In Defense of Joe Hart, Manchester City's Third-Choice Goalkeeper

The Joe Hart situation might be all about money. It's easy to forget, but the pros are at work just like the rest of us.
August 24, 2016, 3:05pm
Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Joe Hart is in a predicament: Manchester City's new manager, Pep Guardiola, doesn't like him. Hart began this season as the club's No. 2 goalkeeper. As of this writing, however, City is reportedly on the verge of signing Barcelona's Chilean keeper Claudio Bravo. If Bravo signs, Hart might not even be City's second-choice keeper. He could be its third.

This has come as a shock to both Hart and much of the soccer-viewing public. Hart is something of an institution at City. He's started in goal for eight seasons with the club, making 266 league appearances under six different managers. It doesn't look like those tallies will change anytime soon.

But what looks on the surface like a pretty standard transfer story—Manager wants Player X instead of player Y; Player Y finds a new club—is something more interesting. This is the rare transfer saga that's got me checking for news over my morning coffee, the kind of narrative that's as revelatory as it is mysterious.

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For one thing, there's Guardiola's stance on Hart: that he lacks the passing and general footwork to play Guardiola's style of soccer—a stance that is debatable at best. Unfortunately, Guardiola doesn't have to answer to us, so we may never understand his position.

As weird as it is for a new manager to tell the world that an established star isn't good enough, I'm less interested in why than I am in seeing what Hart will do about it. Rumor has it he might stay at City and ride the bench (or "fight for his place," for you optimists out there).

The possibility of the English national team's starting keeper not even dressing for matches at his club is the kind of thing that might make English fans just give up hope entirely. On Monday, Sam Allardyce, England's manager, made it clear that Hart needs to play at club level if he wants to keep his spot with the national team. So far, pundits have framed Hart's dilemma as a no-brainer: he has to leave.

But the notion that Hart has to leave is a bit ridiculous. It's a case of pundits and fans and even Allardyce conflating what they want to happen with what's best for Hart, and while him leaving is heavy on logic, especially if you're an England supporter, it's light on empathy. This is not a popular opinion, but the rational thing for Hart to do might be to stay.

Photo by Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

Hart's contract at City runs until 2019. He earns a reported £135,000 per week, a figure that makes me literally cringe to type. And it's his huge wage that's the real issue here. There aren't very many clubs in the world that can afford to pay a keeper what City pays Hart. In England, with the exception of Liverpool, the rest of the Premier League's "big clubs"—Chelsea, United, Arsenal, Tottenham—already have elite keepers. Even Leicester doesn't need Hart. What's more, each of those keepers, with the exception of United's David De Gea, who earns a whopping £177,000 per week, earn less than Hart: around £100,000 per week.

Put differently, Arsenal's Petr Cech, a player with a resume far more impressive than Hart's, earns about 26 percent less than Hart. If Hart were to move to any of the 16 Premier League clubs significantly less wealthy than Arsenal, he would have to take a pay cut far greater than 26 percent. There's a chance City could supplement his wages as part of a transfer deal, but as of right now that doesn't appear likely. His wages were reportedly part of the reason a loan to Everton fell through earlier this week.

With none of the Premier League's rich teams in need of a keeper, Hart is never going to get a better deal than the one he has now. And this is true of a lot of players at City, both current and former. The club might be historic, but it wasn't a force in the Premier League until it was taken over by the Abu Dhabi group in 2008, which pumped millions of pounds into the club, bringing in elite players from around the world in the process. How do you entice players to come to a club with lots of money but a dubious recent pedigree? You pay them. You pay them maybe more than you should.

Since 2010-11, Martin Petrov, Craig Bellamy, Jo, Roque Santa Cruz, Kolo Touré, Wayne Bridge, Maicon, Joleon Lescott, Micah Richards, James Milner, and Martín Demichelis have all left City on a free transfer, meaning they stayed through the length of their contracts. Many of them, while recognizable players, were not starters during their final seasons at City. They could easily have moved earlier, had they wanted to. If Hart sees out his contract, playing or not, he'll be 32. He'll have a few good years left. Like all the big names before him, he can take his pay cut then.

The public is often critical of athletes when it comes to these kinds of decisions. Top professionals make more money in a week than most of us do in a year—maybe two or three years, or more. What we don't always do, though, is consider the situation from the perspective of a player. Like most of us, the players are paid to do a job. Unlike most of us, they retire when they're in their mid-30s, and that's only if they've been incredibly lucky with injuries. Furthermore, only the top fraction of one percent of professional players ever get change-your-life money. Most pros are dreaming about being on Joe Hart's contract just like you and me. The prestige and honor that comes with playing and representing your country is an important motivator, no doubt. But it's hard to fault a guy for trying to get paid while he can.

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