Burnley’s Nick Pope is hoping to make his England debut over the coming week – and make his case to start the Three Lions’ opening World Cup clash with Tunisia.
The 26-year-old could earn his first cap in Saturday’s friendly against Nigeria at Wembley (kick-off 5-15 p.m.), with the final opportunity to impress ahead of Russia coming on Thursday night against Costa Rica at Leeds United’s Elland Road (kick-off 8 p.m.).
Everton’s Jordan Pickford is expected to be England’s number one at the tournament, with Jack Butland also in the squad with Pope, and the trio only have nine caps between them.
Pope aims to collect his first ahead of the finals, as England open against Tunisia on June 18th, before taking on Panama on June 24th, and Belgium on June 28th: “The friendlies are what you’re looking at really now.
“The first game (against Tunisia) is when everyone wants to have the shirt, but the two games coming up will decide who plays that first game.
“They’re what you keep your focus on really.
“Get to the first of these next two games and see how it goes, and prepare myself as best as I can to give myself the best chance of getting on the pitch.”.
While Gareth Southgate may be looking to nail down his team for the World Cup in Russia, it could be seen as a risk to take an uncapped goalkeeper to the tournament.
Should it happen against the Super Eagles, paired with Johann Berg Gudmundsson’s Iceland in Group D, or against Costa Rica, the 26-year-old will credit the milestone to those that have helped him rise to this position.
One of those name-checked was goalkeeping coach Billy Mercer, who has taken Pope under his wing at the Barnfield Training Centre ever since the switch from Charlton Athletic in the summer of 2016.
“He’s been texting me every day,” said Pope. “I’ve been on the phone to him a lot. As soon as I came in the building he helped me settle in and has given me all his experience and coaching to help me improve.
“When I first got in to the team we’d sit down every week after the game and watch the videos and talk about certain things and have discussions, that only helps me as a player grow. He’s someone who has helped me massively.”
And that gratitude filters through to everybody involved at the club, particularly those that have shared the pitch with him on a weekly basis during his debut campaign in the Premier League.
Pope’s performances domestically this term earned him the Clarets’ Player of the Year gong and could now join team mates James Tarkowski and Jack Cork in making his bow for his country this season.
“They’ve played a massive part,” he said. “From day one when I first came into the building a couple of years ago the lads have taken me into the squad and looked after me.
“As soon as I got in the team I had a lot of Premier League experience around me. The boys looked after me, threw their bodies on the line to stop the ball going in the goal, they gave me advice from their experiences of playing and that really helped me settle in.
“Without them lads in front of me we wouldn’t have had a season like we did and I wouldn’t be in this England squad. They’re people I couldn’t have done this without.”
From those brothers in arms to his elder sibling, Josh, a goalkeeper at Soham Town Rangers in the Bostik One North.
Josh, who has also played for Mildenhall Town and Histon, played a significant part in inspiring his younger brother’s career path.
Pope, who kept 12 clean sheets last term, said: “My brother is a goalkeeper, he’s a couple of years older than me. When you’re a bit younger and you can’t play on a Saturday or a Sunday I was going to watch him and watching his games.
“When you’re a younger sibling you take off the older ones sometimes, luckily enough he inspired me to be a goalkeeper.
“I still speak to him now about goalkeeping, he still plays.
“If we’ve got a weekend off I try and watch him play if I can.
“He’s someone who has been a massive part of my career, at every stage he’s been someone who has been on the end of the phone or at the table and I’ve been able to speak to him openly.
“We can give each other advice, have debates about goalkeeping and things you wouldn’t necessarily get with people who weren’t goalkeepers. He’s been a big part of my journey.”