Tom Heaton vs Nick Pope – and its consequences beyond Turf Moor

Words By Richard Jolly Illustration by Philippe Fenner
February 22, 2018
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Joe Hart’s calendar may have changed. The dates must remain the same, but different fixtures may be highlighted. Where once his attention this week would have been focused on the Champions League, either as participant or interested spectator eyeing future opponents, now the most meaningful midweek match for West Ham’s – and perhaps England’s – deposed No.1 took place with an official attendance of zero.

Burnley faced Blackpool in a behind-closed-doors friendly on Tuesday. A 1-1 draw marked the comeback of Tom Heaton, five months after he dislocated his shoulder against Crystal Palace. The knock-on effects could spread from east Lancashire to eastern Europe.

Gareth Southgate has blooded both Jack Butland and Jordan Pickford and kept faith with Hart thus far, but that was before the England manager’s difficult balancing act became tougher when Adrian supplanted the on-loan Manchester City man at the London Stadium. One possibility is that, when the season ends, Hart’s last competitive match will have been in January, when West Ham exited the FA Cup at Wigan. That ought to preclude him from being England’s first choice in Russia. Despite his experience, proven commitment to his country’s cause and capacity, in between chastening Euro 2016-style pratfalls, to excel in major matches, it should stop him being in squad altogether.

Fraser Forster’s similar fall from grace and tumble down the pecking order at another relegation-threatened club offered the possibility of a reprieve. Heaton’s renewed availability could change that. He was in the England squad on merit and, together with Pickford, one of the two best British goalkeepers in the Premier League last season.

Yet Southgate’s decision, and Hart’s fate, may rest with Sean Dyche. Heaton’s return to contention probably pits the Burnley manager’s loyalty against his loyalty, and he is a loyalist. Heaton was his first signing, the man he made captain, arguably the outstanding player of his reign at Turf Moor and a hugely popular character.

His previously unknown understudy Nick Pope, however, has been one of the three outstanding goalkeepers in the Premier League this season, the unlikely interloper in a select trio with David de Gea and Ederson. His save percentage of 77.2 puts him behind only the Manchester United man; indeed of those who have been regulars for most of the season, only the Spaniard has conceded fewer goals. He has also shown an ability to save penalties, something England goalkeepers have done too rarely at major tournaments. If England squad was picked purely on form, Pope would be in it.

In reality, he almost certainly won’t. But Heaton could be if Dyche, a meritocrat who has sometimes nonetheless kept players in the team for too long because of his innate preference for continuity, takes the harshest decision of the season and benches the in-form Pope in time for the skipper to get a run in the side. If Burnley are safe from relegation and West Ham are not, it is easier for Dyche to make a change than it is for David Moyes.

It is a choice with further consequences. Pope has been linked with Newcastle amid Rafa Benitez’s search for a long-term solution in goal (Martin Dubravka, the inspired debutant against Manchester United, is only on loan). His excellence should certainly attract offers. Burnley might appreciate a windfall; they wanted another centre-back in January and were quoted ludicrously inflated prices for Joe Worrall and Rob Holding, so it would help fund a purchase.

And Southgate may be best served by Dyche acting unfairly. Heaton travelled to Euro 2016, did not play a minute and continued reporting faithfully for international duty. If Pickford ought to be the first-choice goalkeeper, Heaton has the character to be a third choice and the least likely man in the squad to take the field. The more vocal and egotistical Hart, who has endeared himself to some and antagonised others with a forceful personality, might not. He is accustomed to being the main man. Now the keeper second in line for West Ham will be fortunate if he is deemed England’s third best. But if he is, it may be due to others’ misfortune or Dyche’s old-fashioned faith in unchanged teams.

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