More than 500 days have passed since Joe Hart last played in a Premier League game and so, on Zoom, he leans forward when I say that the hurt of not being picked must eat away at him. “Yeah, but I embrace that feeling,” he says intently. “I’m glad I feel like that because you need that fire in you. You almost need that arrogance to think: ‘Why am I not being picked?’ The reason that I’m at the top fighting, or have been at the top, is because that’s in me.” Hart is 33 and he has been playing professional football for more than 16 years.
He made his debut for Shrewsbury the day after he turned 17 and since then has won two Premier League titles with Manchester City, four Golden Gloves and 75 caps for England. After 12 years with City he played for Torino, West Ham and Burnley. But Hart has been in goal for Burnley only three times this season – a Carabao Cup defeat to Sunderland last August and two FA Cup ties, against Peterborough and Norwich, in January. He has been on the bench for all the other games.
A simplistic assessment of Hart’s career would suggest it splits into two halves – before Pep and after Pep. Hart was told clearly by Guardiola in July 2016 that he had no future at City. Guardiola cannot be accused of being wrong for, in Ederson, he now has an outstanding goalkeeper who is highly accomplished with his feet. But Hart is intelligent and interested in exploring the blurred boundaries of football. Some of his greatest games – including the 2015 Champions League night at the Camp Nou when Lionel Messi described him as a “phenomenon” – followed soon after adversity. He is also keen to explain that, despite his predicament, his desire has intensified.
“It’s got stronger. This lockdown has made me realise how much I want to play football,” he says. “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 hope burns through me.”
In the meantime Hart is opening up – in this interview and in a BBC programme on football and mental health to be screened on Thursday. He is one of the footballers who Prince William meets in the programme although, as he reiterates here, he has not suffered badly from depression. His career has been in a slump and he wants to share the lessons he has learned. Hart admits “it’s certainly my lowest point” and “I’m sad I’m not playing.” But he sees his long absence from the first team as “a challenge rather than a dark cloud. Mentally, because of what I’ve put in place when I was flying higher and winning leagues, I feel really comfortable talking about my head space. But I also need to speak because football’s difficult.”
In the 2013-14 season, when he was dropped by Manuel Pellegrini at City, Hart felt angry. “I didn’t really know how to handle tough moments. You just want to bat everyone away: ‘I’m fine. Just leave me alone.’ I’ve always been keen on my gym work and preparation and a time came when I wasn’t doing those things. It was really frustrating me and a bit of anger came in. Then my place came under threat for the first time.
“The immediate reaction in my head was: ‘This can’t be happening. They can’t take me out of the team.’ I tried to train more. Be more aggressive. I was searching, clutching. My agent suggested I talk [to a sports psychologist] who calmed me down by asking: ‘Do you know how to go in goal?’ I said: ‘Of course.’ He went: ‘It’s not that then, is it?’ It turned out it was new goalkeeper coaches trying different styles. It made me realise I was going to cost the team the title if I carried on in goal. Instead of smashing my way through a problem, I needed to take stock.
“I had a good relationship with the manager and we decided to get myself right away from football so that, when I came back, I could just enjoy playing again. That’s when I’m at my best. After five or six games I was back in.”
Hart helped City win their second Premier League title in May 2014 – having been one of the few survivors who had played for the club before they were taken over by the Abu Dhabi group in 2008. He had been a key figure when they won their first title in 2012 and played under six managers before Guardiola changed everything.
During all the ups and downs does Hart still see the same psychologist? “Yeah, I see Jamie on a regular basis. He’s become a huge part of my life and someone I’ll always work with. Having a sports psychologist helped me realise that you can definitely lighten the load if you lean on people. It’s so empowering when you open up.”
Those lessons help him now. “I’m going to try and get back in the team. And if I don’t, there’s always another transfer opportunity. There’s no point in sulking. I’m still part of the squad. It gives you some power if you have a dialogue with the manager. It’s important to have that when you’re doing well. But it’s even more important when you’re not doing well.
“I want people who haven’t experienced any adversity in football to learn from this. It’s all very well riding the wave but it won’t last for ever. Every professional I’ve spoken to, has had this ride where nothing can go wrong. Inevitably, it’s hard to maintain. How we react is something I’m keen on trying to help people with – giving them the tools to deal with those situations.”
Being on the bench as a goalkeeper is a lonely place which few people understand. “It is hard but I’m going to be on a [BBC] programme with guys who have real problems,” Hart points out.
His last Premier League game was on Boxing Day 2018, when Burnley lost 5-1 at home to Everton. Hart winces. “I remember every second,” he says before taking me through a painstaking recollection of the five goals. “I spoke to Sean [Dyche] after he dropped me because I felt I’d had a strong season. The results weren’t great, but we were in transition going into Europe. We were trying to play more football and it didn’t really work.
“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.’ Lo and behold Tom [Heaton] came in and did great. The team picked up and went back to their old ways.
“It’s been tough. That’s no secret. Pure game-time is difficult because, with the greatest respect to Burnley, they’re not a cup team. Staying in the Premier League is all important. It’s just not my time right now. But I’m determined it will come again.”
Did he and Guardiola also talk openly before City sent him on loan to Torino? “Yeah, I made sure we had dialogue. I certainly backed myself to the hilt when we spoke. I listened to what he had to say. There’s more to it than me not being as good with my feet as he wants from a goalkeeper. I realised he needed to make his stamp at City. He had a direction he wanted to go and he’s not exactly struggled since, has he?”
Hart laughs wryly. Had he been worried about his future as soon as Guardiola was appointed? “I was fairly concerned. Lots of important people tried to reassure me. But you just have a feeling, don’t you? I came back late from the  Euros and he made it clear when I got there that I needed to be out by that window. That’s Pep’s brilliance. He makes decisions and stands by them. I don’t dislike him. We get on as men and we both love football.”
Hart spent a season at Torino and says: “I enjoyed being part of that club. In terms of being in a different country, experiencing a different culture, playing a different league, I absolutely loved it. It’s definitely something I’d love to do again.” Are there clubs looking to sign him next season? “I believe there will be. But they all need to work out exactly what the hell’s going on. I like to think I’m a good catch. I’m on a free contract, I’ve got experience and real hunger. The Premier League has been great for me but I’m more than willing to spread my wings.”
At the mention of Serie A, La Liga or the Bundesliga, he says: “I’m totally open. I just want to play at the highest level I can. In England, I don’t feel I am going to be able to do that. Maybe if I hadn’t achieved what I’ve done in this league I might not be so ready to step away. Don’t get me wrong. I’d love to have another big chance in England, but it could be difficult.”
Ian Woan, Burnley’s assistant manager tested positive for coronavirus last week, but Hart and his teammates are well. “We’re back training and we’ve got another Covid test tomorrow. This will be the process until we can move forward.”
How does Hart feel about the return of the Premier League? “It’s a really interesting time. We’re all involved in this once-in-a-lifetime thing. Right now, the most important thing is health, and helping people that are putting their lives on the line. As long as those guys are looked after, then maybe we’ve got a chance of playing football.”
During the lockdown his interest in psychology has been deepened by watching The Last Dance – about Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls. “I am fascinated by human beings and elite sport. I’ve been blown away by the Jordan documentary. What a beast. What a man. What a one-off mindset. It must have been painful to be that direct and aggressive every day. He absolutely took it to a new level.”
Hart has also been savouring the simple pleasures of life away from the bench while supporting Prince William’s mental health campaign. “For our mental health it’s so important to talk about the times we’re feeling good. There are two sides to mental health. Obviously the dark depths are very important. But you need to appreciate when you’re happy and savour the small little smiles, the small little shivers.
“One of the greatest things for me is to help people. It can be a simple conversation. Are you OK? Are you all right? I’m looking for a future role where you invest in people and bring the best out of them. Those are the most important moments in life.”
Football, Prince William and Our Mental Health airs on Thursday 28 May at 8.05pm on BBC One