Nick Pope. After recent social-media protocol, that should be the extent of the text. On Friday’s short flight from Newcastle to the south coast, Pope became an unexpected, and largely unexplained, Twitter sensation.
Burger King had asked followers for their preference of gherkins or tomato; the fan account Toon Polls suggested Pope as an alternative, if unviable, option. Within hours “Nick Pope” was trending, big brands and high-profile footballing accounts all bandwagoning. Social media baffles.
As, too, did Brighton’s inability to score. Pope – and some wayward finishing – ensured both teams enjoyed a point in the sunshine. True, there was nothing world-class, but with his profile never higher, it was a timely clean sheet.
Oblivious to non-footballing matters, Eddie Howe appreciated Pope’s on-field display: “I thought he was top-class. He has been since he came. He’s a very relaxed figure, very popular in the dressing room, and he’s got a real calmness about him. He showed his importance with a great performance.”
This game may not be one the grandchildren hear much about, but for those who prefer tactical manipulation over the old-fashioned blow-for-blow, it was oddly compelling.
There is much to admire about Howe and Graham Potter. They are very different in some ways; the former hugs the touchline, bulging out of his skin-tight training wear, whereas the latter – who forces himself into a weekly 30-minute promenade jog – is a less intense presence. But they are a pair of great thinkers, expert planners, with a knack of getting full buy-in from players. Modern football managed the modern way.
Potter continues to add to his impressive body of work. In consecutive summers, he has lost top performers. Ben White went last time: Brighton achieved their highest finish. Marc Cucurella and Yves Bissouma departed recently: four points from their first two games. Bissouma’s replacement, Moisés Caicedo, has slotted in seamlessly.
“I wouldn’t say we are happy with a point but we accept a point because that’s football,” said Potter. “If there was one team that was going to win the game it was us. I have nothing but pride in the boys. I loved the performance, I loved what they were trying to do.”
Last November, Eddie Howe watched Newcastle draw on this ground before his appointment. In that time, he has recalibrated the hopeless and the hapless to the honed and hope-inducing. “There’s a lot of positives to come from today,” he said. “The unity, the togetherness of the squad; I don’t think we should underestimate those things.”
In the searing heat and the smell sensation of burnt-out flares, Brighton began on the front foot. A flurry of corners upped the temperature further, with Solly March looking to exploit the slight clunkiness of Dan Burn. Matt Targett’s dead-leg meant Sven Botman, a £31.8m summer acquisition from Lille, made his full Newcastle debut. Resultantly, Burn slid to the left.
Leandro Trossard drew Pope’s first save, Kieran Trippier overcommitting on halfway, allowing the winger to burst down the left. Pope juggled and then snaffled the second ball quickly ahead of Danny Welbeck, who was primed to do likewise.
When March then beat Pope, home supporters thought Brighton had the lead. But Trippier calmly took a touch on the line before volleying away. Pascal Gross then fed Adam Lallana who pirouetted nicely but Pope held comfortably.
Post-interval, Pope sprang left and clawed away Lallana’s header from six yards, before then denying March from inside the area. Alexis Mac Allister had a shot blocked by a Burn and Fabian Schär combo, before Kaoru Mitoma, on late as a substitute for his debut, danced inside and out of Trippier; Gross somehow steered wide.
Newcastle, sporting a hastily printed fourth kit after none of their three registered strips passed the not-similar-to-Brighton’s test (a pretty fundamental design flaw), had their share of possession, but it was more grind than groove. In fairness, several attacks were blocked by Caicedo.
Callum Wilson’s first-half effort was disallowed after he raised his boot too high to beat Lewis Dunk to the ball. Later, Burn put a header over from a Trippier corner in front of a train strike-defying packed away end. Robert Sánchez would have broken a sweat, but not because of Newcastle.