Of all the hundreds of millions of pounds the new owners have invested in Newcastle’s squad since taking over, the £10m they spent on Nick Pope may prove to be the shrewdest acquisition of them all.
The goalkeeper, who arrived from Burnley over the summer, is slowly getting used to life in the spotlight of this football-obsessed city. It’s taken him far less time to establish himself as Eddie Howe’s first choice and a fans’ favourite – three games into the league season he’s been one of Newcastle’s stand-out performers and can already boast his own song.
He knew from the 24 hours he spent in Newcastle when he signed and had his medical, that the club and its following was unique; he found out just how different a few weeks ago. The squad had landed ahead of the match against Brighton and Pope’s phone was in overdrive.
What had started as a simple “tomato or gherkin” question from a well-known burger chain had seen Nick Pope go global all thanks to the online account Toon Polls, who were not keen on either so suggested their goalkeeper was a far better option. Before long so too did millions of others and Pope was trending number one in the UK and 10th in the world.
“It was a strange scenario to land to. I looked at my phone and had to blink a couple of times and pinch myself,” he tells Sky Sports. “I thought: What is going on? What is happening? My phone didn’t stop vibrating. I am not used to it, not many people are.“A few text messages were saying: What is going on? Which is a bit of a worry. I don’t know how many messages, it was constant. Something I am not used to and very funny when I realised what was happening and saw some of the images and then the boys started taking the mickey.”
Who gave him the hardest time? “They were able to spread it out – there was so much worldwide. Every time I walked round the corner there was someone else. If it was one of the other lads I would do the same.”
Pope took it all in his stride with an impressive and imposing display, managing to keep a clean sheet the next day.
Nick Pope in Arizona was another beneficiary of the publicity created by Toon Polls – a UFO expert who was keen to get involved and it’s not the first time the paths of these two Nicks have crossed: “We had a bit of conflict a few years ago when something happened, I think he was getting hounded by opposition football fans so I had to tell people it wasn’t me. You never know, one day I might need some info on UFOs and at least I have a contact.”
“Out of interest: Tomato or gherkin?” I ask. It was, after all, the question that started this. “Neither so I guess I was the right answer!” he jokes.
A week later there were more headlines, not the ones you might expect when you concede three goals in an afternoon. “Incredible” was how Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola described Pope’s performance as Newcastle drew 3-3 with the Premier League champions.
“Three is quite a low number for me against those boys,” Pope jokes. “They are a great side – one of the best if not the best [in the world] and as a goalkeeper you go to bed the night before and you know you are going to be busy the next day. That’s why you train hard all week to be ready for moments like that and I was happy to keep a couple out.
“You know you have done something right when he [Guardiola] says that – a great manager who has put together that team so to get in the way and stop them winning is a good feeling.”
Guardiola wasn’t the only one to take note, Howe has backed Pope to become England’s first-choice goalkeeper. Standing in his way, Pope is quick to point out, is Jordan Pickford and a host of other good young talent.
“Aaron Ramsdale has done very well at Arsenal, Sam Johnstone is back in the Premier League, Dean Henderson is playing at [Nottingham] Forest now so there is real competition for the three spots,” says Pope.
“It is still early in the season and obviously Jordan has been No 1 ever since I have been in the squad and has performed tremendously well for England. Club form is the one that will take you to a World Cup which is all my aims and ambitions.”
Pope, who has been capped seven times for his country, wouldn’t be drawn on his point of difference with the other young crop but he is determined to do his very best to make Gareth Southgate’s life difficult.
It’s the first time that Pope has spoken since his move from Burnley following the club’s relegation from the Premier League last season. It’s the second time the goalkeeper has experienced the drop, the first was with Charlton.
“It’s never an easy thing to go through especially in the manner we did at Burnley – it went to the last day and not being in it but then being put back in,” he says. “It was difficult and it was the end of my time there and I didn’t really get to see the boys – we were part of a team that has been together a long time and it’s now all broken up, the end of an era.
“When I heard about the interest here I was over the moon, I was massively excited and it is sort of a reset you have to prove yourself again. I want to do that and take myself to the next level.”
There’s a new voice in Newcastle manager Howe but there are also a number of similarities too with his old boss at Burnley Sean Dyche.
“I think both have core beliefs and non-negotiables – and things that are massively important in a team environment – they are very much team first,” he says. “I think that is something that carries through, differences too though. It’s been a nice change for myself. I had been at Burnley for six years and it has been a really stimulating few months for myself with a new coaching staff and new manager.”
We talk on a day that Newcastle have spent big on Alexander Isak. The club have big Premier League ambitions and Pope will be integral to fulfilling those.
There’s a World Cup on the horizon and every chance Pope could make it. It’s all so different to the story that might have been told when Pope was released from Ipswich aged 16 and looking at alternative careers.
“I’ve always kept my feet on the ground and reached for the stars, that has carried me well so far,” he claims. “When I made my debut in the Premier League, I loved the challenge to prove myself but to enjoy it – that’s why you play football as a boy, why you play at that level to play on the nice pitches with the big crowds.
“That’s the mindset I have for myself that has carried me through. Being pushed out of the academy system and forging a different path into the Premier League and professional football means I will always have gratitude towards my journey and where I am today.” It might have been bumpy along the way but this journey you suspect could have a way to travel yet.