It seems like a rarity nowadays that a young football player goes onto feature for their parent football club once they have completed numerous loan spells in the lower reaches of English football.
But Charlton Athletic goalkeeper Nick Pope has defied all of those odds to be at the forefront, or perhaps the last line of defence shall we say, of the Addicks’ mission to return to the Premier League after a nine-year absence.
The 23-year-old, who has been at The Valley since 2011, enjoyed previous loan stints at non-leagues outfits such as Harrow Borough and Welling United, plus spells at lower Football League clubs York City and Bury.
At Gigg Lane, the highly-rated ‘keeper reached a milestone of 50 professional games, in which he conceded just 35 times and kept an incredible 27 clean sheets – more than England goalies Fraser Forster, Joe Hart, Robert Green, Ben Foster and Jack Butland did at the same stage of their careers.
Now back in the Charlton XI due to Stephen Henderson suffering an injury, Pope starred in the club’s opening impressive 2-0 win over recently relegated Queens Park Rangers last month.
With Guy Luzon’s side enjoying a decent start, with eight points from their opening five league games, Shoot spoke exclusively to the talented shot-stopper about his Addicks future, Football League ‘journeyman’ trait and Charlton’s top-flight ambition.
You have been with Charlton since 2011, but have since been loaned out to six different clubs. Are you hoping this season will be your breakthrough year?
“Yeah hopefully. The plan is for me to play as many first-team games as I can. I have been a bit of a journeyman through the years, as you can see. But the aim is to try and play as many Championship games at Charlton and see how it goes. Obviously me and Henderson have a great working relationship, you have to as goalkeepers. You work next to each other every day and it is good to have competition as it keeps you on your toes. It is good to have ‘Hendo’ around.”
There has been a big change in terms of your personal coaching staff at Charlton over the summer. Explain to us a little bit about what happened.
“We had Ben Roberts leave and go to Brighton. Then we had Lee Turner come down from Bolton. But it has been good so far and I have enjoyed working with him. When I have been out on loan, I have been lucky enough to work with some great goalkeeping coaches as well. At York, I had Andy Collett who did some great stuff. That was my first loan move in the Football League, so that was really important. Then at Bury last year, I had Ian Willcock who was also great with me and who I really enjoyed working with. I have been really lucky to have great goalkeeping coaches that have helped me build my career and skills.”
You starred in Charlton’s impressive opening day 2-0 win over recently relegated Queens Park Rangers. How important was it to get off to a good start to the new season?
“Yeah, definitely. I think before the season, there are a lot of clubs in every league thinking, “How are we going to do? How is it going to go?” But in the build-up to that first week and throughout pre-season, no one really knows how it is going to pan out. So to get off the mark with a 2-0 win over QPR was a great boost for everyone.”
Which teams are you expecting to be challenging for promotion this year?
“I think there are a few teams. Obviously Ipswich are up there at the minute. They did well last year and Middlesbrough have spent some money. Derby looked good when we played them, so that was a good point for us because they’ll be up there too.”
You made your professional first-team debut at The Valley back in May 2013, replacing David Button against Bristol City. Can you recall your thoughts from that moment?
“Well it is was going into the final 20 minutes of the game and I had actually just came back off loan from Cambridge United. I wasn’t really thinking that I was going to play, because there was only 20 or 25 minutes left. But we were 2-0 up and then they scored a goal. David managed to save a goal, but I think he injured his ribs or abdomen. Then he took a goal kick and it really looked like he was struggling. So it happened really quickly actually! To come on in that sort of game; where there isn’t any pressure, we were mid-table and Bristol City were already relegated, it was great for me.”
Charlton finished 12th last season in the Championship, midway between the play-offs and the bottom three. How far can the club progress this campaign?
“I think that is to be determined. Obviously we have got our own objectives and goals at the club that we want to achieve. I think that we have started this season in a way where they are realistic and there is something that we can really go for and improve on last year.”
Are you capable of pushing for promotion?
“Every team in the Championship, or at least 20 of the teams, would say that. I think Charlton definitely falls under that category. We have just got to keep on going game by game and just see how it goes.”
Last season you kept 15 clean sheets in 31 appearances in all competitions. What is your personal goal this season?
“Obviously I think goalkeepers do look at clean sheets, just like strikers look for goals, so that is something that I have looked to do when I have been out on loan. If you have a clean sheet then that is the most you can do as a goalkeeper to affect the game. I have not really set a target for clean sheets, I will just take one game at a time and won’t get too far ahead of myself and go onto the next one.”
Twenty-two of those appearances came on loan at Bury after joining the Shakers back in January. You helped the club finish third in League Two on the final day of the season, gaining automatic promotion into League One. What was that day like?
“Great. On a day like that when we didn’t know the Southend score and we were actually relying on Morecambe to get us a result. There was an element of the unknown about the game. We had lost to Southend about 10 days previously on a Tuesday night and it put them ahead of us on points. Then Wycombe were ahead of us at that stage as well. So with two weeks left of the season, we had two teams ahead of us for third, so it wasn’t really very likely. But we just said at that point, “We have got to take it to the last game. Funny things can happen”. Both teams had difficult fixtures and pressure does funny things.
“So we took it to the last game. We went ahead of Wycombe and knew against Tranmere, if we got a win, there was every chance we could do it. It was just an unbelievable day! Every time Morecambe scored there was a song, chant or cheer. You could feel the atmosphere. It was amazing. In the second-half, the 2,000 Bury fans behind that goal were just sucking it in and sucking it in. Then we eventually got the goal. It was just bedlam!”
Guy Luzon was appointed manager back in January following Bob Peeters’ dismissal at The Valley. Were you shocked by the Belgian’s sacking in the New Year? Plus, what have you made of Luzon’s impact at the club so far?
“I think at that stage, although I was on loan at Bury, I think we were 14 games without a win. Managers are turned over quickly these days; it seems to be a trend in modern football. It is a results business and managers seem to come in and out quicker than ever nowadays. So I don’t know whether it was a surprise or a shock because that is just football nowadays.
“Obviously Guy’s been great. Towards the end of last season, I didn’t see much from inside the building. But from the outside, results have picked up and got better. Obviously the start of this season, it has been the same sort of thing, and by working with him through the whole of pre-season and the start of this, I have been really impressed and really enjoyed it.”
The club have brought in seven new players over the summer. However, Joe Gomez was the most notable transfer involving Charlton this summer, joining Liverpool for £3.5m. How do you think he will fare in the Premier League?
“He is 18 and he has already started the first lot of games. That in itself is an unbelievable achievement to do that as an 18-year-old. If I were to play two Premier League games in my career, I think that is an amazing achievement. For him to do that as an 18-year-old is special. He is a special player and I think he will go onto to play for England.
“I was lucky enough to play with him last year and see what he was about. That was the first real time I had because he was always with the Under-18s. So to do that last year and to play with him and realise just how good he was, I have real high hopes for him.”
Key midfielders Johann Berg Gudmundsson and Jordan Cousins penned new deals at the club this summer. How influential are they?
“Yeah, massive players and it is great to see some of your key or best players sign up for another four years. It is a statement of intent from the club and obviously from the players who are happy to stay. It was great news for fans, players and everyone. I think that has helped to our start to the season. It is a bit of stabilisation, rather than turning over 12 to 13 players every year. So it was great news and I think it has helped us a lot.”
The last time Charlton were in the English top flight was back in 2007. Do you believe the club still has what it takes to return to those Premier League days?
“Yeah I think that is the ambition of the club, the owner and obviously the players. That is the dream when you’re a Championship player. You always want better and always want more. Obviously we are one league away, one season. That is all it is. It is just whether we can do it.”