x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Euro 2012: Italian influence made Hart grow fonder

Behind the scenes, as he established himself as Manchester City and England No 1, was the assistance of a Bologna goalkeeping dynasty, writes Duncan Castles.

Joe Hart has proved himself as the first-choice goalkeeper for England, a position that has caused the national team problems in the past. Julian Finney / Getty Images
Joe Hart has proved himself as the first-choice goalkeeper for England, a position that has caused the national team problems in the past. Julian Finney / Getty Images

You will have seen him as the camera cuts to Manchester City's coaching staff. The tallest figure on Roberto Mancini's bench – even with Edin Dzeko in his customary substitute's berth.

Flamboyant with his long grey locks, the most likely to break into a smile. And a foundation of England's defence at this European Championship.

The English have long nurtured a superiority complex about goalkeepers; one oddly resistant to the errors of David Seaman, Paul Robinson, Scott Carson and Robert Green.

That the nation has finally found a world-class No 1 in Joe Hart owes much to the efforts of a lanky Italian born to guide keepers.

Massimo Battara is part of a dynasty of goalkeeping coaches. His father, Piero, is credited with inventing the discipline in a nation that values the last defender more than any rival.

After finishing his own playing career in the mid-70s, Battara senior brought science to the selection and development of young stoppers for the Bologna academy where the younger Battara and Mancini, were teenage trainees.

"My father took a young keeper with a very good physique and he put the techniques inside," Massimo says. "He worked with them for five years in the academy and after they were ready to play in Serie A. All the keepers he taught either played for Bologna's first team or went to play in the second division or another Serie A team."

The last of Battara's Bologna graduates was the Italy international Gianluca Pagliuca, soon sought by Sampdoria as the foundation stone of a side that conquered Serie A and reached a European Cup final.

Mancini was the team's creative force; the elder Battara signed in a package with Pagliuca who later completed a world-record transfer to Inter Milan.

When Mancini moved into coaching himself he convinced the 65-year-old Piero to look after Fiorentina's goalkeepers. Upon taking over City in 2009, Piero had retired but Mancini still wanted a Battara. Enter Massimo, a coach applying and extending his father's methods after a career protecting the posts for Campania, Casertana, Salernitana, Lecce and Spal.

Ask what the family's knowledge delivered to the English game and Battara's reply is modest.

"I have not contributed to this country," he says. "I've contributed to my goalkeepers. I have lots of things to learn from this country, more than I have taught." His part in Hart's promotion argues otherwise.

One of the great debates of the 2010/11 Premier League pre-season was whether Hart or Shay Given would start as City's No 1.

Given, a master of the fast-reaction stop, had been expensively acquired from Newcastle 18 months before and for some commentators was the division's best.

Hart, nine years the popular Ireland international's junior, had just completed an outstanding season on loan at Birmingham. Neither was interested in guarding City's bench.

How would Mancini decide which one went in goal? Would he struggle to handle the resentment of the other? Would City's season be endangered by uncertainty in defence?

For the two Italians there was no such debate; Mancini and Battara had long since made their mind up to promote Hart.

"I'm very lucky because my manager understands keepers very well," says Battara. "He told me to go to Birmingham, watch Joe Hart and produce a report. I said: 'Boss, Joe Hart is a really good keeper'.

"Roberto had the same situation in Inter Milan with [the Italy international Francesco] Toldo and Julio Cesar. He took Julio Cesar, who had been on loan at Chievo Verona and put him in to play. And now Julio Cesar is one of the strongest goalkeepers around. Toldo decided to stay at Inter Milan for many years, and won everything as the second keeper."

Handing Hart City's shirt granted Battara the opportunity to improve the performances of a player who was about to be made the England keeper by Fabio Capello.

The Battara method breaks goalkeeping down into three core components: "The high ball, the catch, going forward to the ball".

He places a huge emphasis on cross handling (45-55 per cent of all training time) and advocates a technique where the goalkeeper always jumps off the leg closer to the flight of the ball. Launching off this one leg rather than two provides more power and better balance, while allowing the keeper to protect himself from opponents and rotate his body into a catching position.

"Another key situation is when a player shoots," says Battara. "Sometimes Joe doesn't attack the ball. I want the keeper to attack the ball every time, to go forward into the space in front of him to close the ball.

"Because sometimes the ball bounces a metre or so in front. If you stay back, your body is going back, you don't have a good control. But if you go forward you cut down the percentages.

"In our training we want our keepers to go every time to catch the ball. This is the first concept that I do in training. I tell Joe, 'Go every time to catch the ball and if you decide to deflect it you will have the best situation with your body to do that'."

Training is done at pace and with a variety that prevents automatic response. Battara has every session videoed so he and his keepers can analyse their development. He has opponents' set pieces and crosses observed and presented to them pre-game. In Hart's case his work is principally about fine details.

"Joe already has very high physical and technical abilities," says Battara. "The focus with me is that his concentration, his attention is at its highest.

"Imagine that you have a Ferrari, in Italy we say 'You can't drive a Ferrari like you drive a Fiat 500.' You understand this? Joe is a Ferrari and I want Joe to discover his full potential. I want to see how high he can go. His limits are high. He could really be a champion."

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