England keeper Pope dreamed of emulating Richard Wright at Ipswich... but his release has proved a blessing
- Credit: PA
Being released by his beloved Ipswich Town as a 16-year-old has turned out to be the best thing that could have happened to new England goalkeeper Nick Pope
As a boyhood Blues fan and a Portman Road season ticket holder, the now 25-year-old had dreamed of emulating hero Richard Wright, but had those aspirations dashed in 2008 when he was called in and told he had not made the grade and was being cut loose.
It was a devastating blow but far from a fatal one, as Pope rebuilt his career in non-league football before rising up the pyramid and taking his place in the England squad for upcoming games against Holland and Italy.
The Burnley goalkeeper could make his international bow in Amsterdam tomorrow night and has a genuine shot at securing a place at this summer’s World Cup but, flash back eight years, such prospects seemed unthinkable.
“I was with Ipswich from the age of 10, in the same age group as Luke Hyam and a year ahead of Connor Wickham,” Pope said.
“Richard Wright was a hero and one of the first goalkeepers I watched when I got a season ticket. Ipswich were the team I supported so to be told that you weren’t wanted and not good enough to be there is, for a 16-year-old, the biggest disappointment of your life.
“That’s a lot to take after committing your life to training and playing games. To be told it’s over was very, very disappointing so it was a definite low point for me.
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“I wasn’t good enough, really, and I would probably agree with them because I wasn’t good enough at that time to earn a scholarship. You had to be one of the better players in the team and pulling your weight. I wasn’t really, so it was justified, and now it’s turned out to be the best thing that’s ever happened to me and I have no regrets at all.
“You have to look forward after that and the best thing to do is move on and find a new path.”
That new path took Pope to West Suffolk College and a link up with non-league side Bury Town, where he ultimately earned a move to League One Charlton.
From there he earned a move to the Premier League with Burnley last summer, where an injury to Tom Heaton gave Pope his first top-tier chance in a career that could reach new heights this evening.
POPE’S JOURNEY FROM IPSWICH TO ENGLAND... VIA WORKING AS A MILKMAN AND PLAYING FOR BURY TOWN
Making his England debut and earning a place at the World Cup was a long way from Nick Pope’s mind as the teenager hauled himself out of bed for his 4am milk rounds in Soham.
Having been released by Ipswich Town at 16, the young goalkeeper had started a business marketing course at West Suffolk College in 2008 and, like so many teenagers, took on part-time work to fund an independent lifestyle.
For Pope that meant jumping onto an electric milk float in the early hours and also working in retail, at Next, with football taking a back seat following the disappointment of being let go by his boyhood club.
He certainly wasn’t thinking about turning out for his country and potentially going to a World Cup, but that is exactly the position the 25-year-old Burnley goalkeeper finds himself in now.
His remarkable rise makes him the poster boy for not giving up on your dreams given, following his release from Ipswich, the next stop on his football journey was with Bury Town reserves (Team Bury) and games in the Essex and Suffolk Border League.
Once at Ram Meadow as part of the club’s link-up with the college, he began to enjoy the game again and made rapid strides under the tutelage of manager Richard Wilkins. He then caught the eye of League One Charlton in 2011, battling through a succession of loans to earn a first-team place and then securing a move to the Premier League with Burnley last summer.
“Even six months ago, before I played my first game for Burnley, to be in this position was unthinkable really,” Pope said, before flying with the England team to Amsterdam yesterday ahead of tonight’s game with Holland.
“Even at Christmas when I’d played 10 games it wasn’t something that was on my mind. It’s grown over the last few weeks really.
“I’m over the moon to be here now and it’s something I want to make the most of and enjoy because that’s what’s got me back into football really – the enjoyment.
“Hopefully I can make it to the World Cup but that’s still a long way away. It’s been an unbelievable year for me and, whatever happens now it still will be.
“But you still want to kick on and grow, you can’t rest on your laurels and you just have to keep going and concentrate on what’s got me this far.”
Pope’s journey to this point is certainly a unique one, with his stint as a milkman and a return to education more a plan for life after football, rather than a desperate search for a route back into it.
“When you’re at college you’re not on the 9-5 every day so you get spare mornings or a few hours here and there, so you have time to earn some money just to pay for yourself and got out and do your own thing,” he said.
“You get to that age where you have to earn your way and you can’t rely on the bank of mum and dad anymore so that’s what the milk round was for me.
“I wasn’t really thinking about playing football too much at that stage, but after two years of college there were rumours of trials and things like that but it never happened and I thought that was it.
“I then went on trial at Charlton in the April of my last year at college and that’s where it all kicked off from.”
His route to The Valley was as far away from the bright lights of the Premier League as you can get in football and, while Pope admits he “played in some cold, dark leagues” during his time with a young Bury reserves side, he wouldn’t change his route to the top for anything.
“Playing for Bury and Wilks (Richard Wilkins) was massive, they sold it to me and then looked after me for the three years,” Pope said.
“When I walked in the door there I didn’t know any of the people or any of the other students, but that was something I needed and it breathed new air into me really.
“I just wanted to get back into enjoying football to be honest because that enjoyment had been lost in the academy for me, so I wanted to try and get that back.
“It’s character building I think. It’s a welcome to men’s football, although it can be a bit of a shock, but it’s all great experience.
“You have to stick together, know you are in a bit of a fight sometimes and stick up for yourself. It was interesting to say the least but a great grounding, a great leap out of academy football and something new.
“The courses I took were working towards an end goal, a job and a future and I finished that all before I went to Charlton so it all concluded well.”
While Pope may be more prepared than most for life after football, his story in the game is far from over.
Another chapter is set to be written over the coming days as he prepares for a debut either against Holland or Italy next Tuesday and then maybe, just maybe, he could force his way onto the plane for this summer’s World Cup in Russia.