Of all the players who have fallen out of favour under England manager Gareth Southgate it is the omission of Newcastle United goalkeeper Nick Pope that is perhaps the most surprising.
His club form has not dipped. He is starting every week in a team challenging at the top end of the Premier League and is also playing in European football’s most prestigious competition – the only English goalkeeper to do so.
As far as the player is aware, there has been no fallout with the manager of the national team, just an icy silence since May.
Having pulled out of the England squad in the summer in order to have an operation on his hand, Pope has been cast aside, overlooked in favour of a player who is no longer first choice at his club, Arsenal’s Aaron Ramsdale, and another in a struggling team, Crystal Palace’s Sam Johnstone.
Pope cannot even get a spot as cover for Jordan Pickford, even though he has been consistently impressive for Newcastle since his arrival from Burnley in the summer of 2022.
And it is in the Champions League that Pope has excelled. The 31-year-old made a string of outstanding saves in the goalless draw against AC Milan in September in what must rank as one of the best individual displays from a goalkeeper this season.
Not spoken with Southgate since May
He also made several important interventions in the thrilling 4-1 victory over Paris Saint-Germain and could not have done anything more to prevent the back-to-back defeats to Borussia Dortmund that have made Newcastle’s trip to Paris this week a must-win.
But Southgate has ignored him, with Pope revealing they have not spoken to each other since May. Rather than sulk, Pope insisted it is up to him to change his mind.
“I’ve not had any conversations to be honest,” he said. “He’s got a lot of players to look after and other things on his mind, he can’t always be focused on individual players who aren’t in the squad.
“For me, it’s just motivation to do better. I don’t look anywhere else other than myself in the mirror.
“I want to be back in the England squad, I want to be going to a major tournament. I’m not in the squad, but that’s down to myself. That’s the way I look at it.
“There hasn’t been any fallout. I don’t think so … I had to have surgery on my finger, which was six months overdue to be honest. So, no, there hasn’t been anything like that [an argument]. I’ve just got to make it impossible for Gareth to leave me out in the future. It’s down to me.”
Although Newcastle manager Eddie Howe has remained diplomatic, the club’s coaching staff are privately baffled as to why Pope has been left out of the last three England parties.
“He has been huge for us,” said Howe. “He has brought a real confidence to the backline and he is quite unique with his skill set.
“You could see in the Chelsea game, the outstanding save he made in the first half when the scores were level. That was probably an understated save and I must admit I didn’t realise how good it was until I saw it again watching the game back.
“It’s those key moments, those big saves that he has made since he came here that have really elevated us as a team. He’s a very calm guy, he’s very popular in the dressing room and a lot of fun to be around. On and off the pitch he’s made a big contribution.”
Asked directly if he was surprised Pope had been dropped by England, Howe replied: “I can never put myself in Gareth’s shoes, I’ver never walked in those shoes as an international manager and I will never critique his decisions.”
Howe: I’m motivated by the fear of failure
Howe, of course, has other concerns. With 10 players out injured and star summer signing Sandro Tonali banned until August next year, the Champions League has looked like a competition too far, particularly as Newcastle have also reached the quarter finals of the Carabao Cup.
But the Newcastle manager is not ready to admit that to himself or his players as he goes in search of a second victory over the French champions that will keep their qualification hopes alive.
“We need to play on the edge,” Howe added. “Every team is at their best when they have that emotion running through them. We need that energy because this is the defining moment of our Champions League campaign.
“We are fully aware of where we are and what we need to do. Fear of failure is a motivating factor in my career – losing doesn’t sit comfortably, no matter what the occasion and of course that applies to this game.
“I don’t think the motivation could be any bigger for us. We want to be in it [Champions League] as long as we can be and that makes tomorrow a huge moment in our season.”