Gareth Southgate believes Joe Hart captaining England against Lithuania in Sunday’s World Cup qualifier is just reward for the goalkeeper fighting back from his Euro 2016 nightmare.
Hart endured an error-stained tournament in France, most damagingly when he let Kolbeinn Sigthorsson’s decisive goal squirm past him in the last-16 defeat to Iceland.
The 29-year-old was then dumped out of the first-team picture at Manchester City when Pep Guardiola placed Willy Caballero ahead of him in the pecking order and signed Claudio Bravo from Barcelona.
But Southgate has been impressed by Hart’s form during his season-long loan with Torino in Serie A and told a news conference his stock within the squad remains high ahead of a 70th Three Lions appearance.
“Joe Hart will captain the side,” Southgate said, with skipper Wayne Rooney not in the squad as England seek to increase their Group F advantage at Wembley.
“I had to think seriously because we’ve got a squad now where there are some emerging leaders.
“I’ve talked before about sharing responsibility around the squad and even some of the youngest players who have just come into the squad have been able to talk openly in front of everybody, which is a great sign.
“Joe is our most-capped international. I think he has shown great maturity in the way he has recovered from his own disappointment last summer and it’s a good moment for him.
“He’s playing well with his club; his performances with us have been excellent. I think he’s respected by everybody in the group.
“Some people question a goalkeeper being captain but I did it with Jack Butland with the Under-21s and in the end you are looking for the professionalism and his impact during the week, not just on the matchday.”
Southgate has floated the idea of picking his captain on a match-by-match basis, somewhat at odds with the English tradition of looking towards one established leader, and he insists his employers at the Football Association have no qualms over this approach.
“I don’t think [having a set captain] has been an FA guideline, ever. I just think that’s what individual managers have decided,” he said.
“I’m not under pressure to pick any players or do anything that isn’t the right thing for a football decision.
“I talk to the rest of my staff about that and it’s always got to be what’s right for the team.”
Ben Gibson fits Southgate’s template of leaders who can fit into the group after the uncapped Middlesbrough defender was called up to replace Manchester United centre-back Chris Smalling, who suffered a knock against Germany on Wednesday.
“He’s a player we’ve worked with in the Under-21s so we know him well, we know his personality and character,” he added.
“When you’re bringing someone late into the squad for a couple of days it’s really important you know what’s coming through the door.
“He’s already the captain of his club – a Premier League captain – at a very young age, which tells you a lot about his leadership qualities and the type of person he is.
“He’s also had a very good season with Middlesbrough. There are one or two other players who are on our radar in that position but we know him well, we know what we’re going to get and that’s the most important factor.”