London- A dab of make-up cannot conceal the black eye Joe Hart is sporting as he walks into West Ham United’s press room and the topic is swiftly raised: have pre-season preparations at Rush Green taken an unsavoury turn? “Yeah, the induction was to have a fight with Andy [Carroll],” is the retort before the less sensational truth, that he had received a ball to the face while spreading to make a save, follows with appropriate haste.
If Hart had taken a punch he would probably have rolled with it. He will start his loan club’s opener at Old Trafford this afternoon, a year to the day since his absence from Pep Guardiola’s lineup against Sunderland made it abundantly clear that there would be little hope of a future under the current Manchester City regime, and he does not hide the fact his situation is imperfect. Last season’s hurriedly arranged spell at Torino was a means to an end; this summer, at 30 years old, he would have preferred to set down roots than be lent for another 12 months. City would have sold him for £25m but no bid was forthcoming; some players might have sulked but Hart is a pragmatist and, besides, the stakes were too high in a World Cup year. He took the temporary move that offered “the highest standard possible” and the challenge in east London was one he welcomed.
“I think a permanent move was always going to be difficult,” he says. “I don’t think there were too many options for that, if any. That would have been my ideal situation. I’ve always answered questions honestly, and ideally I wanted to be signing a permanent deal somewhere so I could set my life up and have a direction.
“But that wasn’t to be and West Ham have been absolutely fantastic towards me. I can’t be any more grateful to Slaven [Bilic], Mr Gold and Mr Sullivan for coming and making clear that they wanted me to be here, and I’m over the moon to be a part of this club. There wasn’t an awful lot of movement goalkeeper-wise this summer so I’m very thankful to get this opportunity.”
Hart describes the circumstances behind his move as “business” more than once and makes it clear that he did not want to sit on his £4.5m salary at City. “Not everyone in football wants to play football,” he says. “When you become a professional footballer there’s no written contract that says you have to strive to play first-team football. It’s a job at the end of the day but there are a lot of us, myself included, that just love playing football. If I can’t play for my club, and logistics and business mean I can’t be bought or sold but someone’s willing to play me elsewhere, then of course it needs to happen.”
There is no outward resentment towards City although there is equally no indication their goalkeeping travails since his departure for Italy – which have taken in unsuccessful experiments with Claudio Bravo and Willy Cabellero and will, for now at least, settle on the new signing, Ederson – do not puzzle him.
“That’s their problem,” he says of a position that Guardiola has found more difficult to fill than might have been anticipated. “I need to look after myself. I need to be selfish in this situation. My feelings towards Manchester City will never change; I’m eternally grateful to them as a football club. They took me as a 19-year-old boy from Shrewsbury Town, took somewhat of a punt on me and I’ve had some fantastic times. The fans have been so supportive of me, even in the past year, and that’s something that will never die for me.
“But as far as the business side goes, with new managers and opinions, it’s unfortunately football and you’ve just got to take it on the chin. There’s no point in taking it too personally because it’s not all about me. The game moves quickly and you’ve got two choices: you can moan about it, make smart comments and try to work out why it was done or you can just try and get on with it. I’ve taken the latter.”
Similarly there is no direct rebuttal of Guardiola’s view, never publicly expressed but widely held to have crystallised in the buildup to 2016-17, that Hart’s ability to build play from the back was inadequate for his requirements. The implication that he fared perfectly well with a comparable approach in Serie A is clear enough, though, as is the sense he does not consider this a politic time to offer more on the matter.
“I feel I can adapt to what my manager wants,” he says. “It was what Sinisa Mihajlovic wanted [at Torino] last year and I felt like I could do what he asked me to, and at the moment I feel capable of doing what Slaven is asking me to do. It’s the same when I’ve been with England and any manager I’ve played under. I’ve felt comfortable that I can achieve what they’ve asked.”
Hart has the confidence of Gareth Southgate, whose keenness to communicate with his national team players goes down well. The pair have spoken during the summer and Hart was assured West Ham would be an appropriate destination. He remained Southgate’s first choice last season despite the upheaval he had undergone; one imagines it would take a severe downturn for Jack Butland, Fraser Forster or Tom Heaton – whose performances for Burnley last season he describes as “a miracle” – to dislodge him and he hopes a place at Russia 2018 will be a natural consequence of domestic success.
“I want to be an England goalkeeper playing for West Ham, I really do, and that’s my intention,” he says. “It’s a privileged position to play for the country and every single time I put on that No1 jersey for England I’m very proud and excited for what comes with it.”
He will not wear that number for West Ham – “I didn’t feel it was right to take the No1 shirt; I’m currently on loan at West Ham, and I’ve enjoyed a lot of good times in the No25 shirt” – and if star billing is unimportant, then there are others in the squad who can take that mantle. Pablo Zabaleta, his former team-mate at City, was a familiar face when Hart arrived and is “like a brother” to him; more eye-catching still is the arrival of Javier Hernández, whom he once knew as a cross-Manchester rival and he now believes can give the club a spearhead they have long needed.
“I’ve loved his intensity, I’ve loved his professionalism, it’s been great to meet the man and realise he’s the real deal,” he says. The new concentration of title-winning experience – Hart, Zabaleta and Hernández have two apiece – in West Ham’s dressing room should help a side that too often seemed directionless last season. European football is the target.
“I come here with really high demands of my team-mates because I demand a lot of myself,” he says. “I’m here to win games, I’m here to try and help, I’m here to learn. If everyone’s got a similar sort of mind-set we’ve got a dangerous squad.”
It is not a stretch to conclude that the last year bruised Hart rather more than that shiner to his right eye but he is keen to ensure the marks show only faintly. Today will bring boos from the Manchester United support, as always, and the biggest significance will be that it means business as usual.
“Sometimes you have to take a few things on the chin, dig in and work,” he says. “But working hard isn’t a problem for me, digging deep isn’t a problem. That’s who I am and it’s what I’ll continue doing until my body won’t let me.”
The Guardian Sport