Newcastle United’s new era of riches under their Saudi Arabian owners has brought fresh ambition and big spending – but the £10m handed over to Burnley for Nick Pope looks like a snip.
Bigger money may have been spent elsewhere but few signings anywhere are giving better value for money than the 30-year-old England keeper and he proved more than his worth as Newcastle moved closer to the major trophy that has eluded them since 1969.
History weighs heavily on Newcastle and their fanatical support and it has been joined by huge expectation since Mike Ashley sold up. Now they will be firm favourites to reach the Carabao Cup final after Joelinton’s second-half goal gave them a narrow semi-final first leg victory at Southampton.
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It has been a long, agonising wait since that Inter Cities’ Fairs Cup win, but hopes are rising that the long, barren years may finally coming to an end judging by the Toon Army’s wild scenes of celebration at the final whistle.
And at the heart of it all was the magnificent Pope and a mean-spirited defence that refuses to yield, providing a rock-solid foundation for manager Eddie Howe’s Newcastle rebuild.
Pope’s shutout at Southampton, in which he made two crucial saves from substitute Che Adams with the match scoreless, means he now has a remarkable record of 10 successive clean sheets in all competitions. According to Opta stats going back to August 2012, this makes him the first goalkeeper with a Premier League side to achieve such a feat.
He has kept 16 clean sheets in 24 games this season, a vastly superior ratio to anyone else, with Manchester United’s David de Gea ranked second with 12 from 27 games.
Pope gives off an air of confidence and assurance behind Newcastle’s defence, and that is impacting on opposing strikers, as Adams was not precise enough to beat the keeper’s outstretched left foot with Southampton’s best chance of the night.
And to add to his impressive list of statistics, Pope has not conceded a goal since Newcastle United’s last visit to St Mary’s on 6 November, which ended in a 4-1 win for the visitors.
Newcastle team-mate Bruno Guimaraes was perhaps getting giddy on the heady scent of victory when he described Pope as “the best goalkeeper in the world” in his post-match interview but there is no doubt he is having a magnificent season.
Pope was in England’s World Cup squad in Qatar, where he was regarded as third choice behind Jordan Pickford and Aaron Ramsdale. Manager Gareth Southgate’s decision to stay on will maintain Pickford, deservedly, in pole position but Pope is doing all in his powers to make his case.
When Howe was Bournemouth’s manager, a criticism aimed at him was that for all their attacking enterprise, he could not shore up their defence.
The same charges cannot be made now; an outstanding defence is built around his signings Pope, Kieran Trippier, Sven Botman and Dan Burn alongside those players he inherited.
It has resulted in what is potentially shaping up as a dream season, with a Wembley appearance, their first in a major final since the 1999 FA Cup, and their arrival in the Premier League’s upper reaches, where they sit third behind leaders Arsenal and reigning champions Manchester City.
And if the goals have dried up in recent weeks, Newcastle can still count on that defence, which is the top flight’s meanest with only 11 goals conceded in 20 matches, with 14 goals lost in 26 games in all competitions.
It is on this platform that Newcastle flourish and they will be confident of finishing the job against Southampton in front of what is sure to be a fevered capacity crowd on Tyneside in the second leg.