- Joe Hart has yet to concede in 2018 FIFA World Cup™ qualifying
- The England No1 has just returned from a year on loan at Torino in Italy’s Serie A
- England face Scotland on Saturday at Hampden Park in Glasgow
Joe Hart smiles, laughs and puts his hands up to indicate to FIFA.com that is the extent of the Italian he will be sharing during the course of our interview. Despite a state of limbo over his club future, having just returned from a year on loan at Torino to uncertainty at Manchester City, things are slightly better than “it’s OK” on the international front for England’s No1.
Heading into Saturday’s clash with rivals Scotland, Hart has gone over nine hours without conceding in FIFA World Cup™ qualifying, a run that dates back to October 2013 and the preliminaries for Brazil 2014. England lead European Group F by four points from Slovakia.
“We’ve been solid,” Hart told *FIFA.com *in an exclusive interview. “We’ve got a good balance, and that’s what we’re trying to build because as much as we have amazing flair and talent, we need us guys to be solid at the back.”
Those building blocks are now being assembled by new coach Gareth Southgate, who became the third permanent England manager in five months upon his appointment in November last year after Roy Hodgson and then Sam Allardyce departed in 2016. It has also been a somewhat tumultuous time for the Three Lions at major tournaments of late, eliminated from the group stages of Brazil 2014 before suffering a humiliating exit at the hands of Iceland at UEFA EURO 2016.
“We need to change how we deal with the big moments and knockout football” Hart said. “The manager’s come in and made a good point that qualifying has been fairly routine for the country and it’s not been for everyone else. First of all, we need to qualify for Russia, get to the knockout stages and that’s where stuff needs to start changing.”
What would that change look like, in an ideal world for Hart?
“We want to win something for our country,” the goalkeeper said. “We want to win something for ourselves, for our families. That’s the focus. What’s done is done. Be that the way we performed at the last World Cup, or the way that Germany performed in Brazil. It’s done now. Everything’s up for grabs.”
That attitude is embodied by a fresh squad who are tight-knit. The growing camaraderie was underlined during a recent team-bonding trip to the Royal Marines’ Commando Training Centre in Devon, where Hart says “everyone learned a few things about themselves and each other". This group has been assembled by Southgate, who formerly coached his country’s U-21 side - almost half of the squad named for England’s upcoming qualifier against Scotland are under 25.
“I’m definitely one of the oldest,” the 30-year-old Hart smiled. “I love the energy and the freshness that the young lads bring. There aren’t many guys I’ve met who aren’t 15 in their head no matter what age they are! Age is just a number for some of them. People like Marcus [Rashford], he’s winning things and he’s not even 20 yet.”
Rashford will be vying to feature in the upcoming game against Scotland, which represents the latest instalment in international football’s oldest rivalry, dating back to the inaugural game between the pair in 1872. Hart has fond memories of the fixture, recalling one of his most vivid childhood memories was David Seaman saving Gary McAllister’s penalty in the pair's famous showdown at UEFA EURO 1996.
“I remember Seaman’s save because he was a big hero of mine,” he said with a beaming grin. “Saturday’s going to be another special evening. They’ve got a very passionate coach who’s going to put a lot of thought into this game. There’s no way of getting away from it, we’re walking into an atmosphere up there of people who don’t want us to win. Some of us thrive on that.”
The confident Hart is likely an infectiously positive personality in the camp, but there is an air of uncertainty around his position. With a number of younger goalkeepers impressing and pushing for the No1 jersey, he knows what he needs to do to maintain his spot. Returning from his time in Italy, where he studied the language (“something I need to keep up”), what is next for him?
“I think it’s obvious that I’ve got no chance of playing for England, if I’m not playing for a club team,” Hart said. “Gareth [Southgate] doesn’t need to say that. I’ll obviously have to sort my immediate future out. But I have the luxury at the moment of being part of the national team and I can only do my best on the field and let everything else take care of itself.”
Hart's run, by the numbers
sides left in WCQ have yet to concede: England and Uganda
years, seven months since Hart last conceded in WCQ (Dejan Damjanovic's goal for Montenegro)
World Cup qualifying clean sheets in a row for England's No1
minutes without conceding in World Cup qualifiers