London – FROM the very first moment, it is clear this will not be a routine interview. Mario Balotelli is in the room and he’s not really supposed to be.
“What’s this?” he enquires, standing at the door.
“It”s an interview, Mario.”
“What interview? Why?” he asks
“Joe and the Daily Mail. Nothing to do with you.”
“Oh. I will stay and listen,” he affirms, closing the door.
So, in a small office off the Manchester City home dressing room, Joe Hart prepares to talk while his controversial team-mate settles himself down, elbows on knees, on the edge of a nearby physio bed.
Over the course of the next half an hour, Balotelli may have learned something about the art of straightforward conversation.
No hidden messages from the City goalkeeper, just some candid opinions about the world in which he and his Italian team-mate now live in the wake of last season”s Barclays Premier League title success.
“The spotlight shines on us and that”s a good thing because it means people are interested and love the game,” says Hart. “With the good comes the bad and you have to deal with it.
“The season has been indifferent. We have had two teams, one in Europe and one in the league. We know we haven’t been great all the time but we know we have that greatness inside us and when it does come it will put us in a very good place.
“I am in a position where so many people say so many nice things and that’s great. But sometimes it”s inevitable that you will find someone who doesn”t agree and will criticise you. I think it actually pays to listen to those who may be saying things that hurt you at the time. At the end of the day, you may learn something.”
Are you listening to this Mario?
THE DAY we meet is three days after City were beaten at home by Manchester United in the Premier League.
With one late swish of Robin van Persie’s boot, City’s two-year unbeaten home record turned to dust and the champions found themselves six points behind their great rivals.
Ten days on, the gap remains and so does the scrutiny of City’s play this season.
At times some of the analysis has been brutal, from both inside and outside the club.
Hart’s own manager Roberto Mancini, for example, blamed his goalkeeper for setting his wall up incorrectly moments before Van Persie”s free-kick found the bottom corner, courtesy of Samir Nasri’s outstretched leg.
“There was no problem with the wall,” said Hart. “It’s plain to see what happened. The ball was coming straight into my midriff. If it doesn’t take a deflection it lands in my hands. But sometimes things happen.
“I don’t care what other people say, I know what I’m doing. I know how many people I want in my wall. It cuts you deeply. It will have cut every City fan in that stadium.
“Inches and centimetres make the difference at this level but I have looked at the tape. It’s a freak goal but it’s nothing new. We train for these things and sometimes it works the other way.
“I have had plenty of times when it has worked in my favour. There have been plenty of times when a player has had all the praise for scoring a great goal. People will say, ‘What a wonderful goal, he is the best player in the world’. But deep down inside you know you probably should have saved it. But nobody says that, they don”t realise. So it cuts both ways. It’s life.”
Hart is an avid newspaper reader and watcher of football on TV. He doesn”t miss much on or off the field. So he knows, for example, that City were savaged by a Sky TV panel of Didi Hamann, Glenn Hoddle and Ruud Gullit after the defeat in Dortmund that ended the club”s European participation for another season.
He also knows that former United captain Roy Keane called him “cocky” while working for ITV. Hart is unfazed.
“I wouldn’t want to be called some of the things that people call him [Keane] but there we go,” he said. “But of course these people have the right to say what they want. I read the papers. I’m a big football fan. It interests me. I like it, good and bad. I wouldn’t change it. It’s part of the game.
“There is no point thinking, ‘How dare they say or write that about me’. There is no law saying that people can only say nice things. The people on Sky you mention don”t get paid to work for us or to defend English clubs in the Champions League. If that’s their opinion then that’s great.
“I think it’s nice to point out that they don”t know the club and have nothing to do with the club and know nothing about what goes on here. They certainly don’t know the manager. But it’s just the same as people having a conversation outside on the street. People get hyped up and emotional.
“I listen to a lot of people who I hold in high regard. But sometimes your connection with someone makes it hard for them to criticise you so sometimes it does pay to listen to other views.
“I’m no hero. Things hurt me. But things not going well for the team hurts me a great deal more than someone telling me I’m rubbish. I love football and winning. I love City and what we have built here dictates everything about me and my mood.
“I have a lot of people who are proud of what I do and it affects them too. But I love that. I love carrying their hopes and dreams.
“When criticism comes what we have to do is be strong internally and pull together and in the same direction. If that’s the case then you are OK. This is football. It’s how it works. Something else always happens the next day, there is another game a few days later.
“There is no time for personal wars at a football club. You just can”t have them. They will ruin you. It”s about the team.”
HART’S relationship with his manager is interesting.
Perhaps his team”s best player this season, the England international nevertheless has had to listen to occasional criticism, most notably after Hart publicly apologised on television moments after City lost 3-2 in the Champions League at Real Madrid in September.
Mancini’s immediate press conference response was to suggest that “Joe Hart should stay in goal and make saves”.
It’s important to understand the context here. Much as Mancini’s English has improved, it is now thought the City boss had taken Hart”s comments to be much more critical than they actually were.
Nevertheless, it is not the first time the two men have rubbed each other up the wrong way. Hart is happy to acknowledge that the language barrier doesn”t help but it is equally obvious he will not change.
After the Dortmund defeat, TV’s “go-to guy” in the City dressing room said of City’s spirit: “I think it was there and then they scored and it disappeared.”
Asked about this during our chat, he said: “Everybody watches the same game. There is no point hiding from the truth and I feel comfortable speaking. You have to talk about the game relative to what happened. I‘m not doing it to impress people. I am doing it because that’s how I deal with life.
“Obviously there are ways of saying things. I don”t give my exact opinion on everything. That would be stupid. And in terms of the questions asked about football, I am never gonna dig anyone out personally. But everyone is watching it and the majority of those people know football. So you have to tell it how it is sometimes.
“I have had foreign coaches at England and City. It is what it is. When it gets heated then you will misinterpret things and get things wrong. But it”s not important.
“I was very comfortable with what I said in Madrid. I was comfortable because I knew I hadn”t said anything wrong. I wasn’t particularly angry because I knew that when it was explained properly to him [Mancini] then there would be no problem.”
Hart has come a long way in three years.
It is not long ago that he spent a season on loan at Birmingham after City manager Mark Hughes recruited Shay Given as his number one. At the time he wasn’t sure he would ever be back.
“It was a genuine thought at the time,” he recalled. “I had no clue what was happening. Shay was one of the best in the Premier League and I thought I may have to go down a different path. Luckily I came back. Not everyone thinks I”m great. The previous manager didn’t. I had to accept that and find one that thinks I am.”
Mancini made his choice two and a half seasons ago. Given ended up at Aston Villa and Hart strode forward to establish himself as perhaps the most proficient goalkeeper in the Premier League.
Now it’s the manager who always seems to be under pressure.
“It’s always been the way here,” reflected Hart. “Look at Sven [Goran Eriksson]. He was apparently sacked ten days before the end of the season! Roberto knows the situation. The only way to deal with the pressure is to win games.”
Hart’s attributes are clear from watching him play, while it is equally obvious from talking to him that he has a clear mental picture of what is required from himself and his team-mates if their rather pedestrian form this season is to improve.
“It doesn’t matter if you are playing Real Madrid or Bradford, you just have to save whatever comes at you,” he said. “You can go out in the garden with a five-year-old and he could score past you. If you can’t reach it, then you can”t save it. It”s the same as facing Ronaldo. That’s just the way it is.
“The fact is that we have been successful this season without being great, so when it does come we know things will be a great deal easier for us. We know that if we play well we should beat anybody. We are not just waiting for it. We are looking for it every day. Unfortunately it’s a tough league but it will happen.
“Part of the difficulty is pressure but it”s not that that stops us winning games. Sides know us now, for example. They don’t play to win, they play to draw or get out alive. That makes it hard but it’s life at the top. I”m not saying we have been terrible because we haven”t. It’s just nice to know we can do more.
“I think we are on an even par with United. They carry that tradition and that shirt, that red shirt that takes them to a different level sometimes. But I’m sure that over time the blue shirt will be the same.
“I feel that when we play we are never gonna lose. I feel that something will always happen. Maybe it has happened more often with United over the years and so people say it is “classic United”. But we are beginning to do that too. It just needs two or three players to come good this season and everything will change.
“As for me, I just do anything I can to stop the ball going in the net. I will take anything for this team. I will face any battle, mental or physical.”
Are you listening to this, Mario?
AFTER the interview, Hart is set to join Balotelli, Micah Richards and James Milner in meeting a group of children from under-privileged backgrounds.
The players give their time generously and enthusiastically for more than an hour. “I love it,” Hart said. “It means the world to these kids. It’s a great part of my job.”
Later, Hart is to go in goal for some penalties and the mind is taken back to a hot June night in Kiev when the England goalkeeper’s goal-line gurning was not enough to stop Andrea Pirlo or to prevent Italy winning a penalty shoot-out in Euro 2012.
Any regrets about those faces, then?
“Well it didn’t work with this one, did it?” smiled Hart, glancing over at Balotelli. “I actually just thought it would help the situation.
“One of the Italian players was fuming with me “cos I had smiled at him as we were waiting for the shoot-out to start. I thought it would help in my favour if I tried to wind the others up. What I didn”t know was that guy wasn”t even playing! He was injured!
“But it was a crazy, intense moment and people react differently. It was a confidence that I was trying to give off in a very nerve-wracking situation. I felt strong and in control. It felt like the right thing to do. Obviously it wasn’t. But I wasn’t showing off, I was just trying to do right by my team.
“Would I do it again? If I felt it was right then of course, but if I didn’t feel it was the right path to go down then I wouldn’t. The whole intention was to put the other team off and make them miss.
“Bruce Grobbelaar did it [for Liverpool in Rome in 1984] and it worked. It didn’t for me. But that’s the fine line that we live and die by. If you are scared of that line then you have no chance.
“I was just the England goalkeeper. I was not trying to set a new trend of how to save penalties. I was just doing what I thought was right.”
By the end of our interview, Balotelli is lying on his back looking at an iPad.
Who knows if he has been listening at all to half an hour of common sense and clear logic. If he wasn’t then, for a young man in need of professional guidance, it was a clear opportunity missed.
There can be no time for personal wars at a football club ... they will ruin you. – Daily Mail