The Nick Pope journey: From dashed Ipswich dreams to England call-up
By his own admission Nick Pope felt like the world had ended when Ipswich Town — his boyhood club — released him at the age of 16.
It had been his dream to represent the team that he and his family supported, but on that day it looked as though a career in football was a far-flung notion, let alone going on to emulate one of his heroes, Richard Wright, in an Ipswich shirt.
Yet, fast-forward to the present day and that pain is now a distant memory, a mere bump in the road for the 25-year-old goalkeeper from Wicken.
Why? Because as the Burnley gloveman speaks exclusively to The Journal, he sits on the cusp of becoming a senior England international following his call-up last week to Gareth Southgate’s squad for upcoming friendlies with Holland and Italy.
“It is something I could never imagine I would achieve. I am really proud of it,” he replies when asked to sum up his emotions.
“Being called up to represent your country is the absolute pinnacle, it does not get any better.”
The journey, though, has been far from conventional, one crammed full of diversions and the odd setback, serving only to add to the romance of his rise.
The footballing world will primarily know the former King’s Ely School pupil from the last six months spent between the posts for the Clarets, stepping in to replace the injured Tom Heaton but going on to be the second best goalkeeper in the Premier League statistically, behind only Manchester United’s David de Gea.
And yet it all started back when a recently-released Pope enrolled at West Suffolk College while also turning out for Team Bury in both the Thurlow Nunn League First Division and the Essex & Suffolk Border League as well as Bury Town in the Isthmian League Division One North.
Off the pitch, he delivered milk to houses in Soham and worked in Next to make ends meet — the world of professional football was a pipe dream at that point.
But then, almost out of the blue, Charlton Athletic spotted his potential — thankfully for keeping clean sheets rather than putting milk bottles on doorsteps — and duly signed Pope in 2011 prior to their promotion-winning campaign up to the Championship.
However, he initially saw very little action with the Addicks, instead embarking on a series of loan stints with Harrow Borough, Welling United, Cambridge United, Aldershot Town, York City and Bury, the latter of whom he helped to earn promotion to League One in 2015.
The following campaign was his breakthrough season at Charlton and, while the London club was ultimately relegated, Pope’s performances alerted the attention of Premier League new-boys Burnley.
His involvement at Turf Moor had been limited to cup outings prior to Heaton suffering a dislocated shoulder but, since then, his stock has risen tenfold — something Southgate simply could not ignore.
It would be no surprise if the talk within the confines of the Portman Road corridors over these last few days has been dominated by how the club could have allowed a future England international to slip through the net.
But Pope harbours no grudges and hopes instead that his story can be one that inspires others who find themselves in a similar position this summer.
“At the time it is a tough one to take and something that feels like the end of the world,” said the goalkeeper, who played for Soham Town Rangers and Burwell Swallows youth teams before linking up with Ipswich.
“It has helped turn me into the person and player I am today and, in a way, I am happy I went through it.
“I was not good enough (at Ipswich). Another goalkeeper had come in from Norway who was seen as better than me.
“He got a scholarship in front of me. Sometimes it is that plain and simple.
“Academy managers and coaches are there to make decisions on what they see and that is what they saw.
“To be honest, I probably agreed with them — there is no bitterness or spite. It was the right decision.
“I hope it does inspire others. It does not have to be the end of the line if you drop out of academy football.
“I went to college and it was not the end of the line for me.
“There are hundreds, if not thousands, of kids at 16 who don’t get taken on.
“They play football elsewhere and some drop out of the game, which is obviously really disappointing but it can get to that stage.
“If other people see what has happened to me, hopefully they will stick at it.
“When you are released it is such a low point in anyone’s life at that young age.
“You are only 16, you have not gone through loads and loads so it is probably the biggest disappointment of your life up until that point.
“It comes down to learning to rebuild yourself and going again.”
The rebuilding job in question began for Pope first on the non-league scene with the two Bury teams and then during his early loan spells at Charlton.
It means the Burnley number 29 was able to get a number of senior appearances under his belt at a young age, many of which were up against battle-hardened centre-forwards who would not be shy in their attempts to try to put a blossoming goalkeeper in his place.
It is a very different tale to the majority of the other players inside that England dressing room, with the academy route being a well-trodden one. There are merits to both passages, with Pope reflecting: “I would never slate the academy system because a lot of players come through that way — probably 99 per cent of top players do.
“It just did not work for me and the route I took ended up working in my favour.
“Playing the amount of games I did while at college and that good level — it being men’s football — it stimulated me and helped me thrive.
“You come up against some characters, players that want to cause you problems.
“Some of the grounds were on the rough side as well but it is all good grounding.
“I learned a lot and it toughened me up.”
Dean Greygoose — currently manager of Mildenhall Town — coached Pope for a spell at Team Bury and was instantly struck by his resilience.
Rather than feeling sorry for himself after the Ipswich rejection, Greygoose, who is a former professional goalkeeper with Crewe Alexandra, found someone that was hungry and determined to improve.
“This just goes to show that there is still life after being released by a pro club,” said Greygoose.
“And it is all down to Nick. Myself and Richard Wilkins coached him, but he worked his socks off.
“A lot of people that get released talk about what they could have been, but Nick got his head down and has gone and done it.
“There was a lot to work on when he first arrived but something seemed to click after a while and he went from there.
“He has this habit of keeping clean sheets wherever he has been, which is obviously a great thing as a goalkeeper.
“He also did not let mistakes play on his mind and that is perhaps the most important thing.
“If you dwell on a mistake as a goalkeeper you will make another.”
It remains to be seen how much of an impact Pope will make with the Three Lions, but if his ascent so far is anything to go by, nothing should be ruled out.
And that includes staking a claim for a place on the plane to the World Cup in Russia in June, although Pope, as you would expect for someone so grounded, straight-batted that question.
“I have only just broken into the Burnley team and on to the Premier League scene, so I have got to concentrate on the last eight games for my club,” said Pope, whose brother Josh made more than 500 appearances for Mildenhall before joining Soham in the summer.
“We are in a great position (7th) and performances for your club are what ultimately propels things internationally.
“Burnley has to be my main focus and then we will see what happens. I only have control on what I do over the next few days with England and then the remaining games with Burnley.”