Celtic's Joe Hart on possible Man City Champions League reunion: "endless love", being "a soldier", and how stage appeared beyond him

Celtic’s Joe Hart maintains there is so much going on at his club, such a need to “stay in your lane”, that he hasn’t even thought about Thursday’s Champions League group stage draw.

Celtic's Joe Hart isn't shouting from the rooftops about returning to the Champions League when the draw won't be made until Thursday and the first group game is two-and-a-half weeks away. (Photo by Craig Foy / SNS Group)
Celtic's Joe Hart isn't shouting from the rooftops about returning to the Champions League when the draw won't be made until Thursday and the first group game is two-and-a-half weeks away. (Photo by Craig Foy / SNS Group)

Yet, encouraged to do so, the 35-year-old keeper betrays both how football can stir the emotions, and how all these must be drained in tackling the challenges they have the potential to throw up. It was put to the former England international, who will forever be synonymous with the rise of Manchester City to one of the global players, that drawing Pep Guardiola’s men would allow his career to come full circle.

Hart was a league winner, and Champions League semi-finalist, with City. Then his career appeared to nosedive when cast aside by the Spaniard in 2016. There followed spells of varying profitability with Torino, West Ham, Burnley and Tottenham Hotspur before last summer a move to Celtic restored him to a role of genuine prominence within an institution club. Yet, his enthusiasm for the game never wavered, even as he acknowledges these days with the Scottish champions as they head for European football’s blue riband tournament are priceless.

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“They’re definitely good times for me,” he said. “I’ll be honest, there’s not many times when I’ve actually not been having a good time in football. From the outside, there have been moments in my career when I haven’t played. But, constantly, I like to be part of a team, whatever way that might be. I’m playing football as a job, like ‘wow’. What a great feeling. A lot of responsibility as I’ve got older, and I love all that. Yes, I am enjoying myself but I’ve been enjoying myself for a long time.”

Hart’s career is at a stage wherein he accepts that mixing it with the elite is to be savoured. “I think so,” he said. “I’ve always really enjoyed it. But maybe when I was younger - I can probably liken it to the first time I was getting in the Champions League when I was 23 - you just expect the world to keep giving. That was how I felt at the time, whether that’s wrong or right. But I just wanted more, I felt like I could take on the world. Definitely, I’m at a different stage of my life, in terms of family and how I feel about things. But it’s still a great feeling, it’s still an exciting feeling. It’s jiust a different feeling. But we grow up and we evolve.”

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Hence the sense from the outside that drawing City would bring matters full circle. His team-mate Jota confessed, on signing permanently this summer, that he hoped to avoid first love Benfica in the Champions League group stages. Hart will never lose his affection for City, but the prospect of playing them doesn’t stir in the same fashion. “I don’t know whether I’m being silly doing this. But I don’t think about it,” he said. “There’s no point in me thinking about it because it’s not happened yet. There’s competition for places in this team constantly. So, I’m literally just one game at a time and I’d love to have that feeling again. But, I think we’re all going to feel it. The club’s excited. Liking it to full circle, when we got to the Champions League with Man City that was the first time the club had ever done it. This club’s used to it and has had five seasons without it. So that feeling’s quite similar. What a great feeling, what a great time to be involved in football. And at a club like this.

“City is part of my life I’m very proud of, and I’ve got endless love for that club. But, life goes on, as was proven by how I left the place. It’s a superb football club, it’s a superb set up, there’s a lot of people I get on with there. But there’s certainly no one in there that I don’t want a part of playing against. My kind of focus is on what we do and how we prepare and what we can do and what we can bring to the table. I’m a soldier. I’ve been through everything, so I don’t really feel it when it comes to that. My undying love will forever be with the club, but when it comes to team football, I represent Celtic.

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“I try not to think, especially knowing football as I know it. If you asked me a few years ago if I was going to be playing Champions League football, if I was giving an honest answer I’d say ‘no’. I’ve always backed my ability and I performed well at that level and I deserved to be there, but football is about opportunities and taking them, believing in projects, I’m here and I’m ready. There is a lot of fun to be had all around Europe [whoever the draw throws up]. I’m new to the club, but I know everyone feels like that who supports the badge, and the players feel the same.”

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