THE manager who gave Nick Pope his debut in men’s football has recalled how he was almost inconsolable and what football meant to him after conceding a late winner in his first game.
Former Suffolk FA Under-18 goalkeeper Pope is poised to complete a meteoric rise from the seventh tier of non-league football to full England international.
He is in line to make his England debut against either Holland at the Amsterdam Arena on Friday evening or versus Italy at Wembley on Tuesday night.
The 25-year-old, who has been called up to the England squad after impressing for Burnley in the Premier League this season, was released by Ipswich Town as a 16-year-old.
It was then that the Soham-born goalkeeper opted to continue his education at West Suffolk College in Bury St Edmunds.
Andy Gould, who gave Pope his senior debut while he was manager of Team Bury, said Neil Reader was instrumental in getting him to join the college.
It was while there that Pope went on to play a combined total of around 150 times for Bury Town Under-18s, Team Bury and Bury Town over the next three years.
This included keeping goal in Team Bury’s 2-0 victory over Capel Plough in the Suffolk Senior Cup Final at Portman Road in the 2009-10 season.
Pope also made 12 appearances for the Suffolk FA Under-18 side under Gould across the 2008-09 and 2009-10 campaigns.
Gould recalled the day that Pope made his debut for Team Bury on the opening day of the season in the Essex & Suffolk Border League Premier Division.
He said: “His first game in men’s football was away to Little Oakley on a warm August afternoon.
“We lost 1-0 and he was really disappointed with himself for conceding the winning goal in the last five minutes when the ball rebounded off his chest and a forward scored from close range.
“He was a shy lad and, although not close to tears, he was almost inconsolable. He was beating himself up after the game, and you could tell from that what it meant to him.”
Gould said that playing in the Border League was a good breeding ground for Pope and his fellow talented crop of youngsters.
He said: “It got those lads out of their comfort zone by playing in a different geographical area. The Border League was an unforgiving arena, especially for a goalkeeper.
“The opposition were not slow to impose themselves on a young team, but he would not only dominate his six-yard box but also come for crosses in the penalty area and would come for the right balls.
“He was the best over-his-head keeper I have seen at the age of 16.”
Gould was keen to emphasise that he only played a small part in Pope’s development through his part-time role with the Bury Town and West Suffolk College set up.
“Both West Suffolk College and Bury Town played a prominent role through the partnership that still exists between them.
“The likes of Richard Wilkins, Ross Wilding and Michael Steward deserve great credit for his development.
“He literally couldn’t kick the ball when he arrived – he had to get other players to take goal kicks – but they spent a lot of time teaching him how to kick the ball.
“It has also been great to see his physical development – he was 5ft 9inches when he arrived at the college aged 16, and he now stands 6ft, 3inches!
“But he always had great hands. I remember him playing for Suffolk against Huntingdonshire in an FA County Youth Cup tie on a 3G pitch at St Neots.
“That was a difficult game in terms of the conditions as there were not many 3G pitches around at the time, but he produced an assured performance which exuded confidence and impacted on the rest of the team and enabled us to get a positive result.”
Gould continued: “The very fact he is where he is now is testament to the guidance and advice he got while at the college and the fact that he was willing to take it on board.”
Pope was signed by Charlton Athletic in 2011 after he was scouted while playing for Bury Town, and had loan spells at Harrow Borough, Welling United (twice), Cambridge United, Aldershot Town, York City (twice) and Bury.
He was signed by newly-promoted Burnley in July 2016 for an undisclosed fee and made his first-team debut when regular keeper Tom Heaton was injured against Crystal Palace last September. Pope is pictured above. Photograph courtesy of Burnley FC.
Gould added: “He still keeps in regular touch – I saw him only a few weeks ago outside the ground at Turf Moor when Burnley played Manchester United – and is still a very humble and grounded lad.”