By Johnny Pringle
Just two years ago, Nick Pope was plying his trade at Bury in the fourth tier of English football. Prior to that (as a Charlton Athletic player), he had spells on loan at non-league clubs including Harrow Borough, Welling United, Cambridge United and Aldershot. This summer, he will be in Russia representing England in the World Cup finals.
Pope might not get to see any action in Russia with Jordan Pickford set to be Gareth Southgate’s first choice goalkeeper but that doesn’t make his trajectory any less remarkable.
Last season, the 26-year-old was not even first choice at his current club, Burnley. He made just four appearances during the 2016/17 campaign, all in domestic cup campaigns and looked set to remain understudy to Tom Heaton.
An unfortunate break
Everything changed when Heaton suffered a dislocated shoulder in a game against Crystal Palace in September 2017. Pope was brought on and put in a stunning performance as Burnley won 1-0. Since then, he has never looked back.
His statistics for the remainder of the season were remarkable. He posted the highest save percentage of any English goalkeeper in the Premier League (76.5%). He was in the top five for ‘goals prevented’ from shots on target, committed zero errors leading to goals and kept 11 clean sheets. Only Manchester United’s David De Gea had better numbers. It was no surprise that he was part of a Burnley side who had their best season since the 1970s.
Now a part of the England setup, this summer will be a fantastic experience for Pope, even if he doesn’t get any game time. However, if England win their first two group matches, he might just be handed a start in the game against Belgium.
How far can the Three Lions go his summer?
A quick look at the betting reveals that William Hill have England at 16/1 at the tournament and FIFA have them at joint 12th in the world rankings.
After years of high expectations followed by disappointment, England will enter a tournament with low expectations for the first time in decades and that could play into their hands. Arguably, they are better prepared and have a more balanced squad than at any time since 2002. On the flip side, the squad is young and inexperienced and the coach does not have the track record of some of his peers.
But players like Pope represent the kind of character that can be found throughout the squad: humble, hard-working and ambitious. And there is a feeling that the group could spring a surprise in Russia.
Can Pope become No. 1?
Nick Pope has already jumped Joe Hart and Jack Butland in the pecking order. Now, only Pickford stands in his way. The Everton man had a tough season and his stats do not come close to Pope’s but Southgate has been impressed with him on England duty.
It appears to be a close call between the two, with Pickford just ahead at the moment, but it wouldn’t be a shock to see Pope between the sticks at some point in Russia.