There was a steely glint in his eye and an air of determination that left you in no doubt this would be our year…
When Joe Hart signed for City in May 2006, he had just turned 19. The £600,000 paid to Shrewsbury Town seemed like a bargain at the time for a teenager who had been voted in a PFA divisional team of the year, won a similar place in a team voted by fans and also won England Under-19 recognition.
In 2011, Sir Alex Ferguson admitted he’d been offered Hart for £100,000 and his decision not to proceed with the deal remains one of his biggest managerial mistakes. Hart waited just five months before making his debut against Sheffield United in a 0-0 draw – the first of many clean sheets.
He could have been forgiven if he’d changed as a person and maybe let things go to his head, but he didn’t. Whatever happens in his career, Joe will never forget he made his senior debut against Gravesend and Northfleet in the Conference and his feet are where they’ve always been, firmly planted on the ground.
“I didn't imagine it would be like this, but I didn't really imagine anything, I just turned up happy to be here,” he said of his move to City.
“Whether it was playing or out on loan, I didn't really know what was going to happen. I'm happy with how it’s worked out and interest in the club has grown while I have grown, so it’s worked out nicely.”
Stuart Pearce may not be one of the most fondly remembered of City managers, at least towards the end of his tenure when the team were struggling in all areas on and off the pitch.
But it was Pearce who spotted Hart’s potential, acted upon it, and had the confidence to make him City’s No.1.
“I spoke to him (Pearce) very casually at Carrington, he spoke a lot to my dad as I was quite young,” Hart recalls of his initial meeting with the England legend.
“It was really relaxed. He took me up to his office. Paul Dickov was here as well, and he introduced me to Paul, which was amazing for me.
“He was cool, calm, really complimentary and very real in what he expected from me. It was relaxed and not too formal, that's just the way Stuart is.
“As for other teams, there was the usual rubbish of several teams being ‘interested’', but Man City were always the one for me personally. They were the ones who showed the most interest.
“It wasn’t because of the geography, either. Not at all. That sort of thing doesn't bother me, I'd live anywhere. I don't think I really had the right to look for somewhere with a project when I was a 19-year-old playing in League 2.”
The No.1 shirt was just casually tossed in his direction, though. Hart needed to continue his education and was sent out on loan at Tranmere and Blackpool during the early part of 2007 and also won his first England Under-21 cap with Pearce now in charge of the team.
Joe accepts the loan spells were crucial in his development.
“They were awesome,” he says. “They've been there when needed. I've done a job for them and they've done a job for me.
“I'm not a guy to sit around and not play so I was happy to play, if it meant dropping down a league or a standard I didn't care. I didn't think I'd done anything to deserve where I was so I knew I would have to learn and go play elsewhere.
“It was quite easy to stay grounded because I moved from Shrewsbury to City, but I wouldn't say anyone knew I'd moved from Shrewsbury to City. I wasn't straight into the limelight or playing straight away. I was here to learn.
“It wasn't like I had done anything or achieved anything – I still really haven't. It was very easy to keep my feet on the ground. I was in awe of the keepers around me. I quite enjoyed looking up to them.
“David James was here very briefly, but he always wanted to move. Nicky Weaver – a legend and a great guy. Andreas Isaksson was here, too as was Kasper Schmeichel. Great keepers and a great time for me to learn from all of them.”
But if things had been going well, they went into a different orbit in 2007 when Sven-Goran Eriksson made Joe first choice keeper at City, saying in so many words that he believed he was the future of English goalkeeping.
Others agreed, and he was given his first senior England cap against Trinidad & Tobago in June 2008 as his career continued to blossom.
But with Eriksson gone within one season and Mark Hughes the new man at City, things changed for Hart, especially when Shay Given was signed in January 2009.
Hughes wanted two top keepers competing for the No.1 jersey, but with Given thrown in immediately and making a stunning debut against Middlesbrough, Joe knew opportunities were going to be limited.
“I felt like the door was closed here so I would have to look elsewhere. I knew I wasn't going to go anywhere permanently so I kept my options open.
“I had old heads advising me; they told me how it was going to work out, but I was young – I'm still young now – but in my mind that was it and I thought my time with City was coming to an end. Shay was here - a brilliant goalkeeper - long-term, bought for a lot of money.
“So I had to look elsewhere. That’s when Birmingham offered me the chance of first-team football.”
With a deal to spend the 2009/10 season on loan at St Andrew’s, Joe left City while Given continued to prove his quality at City. Nobody could have guessed quite how good the move to Birmingham would prove and, more determined than ever, the on-loan custodian was outstanding for Alec McLeish’s side.
“The goalkeeping coach, Dave Watson, was outstanding at Birmingham,” he says. “He's really well thought of in the goalkeeping world and definitely an asset to Birmingham City. He's still there now and someone I still speak to. I take his advice a lot and he's someone I look up to and a good friend of mine, too.
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“I think we just fed off each other. He's a very professional guy. He was a good goalkeeper but his career was cut short through injury and I don't think he even made it to 30.
“I think my energy and passion for the game was combined with what he wanted and I don't think there were any limits, either. It didn't feel like he said 'you need to work on this', he knew that I wanted to learn everything and work on everything and he could offer me that.”
Ask any Blues fan – Birmingham that is – and they’ll tell you Hart was a legend in his year in the Midlands. The accolades kept coming, too, and he was voted in the PFA Team of the Year, lost out to James Milner but was nominated for the PFA Young Player of the Year and was voted Player of the Year by Birmingham fans.
Mark Hughes has been sacked by that point and Roberto Mancini had taken over. He watched Hart’s progress with interest and towards the end of the season, when City’s injury crisis struck at the worst time imaginable, attempts were made to bring Hart back for the last few games but it wasn’t possible.
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“Towards the very end of the season when I was at Birmingham, I met with Roberto and spoke with him. I wanted to hear what he had to say. In my mind it was maybe angling towards to what I had to do in the summer because if I need to move I need to move and do it quickly.
“With the goalkeeper merry-go-round you need to get the first move because if you wait until the end of the window you don't get it. He said he's watched what I’d been doing and that he’d had people watching me and he wanted me to come in and show what I could do back at City.
“I didn't really see it as me against Shay because it’s not how it was. I played every game in pre-season because Shay was still injured with his shoulder, so I kind of had a run on him if you like. I did OK and it meant a lot.
“I owe the manager a lot for playing me and I really appreciate that. I try to pay him back by playing my best every week and I'd do that for anyone, but I owe a lot to Roberto Mancini for letting me play at this club.”
What happened next? Joe went on to make 348 appearances for City, before joining Torino on loan for the 2016/17 season. He returned to England with West Ham United - also on loan - before severing his ties permanently with City by signing for Burnley. He has won 75 caps for England to date.