England and Burnley goalkeeper Nick Pope ready for the Premier League's return
When former Bury Town goalkeeper Nick Pope turned professional, he assumed his days of turning up to training and matches in his kit were over.
Yet these are unprecedented times – and Premier League football is not immune.
England’s top flight got under way yesterday evening courtesy of behind-closed-doors fixtures in Birmingham and Manchester, with Wicken-raised Pope set to get his first taste of the ‘new normal’ when his Burnley side travel to Manchester City on Monday (8pm).
It is likely to take a bit of getting used to, as have training sessions, where new health measures have made club’s bases very different places in recent weeks.
England international Pope explained: “It is very different. Every morning we get our temperatures taken and if there are any red flags the doctor assesses you and action is taken from there.
“There is no use of the dressing room and if we need the physio, they are in gloves, mask and PPE. We have to wear gloves and a mask as well.
“There is distancing enforced in the gym and as soon as the drills are finished, everyone has to keep their distance.
“Once we are done it is pretty much straight home and a lot of the time we are travelling in our kit – it is a bit like Sunday League in that respect.”
It was exactly 100 days from when Covid-19 ground the Premier League to a halt and the action restarting with Sheffield United’s trip to Aston Villa on Wednesday.
Its absence will have left a hole in a lot of people’s lives, but it is hoped the fact all remaining 92 fixtures are being screened live on television – including several shown on free to air channels – will help to lift spirits.
“That is one of the reasons players were so keen to get back,” said Pope, who played for Bury's rivals Soham Town Rangers at youth level.
“People have been in isolation for a long time, rarely leaving their houses and that is tough. Hopefully the Premier League coming back will help.
“The Euros should be on at the moment as well, so this should fill that hole.
“The run-in is the most exciting part of the season and the fact that people will get to watch every game is good. It won’t be the same as fans being at games, but it is better than nothing.
“Some of the games being free to air is also a real big plus to have come from this.”
Much has been made of the impact the absence of a crowd is going to have on matches over the coming weeks.
In the Bundesliga – Germany’s top flight – results since they restarted last month suggest that it has had a big impact on hosting sides, with the first 56 matches in empty stadiums producing only 12 home wins.
Pope’s Burnley tend to be a tough nut to crack at their Turf Moor base, and seven of their 11 wins this term have come on home soil.
However, with the situation out of anyone’s control, the 28-year-old feels there is no point dwelling on any potential negatives.
“It’s the same for everyone,” added the former West Suffolk College pupil.
“You can see what has happened in Germany, but most sides have nine games left, so it should cancel itself out with the number of home and away matches remaining.
“We’ve got to go to the Etihad and Anfield, and things may be different with no crowds at those games.
“It is great being at home when the supporters are with you, but at the same time when you are away and their crowd is on the up, it can feel like the pressure is never ending.
“Ultimately this is the only option so it is not worth thinking about. If we start worrying about things we cannot control, that is just wasting energy.”
The Clarets currently occupy 10th place and are eyeing a second top half finish in three seasons.
Pope, meanwhile, is currently joint top of the Golden Glove standings with 11 clean sheets – level with Sheffield United's Dean Henderson. All of which means there is still plenty left to play for.
“If we can pick up some positive results in the first three or four, that should give us a decent platform to kick on and finish in the top half,” said Pope.
“And if we do that, then you never know with the Golden Glove.
“It is a massive achievement for us as a defensive unit to have already got 11 clean sheets at this stage of a season.
“If we could end up getting 13, 14 or 15, that would be an incredible effort during a 38-game season. And if that is enough to win it, that would be brilliant.”
While Pope is gearing up for the Premier League’s return, he still keeps a keen eye on events in non-league.
His performances for Bury earned him his big break into the professional game, while he has also had loan stints with the likes of Welling United and Harrow Borough.
With no return date at present, it is currently an uncertain time for all clubs in the lower reaches, and Pope is keen to see a resolution as soon as possible.
“It’s taking a bit of time and it does seem football is starting at the top and working slowly down from there,” said the two-capped international.
“It seems like League One and League Two have been sorted and now they are talking about the Conference. Hopefully something is sorted even lower down soon.
“I still speak to people at Bury and know some of the lads at the likes of Needham Market and Lowestoft.
“The main thing is it needs to be safe, but if the infection rate continues to drop, hopefully things like social distancing at non-league grounds will not be a problem. It would be great to see it back.”
More by this authorLiam Apicella
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