We’re still in August, the transfer window is still open, but the pace at which the club has undergone a reconstruction under Pep Guardiola and his team has been startling. There’s been a ruthlessness to the process, something the club has been crying out for since Manuel Pellegrini took over in 2013. Prohibiting the consumption of starchy, cheesy goodness, enforcing that all players eat together and demanding composure on the ball are all rather mundane adjustments when you think about it. They’re things that top football professionals should be doing but haven’t been doing at a club still so rooted in its ‘typical City ways’. For all the investment, signings of big name players and erecting of big, flashy training facilities, it’s true that City have been stuck in a limbo somewhere between average and greatness for a few years now, and that Manuel Pellegrini’s leniency has given rise to complacency among the playing staff.
Guardiola recognises that the club should be much further ahead in its development. £180m, an insistence that the players work for each other in an organised system that facilitates both sizzling attacking and solid defensive play and just four weeks later, City look a club transformed, even if a few teething problems remain. For now the fans are happy, but Guardiola’s final trick of the summer may just be too hard to take for some of us.
The cold, hard truth is that Joe Hart will leave the club in the near future. It may not be in this transfer window, but it will happen. The £600k signing from Shrewsbury Town, the fella that defied the odds to progress at such an astounding rate that cash-rich City only ever thought about bringing in challengers to his no.1 spot, not successors, has played his last game for us. It’s absolutely gutting.
Inevitably the accusations of disrespect are snowballing, but City couldn’t have been more transparent with Hart. The 29-year was aware of Guardiola’s stance even before he began work at the CFA in July and is believed to have spoken to Liverpool about a possible transfer at the beginning of the summer. Guardiola confirmed in his post-match press conference after beating Steaua Bucharest 1-0 on Wednesday night that he had been ‘honest’ with the goalkeeper and said ‘I can’t deny what I feel’. What Guardiola feels in the pit of his stomach is that Hart is not the right man for the job and it’s likely that Hart’s known that all summer.
And Hart must be praised, not chastised, for deciding to remain at the club. For all the certainty many feel Hart lacks on the field he makes up for in his head. This is a man confident in his own ability and aware of his status at this football club. Hart will have believed he could win Guardiola over, train hard, adopt a new style of goalkeeping and remain the no.1 at the club he loves – the way of a true professional.
At the end of the day Pep’s decision is a lot more innocent than it’s being made out to be. Hart has not been forced out the club, he just hasn’t been selected. The same goes for Yaya Touré and Samir Nasri who enjoy a similar-ish cult status at City – they just haven’t been picked. Ultimately, Pep’s decision not to play the trio will encourage them to move towards the exit door but that’s only because they are three very good players more than worthy of 30-plus appearances a season at another decent European club. Pep is just a bloke sticking to his guns and going with his instinct. His style of management has upset people in the past and will continue to upset people for as long as he coaches, but you can’t argue with the success he’s achieved employing that policy.
The general feeling among sports commentators and writers is that Guardiola has made the correct decision. Disrespectful, but correct – the sort of hypocrisy we’ve come to expect from a select few quarters of the media. What’s sad is that the situation has encouraged people to jump on the bandwagon that has ‘Hart is bollocks’ written on the side of it, just three months after he was being lauded as one of the best keepers in the Premier League. We all know about Joe’s weaknesses – his distribution is often lacking and he struggles with shots directed at his left hand side – but his strengths, his shot-stopping ability and the voice of reassurance he offers from the back, far outweigh his flaws. A poor Euro 2016 campaign, in which Kevin De Bruyne and serial goalscorer Thomas Müller were also rather disappointing, does not change that. Calling Joe out on his mistakes in the aftermath of a big tournament is fair game but rubbing the salt into the wounds with scathing, and largely irrelevant, assessments of his in-the-tunnel rallying cries which may seem egotistical to you but inspiring to others is ridiculous. He does not deserve that.
Speaking in his press conference today, Guardiola insisted that the club ‘will help him [Hart] find the best option’. Everton, Sevilla and Borussia Dortmund have been listed as possible destinations for the keeper but all have been put off by his prohibitive wages. Wherever he goes, he’ll go with fond memories of the club he’s spent 10 years at. The second leg against Steaua Bucharest on Wednesday was officially listed as a Champions League qualifier, but this felt more like a testimonial match for Hart whose every touch was applauded. In the 66th minute the stadium serenaded their man with a powerful rendition of ‘stand up if you love Joe Hart’ and everyone, including the manager, rose to their feet. With the captain’s armband wrapped tightly around his bicep, Hart blew kisses and waved to the fans that have been singing his name ever since he joined as a 19-year-old back in 2006. 24 hours later, Barcelona keeper Claudio Bravo signed for a fee of around £17m. This was almost definitely a farewell.
The parting of company with Hart marks the final step in the club’s transition from an identity that values sentimentality as high as success to one that will do everything it takes to be successful. Among the high class foreign imports – the Sergio Agüero’s and the David Silva’s that we all love but can’t really relate to – there was a guy who knew what the club was about, what the fans valued and one of the finest examples of an Englishman climbing up the ranks to make it at the top level. Hart lived all of this with us and, like the club, went from humble beginnings to the big time in perhaps the most important decade of the club’s history. The fact that this relatable figure, a figure weathered just like us by the tribulations of the last 10 years, will soon be gone is absolutely massive for the identity of Manchester City and the way the club will be perceived from now on.
The fact that it hurts doesn’t mean it is isn’t a change for the better, but it does mean that Manchester City can now be considered the callous big player the owners have always wanted it to be.