Make or break Joe Hart stint could have major implications for Celtic title challenge

The 34-year-old has plenty to prove at Parkhead.
Joe Hart warms up for Celtic. (Photo by Steve Welsh/Getty Images)Joe Hart warms up for Celtic. (Photo by Steve Welsh/Getty Images)
Joe Hart warms up for Celtic. (Photo by Steve Welsh/Getty Images)

Back in 2016, things were looking pretty decent for Joe Hart; England number one, Manchester City number one, poster boy for anti-dandruff shampoo Head & Shoulders – they truly were halcyon days.

But then, little by little, the wheels began to come off. Pep Guardiola’s arrival at the Etihad ushered in a new era of meticulously cerebral build-up play, and after Hart’s ability with his feet was deemed to be beneath the standard required to enact the Spaniard’s symphonic vision, his form started to look flakier than his scalp.

Cue a series of botched moves, temporary and permanent, designed to jump start a career dangerously close to flatlining – each with diminishing hype, each with diminishing first team responsibilities.

Hart has flapped from Torino to West Ham to Burnley to Tottenham in recent years, all the while embodying the presence and stopping power of a bedsheet that’s been blown loose from a rotary washing line in a stiff gust.

And now... well, now he’s at Celtic.

Once upon a time – in the not too distant past, either – Hart’s arrival at Parkhead would have been heralded as a coup for both parties.

For their part, the Hoops have landed a goalkeeper with 75 England caps to his name, while Hart, after half a decade in the wilderness, has been thrust back into the limelight as de facto number one at one of the biggest and most historic clubs in European football.

We all know that the reality of the situation is a little more complex than that, however.

Good players don’t become bad players overnight, but it’s been a long time since Hart showed his best form – or was given a prolonged opportunity to, for that matter. At this point, he’s more rust than man.

But even if he does come to collect crosses like C-3PO, the former England stopper has to be an improvement on the current crop of goalkeeping options at Ange Postecoglou’s disposal.

Joe Hart and Kyogo Furuhashi (Photo by Steve  Welsh/Getty Images)Joe Hart and Kyogo Furuhashi (Photo by Steve  Welsh/Getty Images)
Joe Hart and Kyogo Furuhashi (Photo by Steve Welsh/Getty Images)

Increasingly, the decision to spend big on Vasilis Barkas last summer while Craig Gordon wandered back to boyhood club Hearts for nothing looks like one of the biggest transfer missteps in Celtic’s recent history.

The Greek international faced just 28 shots in the Scottish Premiership last season, and still managed to concede 10 goals. Just to contextualise that figure a little more, of the 18 saves he did make, nearly half didn’t require any kind of reflex reaction.

Gordon, on the other hand - now there’s a keeper who is less uppity protocol droid and more Iron Giant. The pair of saves he made in the closing stages of the Bhoys’ opening night defeat to Hearts a couple of weeks ago were a stark reminder of just how imperious the 38-year-old can be on his day. By contrast, Barkas, and Scott Bain behind him, look woefully ill-prepared to go the distance in a title race.

Enter Allan McGregor and Jon McLaughlin at Rangers.

Whereas Celtic have been left exposed and vulnerable by shockingly poor recruitment, the Gers could hardly wish for a better duo between the sticks.

There are obvious parallels to be drawn between McGregor and the jettisoned Gordon. Both have strutted their stuff for Scotland, both are pushing 40, and both are bona fide, genuine article matchwinners in their own right.

Allan McGregor makes a save against Hibernian. (Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty Images)Allan McGregor makes a save against Hibernian. (Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty Images)
Allan McGregor makes a save against Hibernian. (Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty Images)

The key difference is that you get the impression that Steven Gerrard would rather get an Everton badge tattooed on his forehead than let McGregor leave Ibrox – much less on a free transfer. The Scottish Premiership’s very own Methuselah conceded the same amount of goals in the league as Barkas last season, but he also happened to face 33 shots more too.

And even casting the veteran stopper aside for the moment, McLaughlin has to be the best deputy in Scottish football by a country mile. Put it this way, he’d probably be first choice at Parkhead right now, and Gerrard has even trusted him enough to give him the nod in the Gers’ first two league matches this term.

What we have here then, is a tale of two goalkeeping situations. Fittingly, in Glasgow at the moment, we see the best of options, we see the worst of options.

Hart has been brought in as a salve to heal that gaping disparity, a once illustrious leveller tasked with bridging a chasm that could derail any hopes of Celtic recapturing the title if it goes uncured.

But whether he is capable of doing so remains to be seen.

One thing is for certain, he has to hit the ground running. Rangers have already scuppered one slight advantage this season, but it’s hard to imagine them blowing too many more opportunities, and the uniquely simmering cauldron of the Old Firm will hardly afford Hart a forgiving honeymoon period.

There’s no doubt that nestling somewhere deep beneath the surface, the former England number one still has nuggets of quality to offer. A stint with Celtic could be exactly the kind of redemption arc he needs to help him excavate that long-buried treasure.

The early signs have been promising - a first clean sheet in the 6-0 rout against Dundee and a pass completion rate of around 90%.

If, however, he falls flat and fizzles out like he has done so often in the recent past, the consequences for the green half of Glasgow could be pretty dire. There’s a lot resting on his immaculately dandruff-free shoulders.