Cast your mind back to May 2018. A month of spontaneous renditions of ‘Three Lions’ in sun-soaked beer gardens across the country, is still very much a pipedream.
Gareth Southgate has just named his preliminary squad for the World Cup, which includes two goalkeeper teammates, from of all clubs, Burnley.
Nick Pope was on the plane to Russia, with Tom Heaton on standby list, gunning to do what Pope did to him and take the number one spot from him.
Even at elite level football it is unusual for a club to boast keepers’ of international class, so just how did the humble Lancashire club, with just one appearance in European competition, produce two of the best stoppers in the country?
They started from very different footballing backgrounds, with Heaton spending most of his youth career in Manchester United’s setup and remained at the club until the age of twenty-four. The older of the two aforementioned turned down a new deal at Old Trafford in pursuit of first team football, joining Cardiff City for whom he had previously spent a period on loan.
Pope’s journey into professional football was significantly turbulent in comparison. Released at the age of sixteen from his boyhood club, Ipswich Town, the future England international joined Suffolk minnows Bury Town and spent three years at the non-league club before his big move to Charlton in 2011.
Charlton also paid for Pope to take a degree in sports science at the University of Roehampton that he had planned to take whilst at the non-league outfit. His future teammate Heaton had no such worries and spent his formative professional years on loan at Swindon, Cardiff, QPR and Rochdale.
Pope would not join Burnley until 2016, three years after his future mentor. Heaton who had featured in Cardiff’s heroic run to the League Cup Final in 2012 (in which he saved a penalty in the shoot-out loss to Liverpool) and was then relegated with Bristol City the following season, was Sean Dyche’s first signing as Burnley manager in 2013.
Heaton’s inaugural season at Turf Moor would be a momentous one as Burnley secured promotion to the Premier League. Having been part of the worst defence in the Championship the previous season, Manchester United apprentice could brag the best clean sheet and defensive record in the division.
Heaton played every single minute of Burnley’s Premier League campaign and was named captain for the 2015/16 Championship season after they bounced back straight away from relegation the previous season.
While all this was happening, Tom Pope was finding his feet in the professional game, with a number of loan moves in his first four seasons at the club, but finally established himself as somewhat of a regular in the first team, making twenty-four appearances at the back-end of his final season at The Valley.
In 2016, as Burnley were gearing up for another run at the big time, the young prospect was signed from Charlton to act as understudy to Tom Heaton.
That summer, Heaton was called up to the England squad for the Euro 2016 and made his international debut the month before. It seemed like he was the perfect mentor for to Pope, and that turned out to be true.
Pope was resigned to a handful of cup starts in his first season, as Heaton played every minute of the Premier League season yet again.
However, after suffering a dislocated shoulder in a game against Palace in September 2017, Heaton would miss the majority of the season and would lose his place between the sticks to his future international counterpart, even once he regained fitness.
Burnley finished 7th in 2018/19 in a historic season in which they qualified for the Europa League and Pope’s integral contribution earned him a place in Gareth Southgate’s England squad for the 2018 World Cup.
Heaton, who had 2 years previously been on the plane to France for the European Championships, had to make do with a place on the stand-by list.
Unfortunately, the two would seldom lock horns again. Nick Pope, suffering an injury in Burnley’s Europa League Qualifier with Aberdeen, was ruled out for 6 Months and wouldn’t make a single Premier League appearance.
Surprisingly, Dyche brought another England international into the fold, in the form of Joe Hart.
Heaton would regain the number one spot from Joe Hart in the second half of the 2018/19 season, but a move to newly-promoted Aston Villa in pre-season means that with Pope’s return to full fitness, for the foreseeable future Heaton and Pope will battle only for a place in the England squad.