The story of Pope's rise from student milkman to England's World Cup squad after Ipswich release
PUBLISHED: 14:17 16 May 2018 | UPDATED: 12:01 18 May 2018
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A little over seven years ago, Nick Pope was a college student and a part-time milkman turning out in the Essex and Suffolk Border League after his dream of playing for Ipswich Town was ended. Now he is heading to the World Cup.
Being named in Gareth Southgate’s party for Russia is the latest high in a stunning eight months which has seen him make his Premier League debut for Burnley as recently as September, help the Clarets finish seventh in the Premier League to secure European football and earn a first England call-up for two friendlies in March.
He is yet to make his international debut and, in all likelyhood, will not see the field as he travels to this summer’s tournament behind both Jordan Pickford and Jack Butland, but to have made it onto the plane was well beyond even his wildest of dreams as recently as last summer.
To be playing professional football at all appeared to be a longshot when he was let go by boyhood club Ipswich at 16, with his dreams dashed and passion for the game severely dented.
As a young goalkeeper working his way through the Ipswich Town youth set-up, as part of an age-group also including Luke Hyam and Connor Wickham, Pope had dreamt of emulating his hero, Richard Wright. Now he will do something the former Blues No 1 never managed and represent his country on the biggest stage of all.
It would have been easy for Pope to give up on his dream but, after his love of football was reignited under the tutelage of Richard Wilkins at West Suffolk College, but the 26-year-old now admits his Ipswich release may well be the best thing that ever happened to him.
“Richard Wright was a hero and one of the first goalkeepers I watched when I got a season ticket,” Pope said.
“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.
“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.”
As is now well documented, that new path saw Pope enroll on a business marketing course at West Suffolk College in 2008 and fund his student lifestyle by jumping onto an electric milk float in the early hours and also work in retail, at next. Football took a back seat and he certainly wasn’t thinking about turning out for his country and going to a World Cup, with his time at college serving as planning for life after football rather than desperately searching for a route back into it.
But the college’s links with Bury Town and Wilkins’s support reignited his passion for the game and he soon caught the eye of League One side Charlton. From there the rest is history.
He has not forgotten his roots, with Pope and former mentor Wilkins still in regular contact and the goalkeeper thankful for all the support his former manager and college tutors provided him.
“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 because that enjoyment had been lost in the academy for me, so I wanted to try and get that back.
“It’s character building, 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.”
Another new experience could arrive in the coming weeks with a possible international debut as England take on Nigeria and Costa Rica in warm-up games at Wembley and Elland Road, before the serious business begins against Tunisia in Volgograd on June 18.
Whatever happens this summer, 2018 will be a year Pope never forgets.
Pope’s time at West Suffolk College in the words of those who helped him develop
Richard Wilkins, Needham Market manager, who worked with Pope at Bury Town and in his role in the sports academy at West Suffolk College, said: “It’s fantastic news for every young player who gets released at 16 and just shows if you keep working hard then people do take notice and dreams can come true.
“He was always a quiet lad but had a good sense of humour and was very focused.
“He worked very hard and sometimes you had to drag him off the training pitch. He had a fondness for trying overhead kicks in training which often resulted in him injuring himself or another player, so we had to cut that out.
“His kicking wasn’t the best when he first came here but we were able to work with him to improve that.”
Wilkins believes the loan spells Pope enjoyed at clubs such as Cambridge United and York City while at Charlton really helped his development.
“He played a lot of games in that time and I think that experience really helped him to push on,” he said.
“He’s got his chance with Burnley this season through [Tom] Heaton’s injury, which happens in football, and he’s taken it.
“Statistically, he’s the best English ‘keeper and only behind [David] De Gea in the Premier League this season.
“It would have been easy to take Joe Hart because of his experience but I think Gareth Southgate deserves a lot of credit for deciding to take him.”
Neil Reader, former sports academy manager at West Suffolk College, said: “He was always a popular kid.
“He was just himself, very laid back and I think that personality has helped him to cope with the pressure.
“As with all these things, there is an element of luck and the stars have certainly aligned for him this season but he’s managed to grasp the opportunity and that’s what he always did.
“His parents are lovely people and have kept him level headed throughout.”
Reader, who also managed Team Bury and lifted the Suffolk Senior Cup at Portman Road in 2010 with Pope in goal, added: “He was never the loudest in the dressing room and not the sort you would go to for a rousing speech.
“But you knew you stood a fighting chance with him on your side.”
Ross Wilding, former sports academy coach at West Suffolk College who is now youth development phase lead coach at Leyton Orient, said: “I think it’s been a long journey for him from when he was released by Ipswich at 16 to where he is now.
“But it’s testament to sticking to what you believe in and it’s great motivation for any young player released at that age.
“He could be a bit of a clown and a joker at times, but once he crossed that white line and the whistle went, his persona changed and he was very focused.
“The thing that always sticks out for me was that he hated conceding goals, even in a five-a-side.
“He had that desire to keep the ball out of the net and always became very annoyed with himself when he didn’t.”
Wilding, who still lectures at West Suffolk College part-time, says he believes that Pope would be able to cope with the pressure of playing for England in the tournament should the opportunity arrive.
“I’d like to think he’ll get some minutes in the friendlies leading up to the World Cup, which would help get some of those nerves out of the way,” he said.
“But I think he’s shown this season in the Premier League that he can cope with anything which is thrown at him.”
Jason Ling, travel and tourism course director at West Suffolk College, who taught Pope during his time on his business course, said: “I taught Nick a few marketing units while he was studying here.
“He was a conscientious, hard working student and was no bother.
“He was still very focused on his football and I think probably business was a back-up plan for him because he so wanted to make it as a professional footballer.
“The students used to have to sign front sheets to say the work they had done was their own and I always remember him saying to me ‘keep that sir because it could be worth a bit one day’. I’m not sure if his work is still in storage…
“He had a cheeky side to him as a lot of the lads do but was professional at the same time and always got his work in on time.”