Tom Heaton | Patience in Progress
When meeting Tom Heaton you get an immediate impression of a confident, calm and intelligent sportsman – clearly a few of his many qualities which have taken him to the brink of International success. However, this is not a story of automatic progression through the ranks in the traditional manner of many International Footballer, rather it is a story of determination, despair, dedication— and Dyche.
As a youngster, Heaton was with one of the biggest clubs in the world, Manchester United. You could be forgiven for believing that success would simply follow naturally after you sign your first professional contract at the age of 18 and are training alongside the likes of Edwin Van Der Sar on a daily basis, not to mention regularly playing practice matches against Cristiano Ronaldo and Ruud Van Nistelrooy. Life at Manchester United though as a young professional not only can be a once in a lifetime experience but also many times can come with harsh realities as Heaton very honestly explains.
“My Time at Manchester United overall was excellent. Looking back on it closely, it gave me a great foundation for my career. I signed as an 11 year old and was there until I was 24. I can’t speak highly enough of the club all the way through my time there. They covered all aspects of a young footballers life ; the technical, physical, mental and social sides to being a footballer. Everything was geared towards improving you not only as a player, but also as a person. As I got older, training with the first team and being in and around world class players was a great learning curve for me. Having to step up to that level in training everyday was a real test. As you’d expect it was fiercely competitive and no sentiment was given to young lads coming into the squad whatsoever. If you were there you were expected to do the job and do it well. That makes you learn very fast as a young player, which is something you have to do in an environment like Manchester United. I was fortunate to work with some great goalkeepers. The one that stood out for me was Edwin Van Der Sar. I tried to take things from his game and add them into mine, most notably his composure in every single situation. This is vital to a top keeper and his composure spread through the team and was a real asset to the club. So in that respect it was great to be training alongside him and learning these important attributes needed for a top level goalkeeper”.
So 3 years later and following 6 loan moves at clubs including Wycombe, Swindon and Royal Antwerp came the realisation that Heaton would maybe not be given an opportunity to fulfil his dreams at Old Trafford and that his only route to the big time would come if he can make a name for himself either in the Championship or even possibly in the lower leagues or abroad. This was the first of many huge decisions in Heaton’s career.
“By that point I had gained some decent experience playing at different levels. I wanted one day to be a Premier League player and that knew that required playing regular football and performing well. The best route for me to get that was to leave Manchester United. I spoke to Sir Alex Ferguson and told him what I had decided to do. To be honest, I did get a bit of the ‘hairdryer treatment’ in his office, but I knew deep down it was still the right decision. He did call me back into his office a couple weeks later to wish me the best and said he was there if I ever needed him. That meant a lot to me, especially having been there for so long. I didn’t have anything in place to sign at a club at that specific moment, so to be honest it was a risk, but definitely one worth taking. I just remember it being a long summer, checking my phone every 10minutes to see if my agent had any news!”
A move to Cardiff that summer as a back up keeper to David Marshall did at least give Heaton some game time at a high level. This included a run to the league cup final where they played Liverpool at Wembley, a game Heaton played particularly well in.
“The cup run that season was really enjoyable, unfortunately we got beaten on penalties, but it’s still one of my favourite matches I’ve ever played in. Being part of the penalty shootout was a fantastic experience for me. However, even though we had an incredible cup run, I wasn’t playing regularly in the league, so I knew that I would had to leave again if I was to be a number one at a club”.
This is where his first contact with Sean Dyche came, who at the time was manager of Watford. Heaton was on the brink of signing for Watford but the deal fell through at the last minute which left Heaton wondering where his next club was going to come from.
“I actually signed a contract for Watford, but it was under slightly strange circumstances as the club were being taken over at that very point. Unfortunately that led to something going wrong with the deal because the manager was sacked a few days later, which led to my contract cancelled. This put me back to square one again waiting by the phone again for an offer to come in. I agreed to a weeks trial in pre season with Bristol City and thankfully signed a contract with them—which wasn’t cancelled!”
Even though the move to Bristol City enabled Heaton the chance to play regularly in the league, his new club finished bottom of the Championship that season. Heaton, now 27 was at a big crossroads in his career, does he accept a one year contract from Bristol City to play in league one or once again roll the dice on being a free agent.
This was arguably the most significant moment of his career to date. Sean Dyche had recently been appointed manager of Burnley and offered Heaton a 2 year deal at Turf Moor to be their number one, which Heaton jumped at.
“I was delighted to finally sign for Sean after coming so close to playing for him at Watford. At the time Burnley was a mid table Championship side and some peoples tip for relegation but the manager had big ambitions. There wasn’t much money at the club for transfers but we managed to bring in a couple more free transfers such as Scott Arfield and David Jones that summer who both were big players for the club during that first promotion season”
This was the beginning of a relationship with Dyche that took Heaton from potential obscurity in the game to the cusp of the World Cup.
“Playing for England & playing in the Premier League were the 2 things I wanted to do. Those goals were the reason behind all of the decisions I had made. If I’m honest I always did believe I could get there. It was a dream come true to get promoted to the Premier League with Burnley. From that season the club has gone from strength to strength. Being part of that at Burnley massively helped me get a call up to the England squad. Everyone from the manager, all the staff, the goalkeeper coaching from Billy Mercer and playing in a good team are all factors that helped me realise my ambition of playing for England”.
In 2016 Heaton made his England debut at the age of 30 against Australia at The Stadium of Light coming on for Fraser Forster in the second half. After some more impressive performances for Burnley in the Premier League he was in a good position to be on the plane to Russia as one of Gareth Southgate’s three goalkeepers. However, in September 2017 in a game against Crystal Palace at Turf Moor Heaton suffered a shoulder injury that would sideline him for the rest of the season and almost certainly rule him out of the World Cup. This was a huge blow for Heaton who had started the season so well.
“It was a massive disappointment. Having the injury and the severity of it was difficult to take but I just tried to accelerate everything to give me a chance of going to the World Cup.
The closer the Squad announcement got the more frustrated I was, I was trying to force things a little bit, which can be difficult. I was just desperate to get on the plane!
Unfortunately that didn’t happen but I was delighted to be involved in standby, before the team left for Russia, considering the season I had”.
Heaton has faced many ups and downs in his career but talks very positive about the future. The good news for himself and Burnley is that he is now completely fit again and looking forward to the new season which could include another successful season in the Premier League.
“Since the season ended, I have felt all the frustration dissipate. When the decision was made, it is easier to deal with it. Often the uncertainty is what creates the frustration. I was very pleased to be on standby, had a really good 2 weeks training. Either side of that I had a good break. I’m delighted to say I’m back to 100%, a proper 100% now. Training has been good so far, I’ve felt sharp & hungry to get back playing. I spent some good time over the summer addressing what I want to achieve over the next few years”.