The story so far: Nick Pope
Written by Tom Easterby
"I just went through a massive change and decided to leave all my friends and whatever else I built up over the years and just start again," Nick Pope told the i back in 2019. He was reflecting on a decision he made at 16 – a significant one in hindsight, and one which set him on a remarkable journey up the English football pyramid.
Pope, who became Newcastle United's second signing of the summer this week, was released by Ipswich Town during his time at King's School in Ely, Cambridgeshire. He left to go to West Suffolk College, whose partnership with Bury Town gave their students a grounding in the unforgiving confines of non-league.
"Being out of the academy system, I didn't really have to think about it," he explained to the Daily Mail five years ago. "I didn't have to worry about whether I was going to get the next contract or whether I would make it. In my head, it was over and I just started to enjoy my football again.
"I was leaving that system where it's very controlled and high pressure and to come out was actually a breath of fresh air. Don't get me wrong, I was devastated, but it gave me a jolt and forced a change in my life and football that I probably needed."
Pope – a former Ipswich season ticket-holder who looked up to Richard Wright and Kelvin Davis – excelled for the Blues as a teenager and represented an England Colleges side but the professional game felt distant. The plan had been to go to university, with a sports science degree at Nottingham Trent in the offing, until Charlton Athletic offered him a trial. He impressed and earned a contract with the Addicks, becoming part of the League One side's squad alongside future Magpies stopper Rob Elliot.
Pope during his loan spells at Aldershot Town and, inset, Bury
Full-time football was juggled with studies at Roehampton University but Pope's promise, which was recognised with a new two-year deal before the end of his first year at Charlton, saw him sent out to develop on loan at Harrow Borough, Welling United and Cambridge United before his parent club handed him a league debut in their 4-1 Championship win over Bristol City in May 2013.
Further loans followed, with Aldershot Town borrowing the youngster for a month later that year before a real EFL introduction at League Two sides York City (in 2013/14) and Bury (in 2015/16). He helped the Shakers win promotion from the fourth tier at the end of his half-season loan at Gigg Lane, returning to The Valley and establishing himself in the Championship with 28 outings the following campaign.
In the 2013/14 season, Pope spent two separate loan spells with York City in League Two
The Soham-born custodian's rise continued. In July 2016, after a breakneck first five years in the professional game, Burnley bought Pope and his Charlton teammate Jóhann Berg Gudmundsson. His first year at Turf Moor saw him provide back-up for the experienced Tom Heaton and Paul Robinson but in September 2017 Sean Dyche handed him his Premier League debut, just over six years on from his Bury Town beginnings.
Pope saving a penalty from Joselu at St. James' Park in January 2018
The 2017/18 campaign was Pope's real top-flight breakthrough. His impressive form across 38 games – in which he kept 13 clean sheets – earned him international recognition. Having been on the bench for the Three Lions' three previous friendlies, Pope was sent on as a substitute in England's World Cup warm-up win over Costa Rica at Elland Road in June 2018 and later named as part of Gareth Southgate's 23-man squad for that summer's World Cup in Russia, though he didn't feature in that memorable tournament.
"I thought of it as an opportunity to train with world class players every day for 40 days and take experiences from that, watching the top elite level games from that close," he told the i. "You look at how you prepare for games at that level as well and and different things that are done at international level and just take experiences from other players as well. If I wasn't there I would've been on holiday. What would you rather be doing?"
After their semi-final heartache at the hands of Croatia and a season marred by a shoulder injury, Pope was an ever-present throughout 2019/20. Another 15 shutouts saw him nominated for the Premier League's EA Sports Player of the Season award, only missing out on the Golden Glove prize on the final day, and secured him a place in the PFA Team of the Year.
A two-time winner of both the Clarets' Player of the Year award and the Players' Player of the Year gong, Pope leaves Burnley after 53 clean sheets in 155 appearances and as an England international with eight caps to his name. The 30-year-old joins a healthy stable of United goalkeepers to compete with and support Martin Dúbravka, Karl Darlow, Mark Gillespie, Dan Langley and Max Thompson at a time of great promise for his new club. It's been quite a ride.
"It's something that is exciting and you have to look forward to, in life and in football. How far can you take yourself and your career? How far can you and your teammates and your club go? It's really exciting," Pope told NUFC TV.
"I'm at an age now where I've got experience and I've had the career I've had but I don't really want to settle for what I've had, although I'm really proud of what it's taken to get here. I feel as a goalkeeper I'm not old old, so what I can do between now and the end of this contract and now and the end of my career is try to leave a good mark, say I've had a good career and won trophies and got into Europe. As a player, that's what you look for."