NICK POPE was always confident which dotted line in the table York City would be concentrating on at the end of the season.
After keeping a seventh successive clean sheet at league leaders Rochdale, the Charlton loanee reflected on the Minstermen’s remarkable transformation which has taken them into a play-off place after being odds-on certainties to be involved in a relegation battle when 2013 came to a close.
Pope had already played twice for the club before a month-long loan was ended early by Charlton and York had won three successive games in January before he signed until the end of the season.
But he said: “The transformation is down to a culmination of things but when I first came here in November and we lost 2-1 at Southend and then drew at Morecambe I could see then that I didn’t think we would be in trouble come May.
“I could sense that York were a good team and a good club and would not be struggling at the end of the season.”
The 21-year-old has been beaten just twice in the last 12 games and is immensely proud of a record which shows only Chelsea having conceded fewer goals in 2014 – five in 14 against seven in 18.
But can the Minstermen sustain their play-off push? “Fingers crossed, I hope so but there are a massive five games to go,” he says.
“We have to keep going and it is in our hands. It has been a massive turnaround considering where we were at the start of the year.
“When I first signed, I wondered ‘are we looking over our shoulders at that dotted line rather than on what we should be up at the other dotted line?’ so to be in a play-off race with five games to go is superb.”
Pope is the first to pay credit to his defenders, saying: “The players in front of me are quality, really good defenders, very solid. There have been games when I haven’t had much to do but when the shots do come through I am happy to save them.”
Pope made an exceptional diving save at Spotland to deny Rochdale top scorer Scott Hogan after he came off the bench following a month out through injury, but the goalkeeper continued: “They didn’t have a lot of shots for the amount of possession they had. I don’t think they really penetrated us or created great chances.
“The result is a real confidence boost and it’s seven in a row now without conceding. No-one gives them to us and not many teams will come here and keep a clean sheet between now and the end of the season.”
Pope has generally been protected by Lanre Oyebanjo, Keith Lowe, John McCombe and Ben Davies but the latter was sidelined by a knee injury on Saturday after unfortunately being caught-up in the match-fixing claims involving parent club Preston North End.
Local lad Tom Allan came in at left-back and it looked as though Rochdale would expose York’s weak link at the back as they attacked remorselessly down his flank in the first half.
The 19-year-old, who is normally a central defender, responded magnificently to the challenge after the break, lifted by the 500 or so York fans in the stand down his patrol side and manager of the month Nigel Worthington denied it was anything he had said at the interval.
“We didn’t say too much because he’s a young player and it’s not his No 1 position so you’ve got to give the boy credit.
“He’s come in and warmed up to the game in the second half and come out of it with a lot of credit,” said the York chief. “It shows you what he possesses but you have to be careful with young players, make one or two key points but other than that let them get on with the game.”
Pope concurred, saying: “He just slotted in really well. It’s the first time he’s played a first-team game in a long time and considering he came in against the top of the league, I thought he was superb.”
Allan, from the village of Huntington north of the city, had not played a first-team game since the 4-1 victory over Scunthorpe at the end of October and has had a short loan spell at Harrogate Town this season. Delighted to have made his mark, the 6ft 4in defender’s next aim is to do enough to earn a new contract.
“It was a good result coming to the top of the league. It was good to be told I was coming back in and it was hard but I got into it in second half.
“I knew on Thursday I had a chance and then on Friday I was definitely in because Ben was struggling with his knee.
“I couldn’t have picked a much harder game but I got used to it in the second half and it did help playing alongside the York fans over on the far side. They gave me a big lift cheering everything I did well.
“My last 90 minutes were in the North Riding Cup months ago and my last first-team game was last year but you have to keep yourself ready and I have tried ever since returning from Harrogate to get back in the team.
“I am out of contract in the summer and I hoping to do enough to earn a new one. I’m a York lad from just down the road and to come in and play for my local club and move up the leagues with them would be great.”
Rochdale: Lillis, Rafferty, Bennett, Lancashire, Done; Vincenti (Cummins 70), Cavanagh, Lund; Allen; Bunney (Hogan 63), Henderson. Unused substitutes: Thomson, Eastham, Kennedy, Donnelly, Rose.
York City: Pope, Oyebanjo, Lowe, McCombe, Allan; Hayhurst (Andrew 69), Penn, Reed (Montrose 83), Brobbel; Coulson, Bowman (Jarvis 83). Unused susbstitutes: Ingham, McGurk, Platt, Puri.
Referee: K Wright (Cambs).