For all the talk of Newcastle flooding the transfer market with oil money, their start to the summer window has been disappointingly sensible.
Eddie Howe’s first business was to buy Matt Target after borrowing the full-back through the second half of last season. His second signing will be Nick Pope, with the Burnley goalkeeper on Tyneside on Thursday to drop his trousers and cough for the Toon doctors.
The fee, whether it is £10million or £12million, represents a good deal for Newcastle. Actually, it’s a sodding bargain. Pope has a year left on his current contract at Burnley, but the Clarets have the option to extend those terms for an extra 12 months. That they aren’t demanding a higher fee – only last month it was reported they wanted £40million – highlights either Burnley’s generosity or their desperation. Draw your own conclusions.
Regardless, Newcastle must be delighted to seize upon what could turn out to be one of the deals of the summer. In Pope, Howe has landed an established England international, and the English stopper with the best saves percentage in the Premier League. In 2020/21, no one in the top flight saved a higher percentage of the shots they faced. For the last two seasons, Pope has conceded 4.9 and 4.4 goals fewer than xG suggests he ought to have done. Meanwhile, Newcastle have conceded 2.5 and 2.6 more than they really should.
That is not to say that Newcastle haven’t already got a good goalkeeper. Martin Dubravka is exactly that, but his form and fitness has been questioned over the last couple of campaigns. Howe will no doubt insist upon the new man’s unveiling that he now has two No.1s and genuine competition for the place between the St James’ sticks. But Pope will be going to Newcastle as first choice, and unless the 30-year-old does himself a mischief in the meantime, it will be him who takes the gloves when Nottingham Forest rock up on Tyneside on August 6.
That will have been important for Pope to establish before putting pen to paper as he has no time to waste. Moving to Newcastle offers him the platform to mount a serious challenge for England’s No.1 spot. In time for the World Cup if he’s quick.
Pope has eight international caps to his name, spread throughout each of the five years since his first call-up in 2018. He has always been one of Gareth Southgate’s trusted picks but consistently as the stand-in for Jordan Pickford. When there is talk of the Everton keeper being challenged for his international place, it is always Aaron Ramsdale named as the contender. Rarely, if ever, is it Pope.
The respective profiles of the three glovemen may go some way to explaining that. Pickford is the brash, all-action keeper who has been Southgate’s almost undisputed No.1 since he first won the battle for the gloves ahead of the 2018 World Cup. Ramsdale is a similarly big, eye-catching presence who was catapulted to prominence by his £30million move to Arsenal a year ago.
— EFC Statto (@EFC_Statto) June 14, 2022
Pope does things differently. Quietly, efficiently and with a humility that comes from playing in the top six tiers of the football pyramid, he’s kept Burnley’s goal for four of the last five seasons, his lost year coming after dislocating his shoulder when Sean Dyche’s side, very briefly, competed in Europe. He dominates his box with his actions rather than his personality. He’s always there when the Clarets need him; you might not notice him when they don’t. And that’s the Burnley way.
Perhaps Southgate has a particular penchant for the louder, attention-grabbing goalkeeping style, but from what we know of the England manager, that seems highly unlikely. The only other reason Pope could be below Pickford and Ramsdale in the reckoning is because the Everton and Arsenal No.1s have had plenty of opportunity to showcase their playmaker credentials.
We know for certain that Southgate wants to build from the back and for the last line of his defence to serve as the first line of his attack. At Burnley, for a long time under Dyche, all that linked the defence and attack was a single, direct pass. Sometimes you could barely call it that.
Burnley’s style saw Pope pinned as one of the Premier League stoppers who struggles with the ball at his feet. More accurately, we simply haven’t seen enough evidence to suggest he can be the passer Southgate needs.
Howe and the Newcastle recruitment staff have presumably done their homework and established that Pope can in fact prosper in possession. That more than anything else is what he has to prove straight away at St James’ Park if he has genuine ambitions of being England’s No.1.
It is not an unrealistic prospect. Pickford is undoubtedly in pole position to retain his England place after finishing a wretched season for Everton strongly. And though he has rarely, if ever, let Southgate down, we know the Toffees keeper is only ever a rush of blood away from calamity. When Ramsdale needed to push on after a bright start at Arsenal, he didn’t. The Arsenal keeper had two opportunities in England’s Molineux matches, but he finished the international break arguably in a weaker position than he began it.
If Southgate decides he wants a calmer presence behind an England defence that is twitchy enough without a high-strung stopper, Pope is now in the perfect position to prove himself as more than just a capable deputy.