- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Nick Pope took to Twitter after Burnley’s goalkeeper was selected by England for the first time last week.

“Congratulations to my namesake, the ‘other’ Nick Pope, who just got his first England football call-up,” said the man who once ran the British government’s UFO project. “Stand by for more confusion as I get media questions about defending against penalties, while he gets ones about the Pentagon’s UFO program!”

One thing’s for sure, Nick Pope the soccer player has been out of this world this season.

And, quite unbelievably, he might yet end it as England’s goalkeeper for the World Cup, which would mark a stunning rise to stardom for a player who was turning out for Bury in the fourth tier of the English game only two years ago.

Even last season, his first at Burnley, he played just four games - all of them coming in domestic cup competitions - as he was forced to settle for life as a back-up to Tom Heaton in the Premier League.

What would end up being a career-changing turn of events happened in September last year, when Heaton sustained a dislocated shoulder during the first half of Burnley’s match against Crystal Palace.

Pope, lanky and raw, came on as the replacement and produced a series of fine saves to secure Burnley a 1-0 win at Turf Moor, a result that ultimately cost then-Palace manager Frank De Boer his job.

The 25-year-old Pope hasn’t looked back, his statistics since making him arguably the best goalkeeper in England’s top division this season except for maybe Manchester United’s David De Gea.

He has stopped 80.2 percent of the shots on target that he has faced, only marginally less than De Gea and comfortably the best of the eight playing English goalkeepers in the Premier League. He has not made a single error leading to a goal. And he has helped Burnley keep 10 clean sheets, a large contributing factor to the team’s best season since the 1970s.

It was, therefore, no surprise when England coach Gareth Southgate chose to call up Pope to the squad for upcoming friendlies against the Netherlands and Italy. And don’t think this will be just a learning experience for him, either.

With Southgate acknowledging the No. 1 jersey is “up for grabs” ahead of the tournament in Russia, Pope has a genuine chance of jumping to the top of the line of goalkeepers.

“It’s a day I’d never thought I’d see come,” Pope said Tuesday after his first training session with England.

After all, from signing for third-tier Charlton in 2011, he had six spells out on loan - four of them in non-league football with Harrow Borough, Welling United, Cambridge United and Aldershot.

“I went through the leagues, some cold, dark (days) … It’s a level, this national team, that you think is too far away almost. I feel like I’ve put in some hard yards to prove myself at those levels to try to get to this level. I don’t think it’s a fluke to get called up to the England squad.”

Polite and endearing, there was a bullishness to Pope when he was asked if he could be England’s starting goalkeeper in Russia.

“Come the summer, there’s got to be one No. 1. There’s eight games left of the Premier League season and it’s every man for himself,” Pope said.

“If I wasn’t in this squad, then a shot at the World Cup was probably an outsider,” he added. “The fact I’m here, I’ve got to prove myself at this level. I’ve come here to enjoy it but show what I’m about. I want to play for England.”

Southgate is clearly unsure about his goalkeeper situation. Pope was one of four called up for England’s final friendlies before Southgate announces his 23-man World Cup squad, the others being Joe Hart, Jack Butland and Jordan Pickford.

Hart has long been first choice for England but was dumped by Manchester City early in the 2016-17 season and has barely played since November on loan at West Ham.

Butland and Pickford have been playing for struggling teams in Stoke and Everton, making mistakes in recent matches.

Pope, quite clearly, is the most in-form goalkeeper of the quartet.

“In football, things change so quickly,” Pope said. “Things are rarely set in stone … Obviously there’s work to do and I think every minute will count.”


Steve Douglas is at www.twitter.com/sdouglas80

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