilliant performance against Chelsea last week seemed to have put the debate to bed for good. Inevitably, the pundits were not slow to pile in, with Sky’s Gary Neville criticising the 30-year-old’s poor technique as he attempted to deal with Xherdan Shaqiri’s shot and Chris Sutton telling the BBC Hart had “dropped his ticket” for the World Cup.
“You cannot take someone because they are a nice bloke and good in the dressing room,” Sutton added. “If England get two injuries to goalkeepers you need your third keeper to be strong. That is how it should be judged.”
With Jordan Pickford and Jack Butland vying to be Southgate’s No 1 in Russia, it appears to be between Hart and Burnley’s Nick Pope for the third and final spot. Pope has enjoyed a spectacular debut season in the Premier League since replacing the injured Tom Heaton in the first half of the 1–0 home win over Crystal Palace in September and received a deserved call-up to Southgate’s last squad. The 25-year-old was an unused substitute in the friendlies against the Netherlands and Italy as the England manager took the unusual step of naming four goalkeepers, although Southgate also hinted Hart’s experience was likely to earn him the nod.
“I’ve been really straight with him throughout,” he said. “I spoke to him three weeks ago before he was back in West Ham’s team and told him he would be in the squad on the basis of what he had done for us before. He’s a good leader to have around and he’s understood everything completely. He’s played that [back-up] role really well.”
Given only four teams out of 435 who have reached the World Cup finals since the regulations were introduced for the 1934 tournament have ended up using all three goalkeepers, you may wonder what all the fuss is about. With Everton’s Pickford and Butland of Stoke having just turned 24 and 25 respectively, Southgate may just have a point.
England’s goalkeepers have endured a torrid run at major tournaments in recent years – think David Seaman against Ronaldinho in 2002 and Rob Green’s gaffe against USA in 2010. Eight years ago in South Africa, a 23-year-old Hart was selected along with Green and David James following a brilliant debut season on loan at Birmingham but Fabio Capello opted for James’s experience. Even if that ended with the ignominious 4-1 defeat to Germany in the last 16, managers are generally more likely to place their trust in someone who has been there and done it.
But therein lies the problem with Hart. After his mistake against Iceland which gifted them victory in the last 16 of the European Championship in France two years ago, he apologised “for ultimately costing us the game and the tournament” and has since been shipped out of Manchester City by Pep Guardiola. He has 75 caps and played in the last World Cup in Brazil but would England be better served by a younger keeper who has not been tainted with such failure?
It would be extremely harsh on Pope if he were to miss out in a season that has seen Burnley defy all expectations to finish in the top half of the table with the league’s third-best defensive record. According to Opta, Pope has saved 80% of the shots he has faced this season, compared with 68.7% for Butland, 67.3% for Pickford and 57.8% for Hart.
Ultimately, it may come down to how much trust Southgate places in Pickford or Butland. Never one to hide from the spotlight, Hart will not expect any charity, although he would undoubtedly prefer not to be known as the squad’s official cheerleader either.