Clarets keeper's unusual route to the Premier League

Rejected by his boyhood club Ipswich Town as a 16-year-old, Nick Pope admits he might have become a tractor boy in a different sense.

Friday, 24th November 2017, 10:45 pm
Nick Pope

But, instead of working alongside his father - a farmer - the 25-year-old is preparing to line up against World Cup and Copa America winners in the Arsenal side at Turf Moor on Sunday.

Pope was released by the Tractor Boys as a youngster, but climbed back up the ladder the hard way, via non league Bury Town, before catching the eye of Charlton Athletic.

Even then, he had to go out and prove himself on loan in spells with Harrow Borough, Welling United, Cambridge United, York City and Bury, which he equates to being on trial.

He made the move to Burnley in the summer of 2016, after being in the Charlton side beaten 3-0 at The Valley, as the Clarets claimed the Championship title.

Sean Dyche had a plan in place for the young prospect, who started the season as number three behind skipper Tom Heaton and Paul Robinson, but came onto the bench to further his experience in the latter part of the season.

Injury to Heaton in September gave Pope his chance, and, remarkably, he has claimed six clean sheets in his first nine Premier League appearances.

Several Burnley players have had to take a step back to move forward and reach the top level, but Pope’s journey is particularly impressive.

He has to pinch himself when he looks back to a fateful day nine years ago: “It seems a million miles away at the minute.

“When you are out of professional football, you can only concentrate playing on your own football as the level you are at.

“You ask yourself the best way you can make a living on the pitch and off the pitch.

“The thought process is massively different.

“To come this far is a long journey and something I could never have pictured back then.”

He remembers the day he was let go by Ipswich, though he was expecting it: “Yeah, I do. It wasn’t the greatest day.

“Looking back it was the best thing that happened. It gave me a jolt and forced a change in my life that I probably needed.

“And in my football as well. It has worked out but I was devastated at the time.

“It wasn’t a surprise. I had seen it coming. I was low on confidence, didn’t think I was good enough.

“I remember the games. I wasn’t playing well, wasn’t playing good football and I was called in to a meeting. I was waiting for the bad news, really.”

For Pope, however, it came as something of a relief.

Asked whether he thought it was all over, he said: “I probably did to be honest but being out of the academy system I didn’t really have to think about it.

“I didn’t have to worry about whether I was gonna get the next contract or the next scholarship or whether I would make it. It was over.

“It was all out of the window and I just started to enjoy my football again.

“I was leaving that system where it’s a very controlled and high pressure environment of academy football. To come out of it was something that was actually a breath of fresh air.”

He had a couple of options outside the game, while he pondered his future: “I studied marketing for two years and a year of sports science.

“I did two subjects in three years. My old man is a farmer so I could have gone in to that maybe.

“But I don’t really know what I would have done really. I use a few bits of the sports science now, which is nice. But it’s not dissimilar to the things the lads would have done on their scholarships really.”

He would have been learning on the job on the farm, had he gone down that route: “Luckily I live about four hours away and I’ve not helped out for a few years, which is quite poor from me.

“My brother still does. I used to when I was younger and when I was at college.

“I actually didn’t know what I was doing. I was just told ‘move this tractor there, do that’. I’d be growing all sorts of crops at all sorts of times of the year! I would need a lot more grounding before I took over that, I think!”

The move to Charlton in 2011 proved something of a sliding doors moment: “I don’t know what I might have done. I’d been accepted at Nottingham University and was going to go there in the September, but signed for Charlton in the April, and that was a case of if you miss that ship it really is all over.

“But I wasn’t that worried about football. I’d been out of it for 18 months, two years, and there was talk of being offered trials locally to Bury Town but nothing ever came up, so I had stopped getting excited.

“There was a lot of talk of things like ‘you could train with us, have a trial’ and they never came off. So even when Charlton came in I thought, until I hear anything concrete I won’t think about it too much.”

Scores of players leave the academy system and never make it back to the Football League and beyond.

But Pope, like Charlie Austin, Andre Gray and Jamie Vardy before him, have bounced back all the way to the Premier League.

While Pope advocates just going out and playing men’s football to get as much experience and game time as possible, he feels the academy system more than serves its purpose as well: “I am (a fan), but for me it just didn’t work, even though it’s where the bulk of players come from.

“Look at those coming through in premier league and probably 99 per cent will have had scholarships.

“It was very rare for you to miss that and go on to have a career. It’s not that I’m not a fan, it just didn’t work for me.

“The change in coming out of that triggered a change in me.

“Part of it is comfort too, if you’ve been there five or six years and when you’re trying to get better at something, comfort is probably not the best thing to be.”

He had stopped enjoying his football, but the lure of his childhood club remained strong: “When you feel you’re stagnating and not getting better and not performing it is quite hard to enjoy it. That was a part of it.

“I was an Ipswich fan so it was nothing I felt could ever walk away from because if they allowed me to train with them it was like it was a massive honour. I wasn’t massively enjoying it but had no other option until they told me ‘we don’t want you here any more.’

“It is hard. After you’ve been in a system for a few years and are used to it, the tag of being in an academy. In a school you might be the only one in there who is in an academy, and to lose that and to stop is a big blow and some find it hard to recover from and find another route.”

But playing non league, especially in goal when you are so close to fans and their opinions, helped prepare him mentally for the challenges he faces today in the top flight - as did a series of loans, where he had to prove himself time and again: “I was 16 and then playing mens’ football, and you meet some people you really do.

“You go to some grounds that are not the best. You have people behind the goals abusing you and don’t get it in the academy.

“I quite enjoyed it, because it’s so far from what you know.

“At the academy it’s parents there shouting at their own kids or whatever, but no abuse.

“To encounter that so young was something else new and you had to get used to it

“It definitely helps. Just playing with and against men and what they expect, it was just a new level. “It’s considered a level below the academy but it was just what I needed really.

“I think every experience you take something from it. When I signed for Charlton I was loaned to Harrow Borough which is Ryman Premier, so from there you go to the Conference South and that’s a new level.

“Playing there in the Welling-Dartford derby was a big thing, we played two in four days.

“That was another layer of development. If you’re playing in the Conference South and do okay you think ‘I want to be playing in the Conference.’

“I went from the Conference South to Charlton in the Championship, and that’s not a step any goalkeeper would realistically make without an injury crisis or something out of the blue.

“Your own goal is Charlton, but there is a massive path in between and you have to use the loan system to help you out.”

As Dyche often points out, it is often the loan where it doesn’t go to plan, that can be as beneficial to a player, and Pope had a tough time at Aldershot: “When went on loan - barring Aldershot which was a tough one for me - I always felt I was doing okay and could go another level up.

“At the time you’re training week in week out and every loan is not a last chance, but if don’t you do well and and go back to your club, who is going to take you at a higher level or even the same?

“Every time you have to prove yourself. It’s a lot like being on trial, even though you have the Charlton name as a championship club, the name itself wont take you far. You have to prove yourself.

“At Aldershot I just didn’t play very well, it was a hard month. I had just come back from injury, let a few in and team wasn’t playing well.

“It was a bad four or five games. I was lucky it was only a few games I think.”

When his chance came at Burnley, it came unexpectedly and abruptly as Heaton dislocated his shoulder 10 minutes before half-time against Crystal Palace in September.

So was that almost like another trial? “A little bit like it. I came off bench a few times at Charlton so had a bit of experience but it’s different to starting games, when you have the warm up, training, the build up to think about it. A lot of goalies sit there and won’t have any minutes in league football so it is hard to be ready every minute.

“It’s like a jolt, like ‘here it is,’ when you do come on and when I did I was determined to enjoy it.

“You’re playing in the Premier League and if you can’t enjoy that, what can you? I came on with that attitude that it is a chance to show yourself.”

He knew he would have to be patient at Burnley, but took the chance to better himself: “I think obviously when I signed from Charlton I wasn’t going to come in as number one and I knew that.

"The options on the table were Burnley in the Premier League or Charlton in League One. At that point I could have stayed at Charlton and played, probably.

“But I thought that for me to grow as a player I would be better off coming to Burnley under this management set-up and this goalkeeping coach (Billy Mercer) and these players. I thought training here every day would make me better and give me the chance to play at the highest level I could.

“So that was my thought process then and coming into this season I started on the bench and if I got the chance I knew I would do my best to take it. And if not I’d work hard to be better than I was to keep pushing and pushing Tom as best I could.”

And when Heaton is fit again shortly, Dyche will have a tough decision to make, given Pope’s exemplary form.

So would it be tough to be left out, should the captain be restored to the side? “I think obviously you are always going to enjoy playing more than sitting on the bench.

“I wouldn’t say sitting on the bench is ever easy, no matter when it is… so we’ll see.”