Nick Pope – Non League To England Number One

Burnley & England Goalkeeper Interviewed by The Times Newspaper

Nick Pope opens his phone to show footage of Alisson making saves for Liverpool against Wolverhampton Wanderers on Monday. On Tuesday the Burnley goalkeeper analysed Ederson’s distribution for Manchester City against Borussia Mönchengladbach, pressing pause on the live action, rewinding, examining, eager for every insight into the City goalkeeper’s game.

Photo – Anthony Delvin

Time spent in Pope’s company at Burnley’s sleek, welcoming Barnfield training ground on Wednesday, all socially distanced and after a lateral flow coronavirus test, brought a real understanding of the 28-year-old England player’s devotion to his craft.

Pope has always been thirsty for knowledge, dating back to his time at fee-paying King’s Ely, then at college, then out on loan from Charlton Athletic, crossing the country, learning his trade from non-League upwards. And now, embedded in the England squad, Pope continues his quest for self-improvement.

So he opens his phone. “So this is Allison the other night, I’m watching him positionally,” Pope explains. The footage begins with Adama Traoré, the Wolves attacker, close to the byline, about to drive in a cross. Pope presses play.

“I’m watching Alisson, how calm he is and the position he’s in. He’s inside his goal and his body shape is half-open, so that gives him the opportunity to get on the ball.” Alisson takes a step out and intervenes. “He gets a punch on it into a good [safe] area. If his body position is squarer to the ball, he won’t be able to get that, he wouldn’t be able to move his feet to get there.

“I look at a goalkeeper’s body shape. If you’re 6ft 6in or 6ft 2, you stand in different positions.” Pope himself is 6ft 6in, so he studied tall goalkeepers. “For me growing up, I was keen to watch [Thibaut] Courtois and [Petr] Cech, 6ft 6in. In some situations I’d stand deeper because I don’t have to cut off the angle as much.

“I’ve got a longer reach, longer wing-span. If you stand forward you cut off the angle, but then you’ve got less reaction time. If I’m deeper I’ve got more reaction time, and I can use the time to move my feet and use my reach.”

Among his many notable saves this season, Pope’s reach and anticipation helped him to frustrate Crystal Palace’s Christian Benteke in November with an astonishing reaction save, stretching out his left hand, then tipping an Anwar El-Ghazi free kick on to the bar with his right at Villa Park.

It is difficult to decide the pick of his six saves at Anfield in January, a game Jürgen Klopp described as “Liverpool versus Nick Pope”, but the best was probably his left hand to deny Mohamed Salah low down, on the hour.

He uses online clips to further his understanding of the best shot-stoppers, such as Atletico Madrid’s Jan Oblak. “I watch Oblak on YouTube,” Pope says, adding his appreciation of the Slovenian’s own expansion of his reactions through handball and tennis. “Oblak takes stuff from other sports. I was big on cricket at school. I was a wicketkeeper so that’s foot movement, hand-eye [co-ordination], reacting to deflections, reacting to when you are close to the stumps or if you’re stood back. That helped me as a goalkeeper. I played rugby a bit. I wasn’t a great athlete, [I did a] couple of throwing ones like shot put and javelin!”

What about King’s Ely’s historic 75-yard dash through the cathedral grounds? “The Hoop Trundle?” Pope laughs at the memory. “I never did that.” He enjoyed the school, a distinguished alma mater of MPs, historians, fighter pilots and athletes, such as the Olympian Goldie Sayers. “Her picture was on the wall,” he says. “I was very fortunate to go there. My mum’s a teacher and that knocked a bit off the fees!

Pope dives low to his left to make a crucial save against Liverpool at Anfield

Photo Davdi Rawcliffe

“With England, you have a lot of time together in camp, so we do get talking about backgrounds and schools. Everyone’s journey is different. Mine’s different to Raheem [Sterling] and Marcus [Rashford]. Eric [Dier] grew up in Portugal. It’s great to have a mix. I think people find it a bit funny, it’s quite rare.”

He did not board at King’s, as he lived in nearby Soham. The town’s name is indelibly and tragically associated with the horrific murder of two ten-year-old girls, Jessica Chapman and Holly Wells, in 2002. “It was terrible,” Pope reflects. “They were in the same school year as me but when it happened I’d left [for King’s]. It was very sad. I still see the mum and dad of one of the girls.”

Pope pauses. The enormity of such events puts everything in perspective. He slowly resumes his own story. His footballing education was continuing at Ipswich Town. “But I got released at 16. It gave me a kick up the backside,” he says. He left King’s, enrolled at West Suffolk Sports Academy and played for Bury Town. “I was 16 and playing against men. All of them around me at corners, free kicks. No mercy. There were doubts. I got promised trials and nothing happened. I looked at other career choices. I looked at Nottingham [University] to do sports science.” Then Charlton offered him a two-day trial, watched him for Bury Town and gave him a deal in 2011. They loaned him out to Harrow Borough, Welling United, Cambridge United and Aldershot Town in non-League.

Always keen to rise up the ranks, Pope looked to go on loan to League Two. He prepared himself. “Even though the Champions League might be on the telly, I’d be dragging friends I was in digs with to Dagenham & Redbridge, Gillingham or Southend on a Tuesday night to see what the games are like and what the goalkeepers are like,” he says. “I watched [Paulo] Gazzaniga at Gillingham and [Jack] Butland with Cheltenham play at Southend.”

Pope was soon playing in League Two with York City and Bury, then in the Championship with Charlton. Then Burnley came calling in 2016, and he continued developing, training with Tom Heaton. “What was great for me was watching Heats when I first signed,” he says. “He was known as a good, consistent goalkeeper at Premier League level. I was around him in training, in the dressing room, watching him prepare and how he dealt with game situations.”

Pope sees no reason why he won’t spend the rest of his career at Burnley

Photo Anthony Devlin

He loves working under Sean Dyche. “He’s big on truths. Sometimes people need a gee-up, need telling, and he does it,” he says. “You need to have your truths. There’s no liberties taken in training, no taking the piss here. Everyone’s here to train hard, work hard. If one cog is out of sync, you let them know. It’s that intense, that switched on, and being at that level the whole time takes a lot of you but off the pitch there’s a relaxed feel. It’s a good mix.”

Heaton moved to Aston Villa in 2019, after Pope had enjoyed such a fine breakthrough season in the Premier League, including 15 clean sheets, that Gareth Southgate took him to the 2018 World Cup. He’s enjoying such a good season again that he’s been linked with clubs such as Tottenham Hotspur. “I’ve learned not to take too much notice of it,” Pope replies. “I’m level-headed and calm.”

He adds, “Everyone wants to play at the highest level. Everyone wants to push themselves as far as they can. I’ve come a long way, which I’m thankful for. I don’t want stop improving. If you’d told me when I was at Charlton or at college that I’d play 100 Premier League games, I’d have said that’s silly. Now I am here [on 101] it is looking at the next thing, the next thing, it’s keeping that hunger and desire.

“I’m happy to be here in the Premier League, even though I’ve come from lower down, but we don’t want to settle. The gaffer speaks about surviving. We don’t want to just survive.” He’s not being critical of Dyche, simply stating the hunger within Burnley.

But can Burnley take that next step? “I think so,” he says. “We were in Europe once. For me it ended after 15 minutes, my shoulder popped out [against Aberdeen in the Europa League in 2018] so it’s something that I’d like to have another crack at. We’ve got new owners [the American consortium ALK Capital] and possibly a brighter future.”

Pope would never go anywhere as an understudy. “No. I don’t think that’s something I could do,” he says. He can even see himself spending the rest of his career at Burnley. “Things change so quickly in football but I don’t see why that wouldn’t happen. It’s been a great 4½ years at the club, with great people, players, staff, fans, everyone, so I don’t see why not.

“The team represents the town, hard-working, everyone works for each otherwhether that’s on a match day or training, we go together, we push each other. No one left behind.” It sounds like the Marines.

Pope handles well the pressures of his profession, trying to repel some of the best strikers in the world. “The two that stick out most are Sergio Agüero and Harry Kane, who have a very high level of finishing,” Pope says.

He has a “routine” to deal with setbacks and mistakes, analysing, learning and moving on. “Also I’ve a little boy and a little girl at home. If I make a mistake, and go home, they don’t know I’ve made a mistake. They’re an immediate release for me. Spending time with them is massive for me.”

When he was at home on Monday, watching the match from Molineux, Pope was naturally concerned about Rui Patrício when he collided with Conor Coady’s knee. “Thankfully he’s OK,” Pope said. “It’s just one of those hazards of being a goalkeeper. It’s good to be brave. I was taught at a young age to be brave and put your head and hands in.

“I took one in the head against Palace [accidentally from Benteke]. I wobbled. I don’t know what the official line was, a little bit concussed. It’s instinct. It’s about stopping the ball going in the goal.”

It’s about distribution, too, and Pope works hard to improve his. “Ederson is known for distribution so I watch him. I paused the game last night and looked at what he does,” he says.

Pope’s always learning. “In lockdown I learnt about looking after your mental side,” he says. “It was very easy to be shut in the house 23-24 hours a day, sitting on the sofa watching TV and you go through Bargain Hunt and Homes Under the Hammer and then you get a routine. It’s very easy to do that and almost go numb. Fortunately, when I was growing up my parents were always telling me to go outside.

Pope has won four England caps, including against Ireland in a 3-0 win last November

Photo Marc Aspland

“I’d not done cycling for ten years so I started again, bought a bike — and full Lycra! — and started going to the Peak District. I’m not as good as Ben Foster, though.” Pope name-checks the Watford goalkeeper, also a serious cyclist. “He does a good YouTube video,” Pope adds of Foster’s films, some made with a GoPro in the back of his net. “I like the more cycling-driven ones. I’m used to seeing his view of a football pitch.”

There seems a genuine camaraderie and respect among goalkeepers, especially with England. Southgate’s expected goalkeeping three for the Euros is Jordan Pickford, Pope and Dean Henderson. “We all get on,” Pope says.

Pickford’s abdominal muscle injury means a first call for West Bromwich Albion’s Sam Johnstone and an opportunity for Pope to demonstrate his abilities in the forthcoming World Cup qualifiers against San Marino, Albania and Poland.

This interview was planned a month ago and Pope is keen to make sure it does not look like he is pushing himself forward in Pickford’s absence. “I spoke to Jordan the other day. We get on really well. With Martyn [Margetson] taking the sessions, we’ve got a really good group, pushing each other,” he says. “You rely on the service of other goalkeepers, kicking the ball, throwing to you, they are part of your drills. Everyone has to do it properly. We’ve got the right working environment.

“Jordan and Dean are both upfront and honest, both ambitious. Like myself. We’re all driven, wanting to play but respectful. If the other person plays, I do the absolute best for them, because that’s what’s best for the team. That respect is built into you as a goalkeeper growing up. There’s a goalkeepers’ union. It’s important.”

Can he stake a claim to the No 1 shirt over the next fortnight? “Just because I play one, two, three games doesn’t mean anything,” Pope replies. “Jordan’s played well for England over his 30 caps. In qualifiers he’s played nearly all of them and done well. It’s going to be difficult in three games to overturn that. But in the same regard I want to do the best for myself, I want to show myself in the best light as always. The Euros are coming up. Whenever I put an England shirt on, what more motivation do you need?

“I will always be thankful to Gareth Southgate for putting me in my first England squad, giving me my debut. At the World Cup even though I was considered No 3 goalkeeper [behind Pickford and Butland] I didn’t feel any less a part of the squad. Southgate was a massive part of that. I try to repay him by doing everything right. The day after the game you train with the people who haven’t played, and I like to think I drive those sessions, keep everyone going and wanting to still train at a really high level even though the lads haven’t played and maybe are not happy about that. You still have to find that inside to stay sharp because you are going to be needed. You have to be ready.”

His readiness involves getting in the right state of mind. “It’s concentration and focus but also being relaxed, being in a stable mind to make the right decision and not have a rush of blood,” he says. “Visualisation’s good. If we’re going into the last five minutes maybe one goal up or level, I always think, ‘There’s one more thing I’m going to have to do’. If I then have one more thing to do, make a save, have a touch, I’ll then think again, ‘There’s one more thing to do’. In 92, 93 minutes, I’ll be thinking, ‘There’s one more thing to do’.” Pope does it well.

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