'The fans have looked after me' – Nick Pope reflects on phenomenal Newcastle United start ahead of World Cup with England
Nick Pope left St James’s Park carrying a bin bag full of boots after Newcastle United’s win over Chelsea – and he could yet be carrying the weight of the nation’s hopes on his shoulders.
It’s the latest challenge for Pope, who started out in non-league football after being released by Ipswich Town as a schoolboy.
Pope’s journey to the top hasn’t been an easy one, and the 30-year-old never thought he’d go to a World Cup when he was growing up. The goalkeeper, signed by Newcastle from Burnley in the summer, didn’t think he was good enough.
Asked if he had dreamed of playing in a World Cup as a kid, Pope said: “I didn’t think I was that good, to be honest.
“I thought I was a long way away, but I was a massive football fan growing up. It very rarely comes around. I always looked forward to it as a child, as I do now. That’s something which will stay with me for life.”
Pope’s journey from youth football to the Premier League and international recognition was a long one. He had a tearful couple of days after being released by Ipswich Town aged 16.
“Obviously, at 16 when I got released by Ipswich, that was kind of a tearful couple of days,” said Pope. “That was I suppose a difficult lowlight in my life, because I had been there six years – and it had become part of my life day to day week to week. So that was a low point.
“When you’re at college and playing, you don’t play on pitches like this (St James’s Park). So, back then, I felt a long, long way from the World Cup.”
Non-league football beckoned after his release at Ipswich, and Pope was spotted by Charlton Athletic playing for Bury Town against Billericay Town.
Pope had a series of loans while at Charlton, including a difficult spell at Aldershot Town.
“Sometimes you’re meeting up with the lads for the first time on the bus to an away game and an hour – and a half later you’re kicking off with each other,” said Pope.
“That was Aldershot – not my finest loan – but as a goalkeeper you learn quickly that you are going to chuck one in now, and again and it is how you respond to that, and looking at the bigger picture, improving over a longer period.
“As soon as you make a mistake, you have got to learn how to deal with that because mistakes cost your team goals, cost your team points.
“That’s what goalkeepers are associated with, so you have to quickly learn how to deal with that.”
Pope – who went to college and had part-time jobs after being released by Ipswich – has been helped by the people around him.
“I’ve had a lot of really good people around me,” said the Soham-born player. “Obviously, Mum and Dad have been a massive part of my life.
“Ran into some good goalkeeper coaches. Obviously, (Chelsea’s) Ben Roberts, who was here (on Saturday). He was a huge part of my development (at Charlton).
“I went on loan, and had to work my way up, I suppose. Had a good amount of belief in myself, I think, and when you go out on loan again and again, you have to carry that with you as you build up experience at lower levels. Keep believing in yourself, and trying to improve yourself.”
Pope joined Burnley in the summer of 2016, and just over a year later, he made his Premier League debut.
England recognition soon followed, and he made his debut in 2018 ahead of that year’s World Cup in Russia.
Pope now has 156 top-flight appearances behind him – and this tournament “feels different” for him.
“Back then, four years ago, I had only just played 35 games in the Premier League, so to go to the World Cup on the back of that, I was over the moon with, just to be in the squad,” said Pope.
“So it does feel a bit different this time around. Obviously, I have a lot more experience, got a lot more games under my belt and I am really looking forward to the tournament.”
Pope, having quickly settled in at Newcastle following his summer move, feels that he’s in a “good place”.
Last week, he made three saves in a penalty shootout in the club’s Carabao Cup win over Crystal Palace at St James's Park, and on Saturday he denied England team-mate Conor Gallagher in Saturday’s 1-0 home win over Chelsea.
“Certainly, as I’ve said, I have a lot more games under my belt, and in general feel in a very good place,” said Pope, who joined Newcastle in a £10million deal following Burnley’s relegation.
“And I think when you play that many games in the Premier League, you pick up all that experience and as a person and player, you’re always looking to grow your game, week by week, game by game. So I’d like to think I have done that, yes.”
Pope played in September’s internationals against Germany and Italy with Everton’s Jordan Pickford sidelined with an injury.
A late error against Germany from Pope denied England a win at Wembley – the game ended 3-3 – and he had to quickly put that game behind him when he returned to Newcastle.
The club have since won seven out of eight games in the Premier League – and Pope, an ever-present so far this season, played every minute of every fixture.
Asked about the Germany game, Pope said: “Obviously, it wasn’t ideal, but that’s all part of being a goalkeeper. Something I always said to myself when I was a younger goalie, you really have to normalise those stickier games and stickier moments. So, yeah, after that game, I got a few texts.
“It’s a case of carrying on, coming back to Newcastle. There were some big games to play in, and, fortunately, for us, it’s gone very well.”
Pope’s save against Gallagher came seconds before Joe Willock scored what turned out to be United’s winner against Chelsea. Pope said: “Conor won’t let me forget that for the next four weeks!
“I’m really happy with my form since I’ve been at the club. The fans have looked after me – and so have the players and the staff. So over the moon how well the first part of this new chapter is going.”
Pope hopes to write another chapter of his story in Qatar, though Pickford is expected to start England’s first game.
Asked if he’s going to the tournament as a No.2 or a “don’t know”, Pope said: “I suppose a ‘don’t know’. Every member of the squad wants to play and feel part of it.
“When you go to a World Cup, it’s very much a squad game. Much of the success when we went to Russia was about how much the squad stuck together - and how much the mentality was about all of us pulling in one direction.
“Whether I’m in or out of the team, that’s part of my mindset as well.”
Asked about his relationship with Pickford and Aaron Ramsdale, Pope said: “Really good. I have been in a number of squads with them now, Jordan especially, and he’s someone I get on well with on and off the pitch.”
Pope, having starred in the shootout against Palace, is ready for another penalty shootout, though he doesn’t see himself as a penalty specialist, as then-United goalkeeper Tim Krul was for Holland in the 2014 World Cup.
Pope missed Euro 2020 last year, which ended in a penalty shootout defeat to Italy in the final, through injury.
Asked if he’d be telling Southgate to put him on in the event of a shootout, Pope said: “No, I won’t be saying that!
"He’ll be telling me what to do. Like I say, whatever capacity I’m needed, all the lads will all be practising penalties throughout the tournament if it’s like last time.
"And I’m always on board with helping the lads out and talking about the mentality of the goalkeepers they may be facing. And just standing there when they are kicking them at me. As I say, whatever it takes because it is very much a squad game.”
Pope believes Southgate’s squad can go all the way in Qatar.
Asked how far England could go, Pope said: “You know, doing the same again, if not one more. That’s something the squad has spoken about – what a legacy we could leave.
"This is our opportunity, and our time, so we want to make our mark.”
Pope’s already made his mark on Tyneside – and he’s ready to do the same in Qatar.