It says everything about the career crossroads Joe Hart finds himself at that the past few days have seen his name linked with a move to Arsenal and also a return home to Shrewsbury Town.
Such is the lot of the bench-warming goalkeeper at the age of 33. It’s likely Hart’s finest achievements are now behind him but that doesn’t necessarily preclude a big club signing him up.
This former England No 1, veteran of four international tournaments and double Premier League champion with Manchester City will find himself with plenty of time to sift through his options.
Warming the bench at Burnley had become a familiar theme for Joe Hart (centre)
The goalkeeper has struggled since leaving City and has been released by Burnley
Hart’s contract at Burnley expires on Tuesday next week and, after the Clarets decided against a short-term contract extension and indeed a longer one, he enters the void of free agent status.
Burnley’s decision comes as no surprise. Hart has played just three times – all in cup competitions – since that fateful Boxing Day in 2018 when Everton smashed five goals past him.
That was the cue for Sean Dyche to replace Hart with Tom Heaton and then Nick Pope this season, with the view from the substitutes’ bench becoming a familiar one.
That 5-1 drubbing at the hands of Everton – at the time a ninth Premier League defeat in 11 games for Burnley with Hart in goal – proved the latest sliding doors moment in the keeper’s lengthy professional career.
It didn’t help his case that Burnley subsequently embarked on an eight-match unbeaten run – winning five – with Heaton between the posts. In such ways are manager’s trust lost and gained.
Hart lost his place as Burnley’s No 1 after Everton scored five past him on Boxing Day 2018
He was dropped in favour of Tom Heaton following that nightmare afternoon at Turf Moor
But arguably the biggest juncture in Hart’s career came in the summer of 2016.
His fourth finals wearing the gloves for England proved to be disastrous. The Gareth Bale free-kick he helped into the net during the group stages didn’t prove costly to England, but his howler that allowed Kolbeinn Sigthorsson to score for Iceland in the last-16 certainly did.
Pep Guardiola, the incoming Manchester City manager, no doubt observed with interest and it soon became apparent that Hart wasn’t the right man for Pep’s plan.
Guardiola wanted a goalkeeper who was comfortable with the ball at his feet, the first link in the chain of passes that would lead City swiftly upfield. He wasted little time in informing Hart he wasn’t to be that goalkeeper.
Nor were Claudio Bravo and Willy Caballero as it transpired, nor was anyone until Ederson arrived a year later, but Hart was pushed aside and out on loan firstly to Torino and later West Ham.
Hart can only push Gareth Bale’s free-kick into the net as England play Wales at Euro 2016
His inability to keep out Bale’s free-kick raised questions about his status as England’s No 1
The 33-year-old goalkeeper admits his poor performances at Euro 2016 left him ‘gutted’
Worse was to follow when Hart allowed Kolbeinn Sigthorsson’s shot to squirm past him
Hart’s horror show against Iceland in 2016 was the beginning of the end of his England career
Hart had been dropped by a City manager before, Manuel Pellegrini back in November 2013, but managed to regain his place in a title-winning season.
This time, however, it was terminal and Hart’s career trajectory took a downward turn. It speaks volumes that since the summer of 2016, Hart has kept just 13 clean sheets.
It’s remarkable how quickly the reputation of a goalkeeper plunges from being a safe pair of hands, a reliable shot-stopper and a commanding presence to an error-prone liability.
That’s what happened to Hart. His loan spell at Torino started promisingly before the mistakes crept in and ended with the Italian club’s president Urbano Cairo saying ‘we didn’t expect so many mistakes from an England international.’
Things weren’t a great deal better at West Ham. Dropped mid-season for Adrian, he regained his place in the Spring before a mistake against Stoke, in which he fumbled a Xherdan Shaqiri shot into Peter Crouch’s path, proved the final straw.
Hart was sent packing by Pep Guardiola not long after he took over at Manchester City
Hart was dropped by Guardiola in the summer of 2016 following his Euro 2016 campaign
His England career had actually continued beyond the miseries of Euro 2016 and the ironic thing was that his 75th and last cap saw him perform brilliantly in a goalless draw with Brazil.
But Gareth Southgate came to favour Jordan Pickford for his distribution and Hart missed out on selection for the 2018 World Cup.
With keepers, you’re either in the team or you’re not and so being dropped, as Hart was midway through his second season at Burnley, comes as a hammer blow and often a perceived injustice.
‘I spoke to Sean Dyche after he dropped me because I felt I’d had a strong season,’ Hart told The Guardian recently.
‘He just said: ‘Look, Joe, I think you’ve been fantastic but for the good of the team I need to try this one last change.’
Hart plays with a bandage following a head knock as Torino play AC Milan in January 2017
An error for West Ham against Stoke in April 2018 was another low point for the goalkeeper
‘Lo and behold Tom [Heaton] came in and did great. The team picked up and went back to their old ways.’
But now Hart has the opportunity for a fresh start. At 33, he has 16 years of first-team football experience under his belt, and he will hope any suitors remember the good times as opposed to the more recent bad.
Let’s not forget that while at Man City, Hart won four Golden Glove awards for the most Premier League clean sheets in a season.
He was brilliant in their historic first title win and showed admirable mental resilience to recover from being dropped to help City win a second in 2014.
In 2015, he produced such a keeping masterclass in City’s Champions League tie against Barcelona that Lionel Messi described him as a ‘phenomenon.’
A year later, his penalty save from Zlatan Ibrahimovic helped City beat Paris Saint-Germain en route to the Champions League semi-finals.
Joe Hart won two Premier League titles and four Golden Gloves awards during time at Man City
One of Hart’s finest hours came against Lionel Messi and Barcelona in Champions League
Messi described Hart as a ‘phenomenon’ after making a series of saves to keep him out
With England, Hart was undisputed No 1 for six years, reaching a peak of performance around 2012 when there was talk of him becoming captain.
In 2013, he saved Ronaldinho’s penalty and the follow-up effort as England beat Brazil for the first time in 23 years. It all seems a long time ago now.
So what next? Hart gave us his thoughts a few weeks back.
‘All I want to do is be a big part of something. I understand I’m not going to be part of Real Madrid. I don’t think I’ve lost the ability, but I know how football works.
‘I just want to be a big part of a club and give my all to them. That’s all that burns through me.’
Hart saved a penalty from Ibrahimovic during City’s 2016 Champions League tie with PSG
The combination of playing second fiddle at Burnley for so long followed by the monotony of lockdown has clearly awakened a desire simply to play football regularly.
It may well be that Hart has to drop down a league or two to make this a reality. He has also been linked with the MLS, where former England colleagues Wayne Rooney and David Beckham enjoyed Indian summers in their careers.
Many keepers play until they’re almost 40 and so there’s no reason why Hart, who has a pretty much unblemished injury record, can’t do likewise.
And, despite everything, he isn’t likely to be short of offers.