Nick Pope makes Newcastle United transfer admission ahead of season-opener
It’s arguably the biggest decision Eddie Howe has to make this week.
For years, Martin Dubravka has been Newcastle United’s undisputed No.1 between the posts.
Not now. Howe signed England international Nick Pope from Burnley this summer for £10million – and Dubravka could start the new season on the bench.
United’s head coach, however, has kept Pope and Dubravka guessing ahead of Saturday’s season-opener against newly-promoted Nottingham Forest at St James’s Park.
The feeling on Tyneside is that Pope will start in goal, though 33-year-old Dubravka – who has made 130 appearances for Newcastle since joining, initially on loan, from Sparta Prague in 2018 – is pushing hard to play.
Dubravka’s faced competition before in his career – and he's come out on top.
And, certainly, Dubravka’s set a high bar for goalkeeping in his time at the club – and, for that, the Slovakia international deserves respect.
Speaking after Saturday’s 2-1 win over Athletic Bilbao, Howe said: “I thought Martin did very well today. He made a couple of very good saves and distributed the ball well. Nick played really well (against Atalanta the night before), so again, that’s a tough call."
Howe labelled 30-year-old Pope an “exceptional” goalkeeper when the club signed him amid interest from a number of other teams.
"Nick’s an exceptional Premier League and international level goalkeeper, so I’m very pleased to be adding strong competition to a very important position,” said Howe at the time.
Pope, sold on a move to United as soon as he was told of the club's interest, insists that he wasn’t given any “assurances” about starting games when he spoke to Howe about the move, which followed Burnley’s relegation to the Championship on the final day of last season following a 2-1 loss to Newcastle.
“I don’t think anyone’s been given any assurances,” said Pope, who has signed a four-year contract at the club.
“The first game of the season, obviously, is what everyone wants to play in. For us, as a squad, it’s about working towards that, and each individual claiming that shirt.
“I think that’s the same for every position. I think competition’s massive to have for a successful squad."
It’s clear under Howe that no starting player will get “comfortable” in their position.
“You want to be competitive in every position,” said Pope, who started his professional career at Charlton Athletic after a spell at non-league club Bury Town. “You don’t want people getting comfortable. I think that’s something that’s good to have in a growing team and squad.”
Howe will choose his starting XI based on what he’s seen on the training pitch – and in the club’s pre-season games.
“Last season’s been and gone, and there are things that carry over, but we’re starting to build a team, and it’s how pre-season’s work,” said Pope, who has been working with coach and former United goalkeeper Adam Bartlett following the departure of head of goalkeeping Simon Smith this summer.
“You want to push yourselves. I don’t think assurances are given to anyone. It’s (a case of) ‘earn your place’.
“I think that’s something that breeds that winning mentality and a want to improve. It’s evident here. It’s an environment that’s great to be part of.”
Pope already knew club-mates Callum Wilson and Kieran Tripper from England duty, and Chris Wood from Burnley, when he joined United.
And the Soham-born player – who started out at boyhood club Ipswich Town, but was released aged 16 – got to know the rest of his team-mates during the club’s pre-season trips to Austria and Portugal last month.
Now settled into the squad, Pope – who has won eight senior England caps – is looking to take his career to the “next level” over the coming season.
“I was aware of it being a possibility a couple of weeks before, and when it was done, it was really quick,”. I was really hopeful of it happening, so when it happened, I was delighted.
“I’m hugely excited to be here. I feel like it’s something that could take my career to the next level. There were other clubs potentially interested, but, as it got to Newcastle, there was no one else (I wanted to join).”
Pope – who hopes to play for England in the World Cup in Qatar later this year – has a “good feel” about his new surroundings.
“I have a really good feel about the city,” said Pope. "On the day of my medical, I was able to see some of the city – and go around and get a good feel. I’m looking forward to living my life here."
Pope, having experienced St James’s Park as an opposition player, will be glad to have United’s fans behind him if he’s selected to face Forest.
Asked about having the club’s supporters on his side, Pope said: “What? Not hammering me! But, seriously, having them behind me is something I’m really looking forward to.
"I’ve played in night games, day games – and the atmosphere at St James's Park’s always been incredible. I think that's something that any player would want to be a part of, playing on the biggest stage as much as possible, and having that level of support who are pulling in your direction is something that is rare really these days.
"So I’m looking forward to experiencing and having them on my side."
Whoever starts in goal against Forest will have a sold-out home crowd behind them – and a well-prepared team in front of them.