The goalkeeper’s lot is the peculiarity that hides in plain sight. They train alone most of the time, their technical and fitness work being entirely bespoke, and, come match day, it is preferable that they see as little of the ball as possible. Their view of the pitch is different, fixed and detached – everything feels different – and, for them, the game is as much psychological as physical, the ultimate test of focus.
Nick Pope uses words such as “singular” and “individual”. The Burnley and England goalkeeper remembers how as a young player, he had no teammate to talk him through matches, to offer positional tips. You are on your own between the sticks and the deal can seem thankless, unbalanced; one in which reliability, even excellence, is taken for granted and single mistakes tarnish reputations.
It takes a particular type of person to don the gloves, to follow the codes of this union. “Are you saying that we’re all mental, basically?” Pope says, with a chuckle.
Pope is nothing of the sort. The 28-year-old has built his meteoric rise on level-headedness and a desire to instil calm in his teammates. It has taken him from a yo-yo around the non-leagues – Bury Town, Harrow Borough, Welling United, Cambridge United, Aldershot Town – to League Two with York City and Bury and the Championship with Charlton, his parent club nearly all the while.
Burnley signed him from Charlton in 2016 and he is now the club’s undisputed No 1, ahead of Joe Hart and having seen off competition from Tom Heaton. Pope is top of the Premier League clean sheet chart for the season with 11 and then there is England. He has won two caps and, before the coronavirus shutdown, was Gareth Southgate’s second choice behind Jordan Pickford, having started the 4-0 win in Kosovo last November. It is all a far cry from his release by Ipswich at 16.
Pope recognises there are “different characters in the goalkeeping world” but, when he considers his own mentality, breaking it down piece by piece, he accepts that those who play in his position do share a “certain amount of characteristics”. It is out of necessity, he adds, and the biggest requirement has to be the hide of a rhinoceros. How else can anyone deal with catching, say, nine balls but being pilloried and sometimes defined by dropping the 10th?
“Growing up as a goalkeeper, you almost get used to it – you realise that is how the land lies,” Pope says. “The ones that stick out are sometimes the mistakes, they are easily highlighted because they often cost your team a goal. The sooner you realise that is a reality, the sooner it is you accept responsibility and you find it easier to move forward.
“Some people will just look at the mistakes, however dreadful that sounds. But as a goalkeeper, whether you like it or not, your job is to make as few mistakes as possible – along with all the other good things you can do. It’s a different responsibility.”
Pope says that goalkeepers almost have to learn how to let in goals. “Before I went to York on loan [in 2013-14], the Charlton manager at the time, Chris Powell, said something like: ‘I want you to go there and make mistakes,’” Pope says. “It was a really strange line and something that stuck in my head but I completely know what he means. You’ve got to learn how to react when a goal goes in. How you show yourself afterwards is important.
“It’s important, too, not to go out on the pitch fearing mistakes. It is something that is going to happen. That’s why I talk about putting your mind at ease to have the freedom to make brave decisions and actions.”
Pope stresses how goalkeepers must be “the voice at the back”, a “leader”, able to organise based on “the view you have – it’s like no one else’s … you see the whole picture”. What shines through, though, is his equilibrium.
“One of my goalkeeper coaches at Charlton, Lee Turner, would speak about having this middle line,” Pope says. “He used to point his arm out straight and say that you had to stay on this line as much as possible. However good or bad things were, the closer you can stay to that line, the less drastic things will be, the less of a rollercoaster.
“We could score in the 89th minute to go 2-1 up and, for me personally, you don’t want to run round doing knee-slides. At that point, I’m thinking about getting over the line. That’s the feeling I want. The game is done and you’ve got the three points. I don’t really have a temper and I like to be very relaxed. I’ve found it’s the best way for me to perform at my best. If a goalkeeper can have a calming influence, it’s something that can run through a team.”
Pope’s top-level breakthrough came in 2017-18 when he stepped up for the seriously injured Heaton to play 35 Premier League games, keeping 12 clean sheets and being named as Burnley’s player and players’ player of the season. He made his England debut as a substitute against Costa Rica in a World Cup warm-up and was the third-choice goalkeeper at the finals in Russia. There was injury last season – and frustration behind Hart and Heaton – but the temptation is to think that everything has happened relatively quickly for him.
The reality is that this has been only Pope’s second season as a Premier League first-choice and it has been a long road, highlighting the patience that goalkeepers must habitually show.
“Experience is so important and, if you’re at a higher club, it’s often a massive risk for them to play a young goalkeeper,” Pope says. “The manager might not have the time to let you develop and make mistakes at that level. So you go on loan and, as horrible as it sounds, you make those mistakes elsewhere. Then, you come back to your parent club with a grounding behind you, rather than just playing under-23s, and it gives the manager faith to chuck you in.
“If you’re a young winger, for example, you can go out there, be as carefree as possible and you are less likely to be at fault for a goal. In terms of the evolution of the game, I’d be interested to see if more young goalkeepers do get thrust in rather than taking the loan route.”
Pope’s thoughts are on the Premier League restart, on extending Burnley’s five-match unbeaten sequence, on finishing in a European position. He has not thought about the postponed European Championship, in which the majority of England’s games are scheduled for Wembley but, when it is brought up, the excitement is palpable. He does a quick bit of maths, taking in the probability of becoming a professional footballer in the first place and then reaching the top level at a time when England have what is in effect a home tournament.
“It must be billions and billions to one so to have that opportunity would be unbelievable,” Pope says. “Although I didn’t play a game at the World Cup, to be part of that was still one of the greatest things of my life. The biggest moment? Eric Dier scoring the winning penalty against Colombia. As one of the goalkeepers, I’d done a lot of work with Eric and the other lads on the penalties, so to see them perform as they did was incredible. If you could stop time and rerun the adrenaline and everything you had for those couple of moments, it would be unbelievable.”
So one last thing. What does Pope have to do to dislodge Pickford? “Ha ha, good question,” he replies. “But one of my main things is not to look too far ahead. I’m really looking after myself at Burnley. England is so far away, even though being the No 1 is something that I want. It’s a real dream of mine to play at Wembley and to represent England as many times as possible.”