Hart deserves England chance
Joe Hart left behind Manchester City's Abu Dhabi billions to seek first-team football and a change of fortune at Birmingham City. He is now on course to land the jackpot of a place in England's World Cup squad.
Hart started the season as a rank outsider to make coach Fabio Capello's final list for South Africa - but World Cup squads have a habit of throwing up surprises and the 22-year-old is making an impressive case.
He headed for St Andrew's after being ousted by Shay Given's expensive arrival at Eastlands, and his cause is being helped by a convenient co-incidence. Hart is maturing before our very eyes as holes appear in England's goalkeeping resources with alarming regularity.
Hart is not likely to be England's first-choice in South Africa - answers on a postcard for who that might be though - but he showed in a faultless FA Cup third-round display at Nottingham Forest that he now deserves a place in the squad on merit.
Hart has been key to Birmingham's rise up the Premier League table
Billy Davies has once again demonstrated his expertise at fashioning a side to challenge for promotion from the Championship, and they used the platform of the FA Cup to suggest they have what it takes to stay the course.
But they ran into a goalkeeper in Hart who has grown in stature and presence with the regular games afforded him by Birmingham manager Alex McLeish, the Scot who might just be doing England a World Cup turn by nurturing this young talent.
Robert Earnshaw's squandered penalty aside, Forest's greatest frustration came when they were confronted by Hart's formidable barrier, with brilliant saves from the Wales striker and Chris Cohen examples of his finest work.
I believed inexperience and a lack of exposure at the highest level would make Hart a contender for England's goalkeeping spot in the 2012 European Championship rather than this World Cup. Study the evidence, and the failings of his peers, and it suggests we should readjust the sights and bring forward his promotion.
Portsmouth's David James is ageing and unreliable, both in terms of form and fitness. Robert Green has been having a mixed season at West Ham United and Ben Foster is not even making the bench at Old Trafford these days.
With Blackburn's Paul Robinson still not fully trusted it would appear, the next cab off the rank is Hart and he is in a run of wonderful form. Youth will bring mistakes, but he has surely raced head of Foster in the reckoning.
Manchester City have already told Birmingham in no uncertain terms that Hart is not for permanent sale - thus presenting the youngster with a long-term problem with Given's powers showing no signs of diminishing.
So for now he stays at Birmingham on loan, with the obvious possibility of attracting interest from even bigger clubs should his development continue. Liverpool's Pepe Reina is outstanding, but Chelsea, Manchester United and Arsenal all need strengthening in goal.
This is a decision for another day, but Hart will not be short of suitors if his best option is Manchester City's reserves or another spell out on loan. He will not settle for gathering dust behind expensive acquisitions - and why should he?
McLeish will try to extend his loan for another season if City cannot be persuaded to sell. He showed faith in Hart and has been rewarded, and McLeish may hope this counts for something when he makes his next move.
Birmingham boss McLeish has been rewarded for his faith in Hart
I asked McLeish at the City Ground what had been behind Hart's development at Birmingham. He told me: "I think it is his all-round game that has been impressive.
"People were telling me after one or two games this season that I should be thinking of making a change. I just thought that they couldn't see the good things that he was doing.
"We discussed it and tweaked a couple of things and it has gone on from there. He is a guy who wants to improve, wants to learn and who wants to be the best. It always helps when you have a student who is responsive to your ideas and Joe is certainly that."
Capello is an admirer of Hart but has been waiting for him to move through crucial stages of his education. With so much uncertainty over England's goalkeeping position, the Italian's major World Cup worry, it is now a case of needs must and Hart should start against Egypt at Wembley in March.
Forest boss Davies was convinced McLeish would give this valuable asset a rest at the City Ground on Saturday. He was wrong and Hart was the main obstacle between the Championship side and a deserved win against one of the Premier League's form teams.
Davies, however, bristled with positivity and defiant body language about the excellence of Forest's passing approach and pleasing-on-the-eye style. He correctly identified that it was only let down by an immaturity that betrayed the lack of a clinical finish, but there was so much to admire elsewhere.
As he celebrated a year in charge, Davies could reflect on a job well done as he has taken Forest from fourth from bottom of the Championship to third place and promotion contenders this season.
He wanted to use this FA Cup tie as a measure of Forest's progress this season, and when I asked him was he encouraged by what he had seen, Davies was lavish in praise of his young team.
"Without doubt. You don't dominate the first 45 minutes in the manner we did without being proud of the way the players approached the task," he said. "I was disappointed not be two or three up.
"Their fans were really quiet and I think it was a shock to the system to see their team dominated by a good Nottingham Forest team."
And Davies believes, with justification, that he has a flourishing goalkeeping talent of his own in Lee Camp, who kept Birmingham's late surge at bay after they were sparked into action following Earnshaw's penalty miss.
Of course promotion is Forest's priority, and on a day when the FA Cup again came in for heavy criticism with the spotlight on small attendances and weakened teams, they and Birmingham showed its spirit was alive and well at the City Ground.
Birmingham brought 4,485 fans in a crowd of nearly 21,000 - so I am happy to close my eyes and ears to those who seem so keen to dance on the grave of this wonderful competition.
And for Forest, it was further evidence that this grand old club is once again moving in the right direction under the guidance of the abrasive and gifted Davies.
On a day when Wigan and Hull mustered a paltry 5,335 spectators at the DW Stadium, Forest put them to shame and showed this is the sort of club that would be warmly welcomed back in the Premier League.
Davies was a victim of his own largely unexpected success when he took Derby County into the Premier League - far better than being a victim of his own failure. There are signs he could also take Forest up ahead of schedule.
It was a good day for Forest despite their failure to close out the win. And it was also another good day for Hart - and even better days may lie ahead for him this summer.
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