The speculation is finally over, now begins the important business.
On Tuesday, Fabio Capello confirmed his 23-man squad for this summer’s World Cup in South Africa, ending months of discussion about individual players’ form, fitness, and ability to contribute in the 4-4-2.
Barring injury, the names on the list now cannot be changed. They will, with the Italian’s guidance, be the men who decide whether England can reach the lofty heights expected of them this summer.
But there are still some areas of the squad selection that remain to be debated, including one that was overlooked completely on Tuesday.
Along with the media, Robert Green, Joe Hart, and David James were already well aware they would be on the plane to South Africa—a fact made obvious weeks early when Capello did not name another goalkeeper in his provisional squad.
But that isn’t an indication the position hasn’t been hotly contested—far from it. Indeed, with the make-up of the 20 outfield players now decided, the position between the posts is now perhaps Capello’s biggest headache.
Even now, under two weeks from the Three Lions’ first game against the United States, the 63-year-old is giving little indication of who his starting custodian will be.
Each brings his own qualities. James is the grizzled veteran, battle-scarred, but ready for one last hurrah.
Green is the opportunist, the man who has leaped to the head of the queue through no real virtue beyond timing (only 10 full caps to date) and dependable consistency.
And Hart is the young upstart, the talented rookie supposedly too green to see real action, but ready to gain valuable insight for future tours of duty.
"In international football, chances don't come along very often," West Ham United’s consensus front-runner, Green, told reporters last week.
"We are all in the running and it shouldn't be any other way. There is a strong rivalry but it is something that's healthy."
"We are all getting on well and looking to take our chance when it comes. That is what the manager wants.”
Green might be at the head of the queue, but many believe the most capped of the trio, James (50), isn’t far behind. They played the majority of England’s qualifiers, after all, while Hart has just two full caps to his name (both gained last week).
Received wisdom dictates that goalkeepers, like fine wine, get better with age—something that also strengthens the case of the 39-year-old James and 30-year-old Green.
But the 23-year-old should not be discounted—after all, in the modern game, age is no barrier to success. Argentina's Lionel Messi is the world’s best player at 22, while Brazilian maestro Kaka is considered past his best at 28.
And Hart has perhaps two assets in his favour that neither of his rivals can truly match—the richest vein of form, and the most enviable temperament.
Last season, despite his position at the back of the side, Hart led a Birmingham City side of questionable top-flight experience to a fully deserved ninth-place finish.
In the process he saved 133 shots, keeping 10 clean sheets, and conceding just 42 goals in the 36 games he played (ineligible as he was to face his parent club, Manchester City).
He drew plaudits from every angle, but it was his demeanour that stood out for many. He commanded the box with an assurance beyond his years (and experience), and his presence seemed to tangibly calm those players around him—an attribute many goalkeepers can never be taught.
The respected former professional athlete-turned broadcaster, Ahmad Rashad, noted in a recent ESPN documentary the quality that separates the very best from the rest in sports—a sentiment that seems to ring true with Hart.
“There is a time to play, and there is a time to win,” Rashad noted.
“What do you do in Winning Time? To want to be on the line, to want to take the last shot. You win, or lose, on me."
“That differentiates between just a regular player, and a superstar.”
Hart always wants to be on the line. He wants his teammates to rely him on, and rarely lets them down when the time comes. Despite much longer careers, neither Green or James have ever really shown a similar knack.
For many observers, the European U-21 Championships last summer were when the former Shrewsbury Town prodigy truly came of age. Guiding the young Lions to the semi-finals, the spotlight suddenly shone brightest on Hart when England’s game against hosts Sweden went to penalties.
Many goalkeepers wilt under such circumstances, just as some acquit themselves well and prove the difference with an important save. Hart did the latter—and much, much more.
Always one to enjoy a bit of banter, Hart showed enviable confidence as he chattered incessantly at the Swedish forwards as they came to take penalties, attempting to get in their head and put them off.
It worked; enabling Hart to deny one of the stars of the tournament, Marcus Berg, just after James Milner had put England on the back foot by missing the opener.
Then Hart himself stepped up for the second penalty—something virtually unheard for a goalkeeper (at least outside of South America)—and blasted it home to open the scoring.
After the scores moved to 3-2, Hart was booked for his continued sledging—a yellow card that ruled him out of the final. Most players would be scrambled by such an outcome, and struggle to concentrate on the matter in hand.
But Hart composed himself quickly (barely toning down the banter), and took England into the final after Sweden hit the post with a must-score effort.
In the final, with the sub-par Scott Loach replacing Hart, England were mauled 4-0 by a sublime German side. It is hard to say if England lost their way without the young shot-stopper’s confidence and natural leadership, but surely it played a role.
After all, Birmingham’s defence experienced a similar uplift when Hart was in the team this year—with former Championship duo Scott Dann and Roger Johnson gaining huge plaudits for their performances as they stepped up to England’s top division.
There is credible evidence Hart makes the defenders around him better—while the Blues conceded an average of 1.16 league goals a game when he played, in the two he missed, they conceded five.
That must be a reflection of his communication and organisation because—while ever improving—he is admittedly not yet the finished article as a goalkeeper.
His fine reflexes cover his slight deficiency in certain fundamentals, but he is an outstanding leader, and a player whose lack of fear and clarity of thought in tense situations transmits to the players around him.
Capello, like many Italians, places great importance in technical proficiency, but such qualities might well have him reconsidering his priorities for the No.1 spot.
After all, unlike the Azzurri , England have always been a country to rely on bravery and brawn over tactical precision.
James might be more experienced, Green more ready, but Hart will infuse John Terry and Rio Ferdinand (both struggling for form of their own) with more confidence than either.
Manchester City spent the last month of the domestic campaign pushing Adam Johnson’s case for World Cup inclusion (it was more than just a coincidence he was frequently picked for interviews on their official website), but really they should have been throwing their weight behind Hart.
Beyond Gareth Barry (whose injury worries ultimately didn’t prevent him easing into the final 23), Hart was always their most likely representative.
While Green and James are prone to the choking pressure that the expectations of playing for England have long and understandably brought, Hart can provide something of an antidote.
He plays with a ‘devil may care’ attitude that his veteran peers will only find refreshing—very few other players in the final squad do not bring with them the deep battle scars of past England failures, and even fewer can alleviate that to some extent with their liberating attitude.
Even in interviews, Hart's professionalism shines through—along with his self-confidence.
“The manager keeps his cards close to his chest and treats everyone with the same respect he feels he needs to be treated with,” Hart responded recently, when asked by reporters of his selection chances."
"I think there’s an awful lot of respect between the keepers. We’ve all done well at our respective clubs and have all performed."
"There's definitely a camaraderie between the keepers. Greeny and Jamo have great experience over me, and I'm looking to learn off that. They are two big personalities and good people to be around."
"Whoever Mr. Capello chooses, the other two will be right behind him, myself included."
“It meant a lot to me to be included in the squad and I’ve just got to try to go and prove Mr. Capello right and get that spot.”
Hart is a star in winning time. He may not be the best young goalkeeper in the world, but he is a man you would want in the foxhole with you, more so than his two rivals. In a World Cup, that is an invaluable quality.
The proof of that can only come in battle, however. For now, Capello is giving little indication which of his three options will be sent over the top.
"I'm happy with the performance of Green. He saved twice one-on-one," the Italian said after victory against Mexico last week.
"But also Hart played with confidence. That's important for us and for England."
James was also acknowledged after his performance in a later friendly against Japan. But, for what it is worth, Hart was the only ‘keeper of the three not to concede in either game—despite playing 90 minutes total to the others’ 45.
Goalkeepers very rarely affect a country’s progress during the group stages. They come into their own in the knockout rounds, when extra-time and penalty shootouts become frequent, and the price of a mistake becomes ever higher. That is where Hart will excel.
Capello is paid big money to make big, bold and brave decisions, but above all he is paid to make the right ones.
Picking Hart would fill all such criteria.