With Joe Hart and Fraser Forster, you don't have to look particularly hard to find the similarities. They're both English. They're both goalkeepers (I didn't say this was going to be insightful). They're both roughly the same age—Forster is 25 while Hart, almost exactly a year older, is 26—and they both spent time in the lower divisions before getting their shot at the big time. Forster is a few inches taller than Hart, but even given that, there's something comparable about their lanky, slightly awkward frames.
Yet despite the convergences in the careers and characters of the two players, a couple of key differences stand out above the rest. While Forster left England to join Celtic, unable to make his breakthrough with Newcastle, Hart quickly made the number one slot his own with Manchester City, and has since become one of the higher profile keepers in Europe.
As a result, while Hart has been capped 33 times by England at senior level, not to mention 27 appearances with the youth teams, Forster has had to settle for a much more minor role, having only been handed his first call up just under a year ago, and he is still yet to properly be given his chance. Such stats indicate a difference in calibre, that perhaps Hart is the better goalkeeper, but on closer inspection it isn't quite as clear cut as some would have you believe.
Granted, it's important to take into account the gulf in standard between the English Premier League and the Scottish Premiership, the leagues the two keepers play in. But the fact that both have made a number of appearances in Europe in the Champions League does allow us to make a few comparisons, and to draw one or two conclusions based on the evidence.
For instance, in the eight matches played by Celtic in last season's competition, Forster conceded 13 goals at an average of 1.62 per match, while Joe Hart let in 11 goals in the six groups games in which he played with City, conceding an average of 1.83 per match. These stats alone tend to suggest that Forster had the better of the two over the course of the competition, but when you take into account that Forster faced a total of 74 shots on target across the eight matches played for an average of 9.25 shots per match, compared to the 62 shots Hart faced over six matches at an average of 10.3 per match, the situation does look a little different, if not by much.
In other words, statistically, and going by last season at least, there's very little between the two as goalkeepers. However, as anyone who's watched any football will tell you, facts and figures don't always tell the whole story. What's more, this is particularly true when it comes to goalkeepers, when you take into account the wide range of variables to be taken into account. Shots faced and saves made are one thing, but how difficult were those shots? And, equally importantly, how good were the saves?
In order to really compare these two keepers, or any two keepers for that matter, and to properly get into the business of who's the better player, we need to stray into the far more subjective territory of attributes, and who does what better.
For a start, both have obvious strengths in common. Hart and Forster alike are great coming off their line to rush at oncoming forwards and diving bravely at their feet, and while the Celtic keeper perhaps lacks a yard of pace in comparison with his Man City counterpart, his timing and judgement means this is rarely an issue. They're also both great shot-stoppers, as any number of YouTube videos will demonstrate, and possess the kind of agility and reflexes which enable them to get to shots which other, less talented goalkeepers might struggle with.
At the same time, they also share one or two weaknesses. The distribution of both goalkeepers, whether it's kicking from hand or off the ground, still leaves a lot to be desired, and while this is something which they would hope to improve as they progress in the game, it can often prove to be a problem. It often results in giving away possession, and can lead to their team being caught on the break if the opposition are quick enough to be able to take advantage.
But there are notable differences. With Celtic, Forster often struggles to properly command his area, and seems unsure as to whether or not he should come to claim crosses - quite a contrast with Hart, whose ability to command the penalty area is one of his obvious strengths.
Hart though, has one obvious flaw in his game, and it's arguably what lets him down the most, and stops him from being a properly top quality keeper. Quite simply, he makes too many mistakes. As easy as it is to find videos on-line of great saves made by Man City's number one, it's equally easy to find videos of the various high profile errors he's made, and although it's not always the fairest method of judging keepers, to say that a keeper is less reliable according to how regularly he makes mistakes isn't debatable—it's fact.
City and England have stuck by Hart despite his gaffes, but to a certain extent you could argue that this is down to confirmation bias, that he's the England keeper because he's the Manchester City keeper, and vice-versa.
Hart is the only England goalkeeper since David Seaman to play for one of the top three or four clubs in the country, and given England's glaring problems between the sticks, it's clearly seen as a positive for Hart that he plays for such a high profile side, and they're willing to overlook the flaws in his game because of it.
Who is the better keeper?
Forster, to all appearances, doesn't have the same problem. Arguably, the Celtic keeper has fewer big games per season, particularly with the Scottish top flight in its current state, but when those big games do come around he raises his level of performance, and responds to the pressure that comes with those occasions by making key saves to keep his team in the game.
Some of his displays last season in the Champions League were exceptional, especially when you take into account that it was his first taste of the competition, and he was arguably the tournament's most impressive goalkeeper over the group stages.
The thing is though, regardless of whether or not Forster is a better keeper than Joe Hart, one thing is for sure. So long as he remains with Celtic, he has next to no chance of being given an opportunity with the national side, irrespective of his level of performance.
He missed out on the chance to go to Euro 2012 when Roy Hodgson opted for Robert Green and John Ruddy as backup to Hart, but even when Ruddy pulled out injured, it was Jack Butland, at the time still to make his Premier League debut, who was called in as a replacement. Forster did get a call up in October 2012, and has subsequently been called up twice, but curiously enough he was omitted from the England squad for the friendly against Scotland on August 14.
It just doesn't really make much sense. Were Forster playing in the English Premier League—in fact, even if Forster were to be playing for a Championship side—he'd have been given his chance, or would at least be England's No. 2 behind Hart. But as we've seen in the not so distant past, most notably with Chris Sutton and Alan Thompson, there has been an obvious aversion on the part of England managers to giving call-ups to players playing their football north of the border.
Take the case of Thompson for example. In an era when England's problem of finding a suitable candidate to play on the left hand side of midfield was widely documented, their reluctance to properly test out Thompson—he was capped once in 2004 in a 1-0 friendly defeat to Sweden—spoke volumes to the English attitude towards Scottish football, even at a time when these players were excelling at a high level in Europe.
For whatever reason there seemed to be a readiness to dismiss players based seemingly solely on the fact that they were playing in Scotland, when, as is the case with Forster now, had they been playing in England they would undoubtedly have been given more of an opportunity.
As it stands, Thompson remains the only player ever to have been capped for England while playing for Celtic. Forster has all the talent to be the next, and even to go on and wrestle the number one spot from Joe Hart, but in order to do that he'll need first to be given his chance.
You get the feeling that the longer he stays with Celtic, the less likely that is to happen.