“No idea whatsoever,” Tom Heaton says of his first call-up to the England squad in July this year. Aged 24, five years ago, Heaton was let go by Manchester United after thirteen years at the club. Yet he has quickly ascended again, awarded Burnley’s Player of the Year trophy last season before manager Sean Dyche handed him the armband for the Clarets ahead of the 2015/16 season.
Heaton is the first Burnley player for 41 years to be called up for England, and the only Sky Bet Championship player in the current England squad, getting his third consecutive call-up on Thursday. VAVEL UK’s Harry Robinson spoke to him twelve hours before the call from Roy Hodgson came. Although it wasn’t as glamorous as Hodgson’s call, and offered no chance of a place in goal against the world’s best, the Burnley captain is as welcoming as could possibly be asked.
As we discuss his time with England so far, we come onto the upcoming matches against Estonia and Lithuania, he has to ask when the squad will be named. Once more, he has no idea whether Hodgson will give him that call to welcome him to the set up once more.
“Is it tomorrow it’s announced? I don’t know, by the way,” he says. “It was obviously a fantastic moment, I was absolutely over the moon,” he recalls of the first call-up.
Heaton aimed for Premier League return after being released by United
“When I left Man United, the aim was to get back to the Premier League and it’s certainly been a good season at Burnley, having managed to pick up the player of the year award at the club. It was an incredible moment, the highlight of the season for me, obviously.”
Superlatives become hard to find, “it was fantastic.” Yet that determination to keep learning, which shows itself throughout VAVEL’s time with Heaton, is obvious. “I was delighted to be there but wanted to make sure that I did myself justice and looked to get better while I was there, and learn as much as I could."
“Obviously the standard’s very, very high. It’s the best players in the country coming together.” He says that the nature of the England squad reflects in training, “I’ve certainly found that in the goalkeeping department, having worked with Joe [Hart] and Jack Butland, Rob Green in the previous trip and Dave Watson the coach.”
“There’s certainly a lot of high standards there, it’s great to be involved and it’s nice to be on that stage really. It certainly reminds me, the tempo of it, of Man United training back from when I was a bit younger with the first team [in 2007/08]. I have to say it’s great to be in and around it. I’m thoroughly enjoying it and I hope it continues. I’ll keep trying to learn from it, get better and hopefully keep performing.”
Perhaps Heaton got his fair share of luck, with Hodgson’s usual backup Fraser Forster suffering a long-term injury. Yet in reality this rise from his release by United is because throughout that time at the club, he was preparing for life without Sir Alex Ferguson’s glory.
In 2006, having enjoyed a successful loan stint at Swindon Town, Heaton was flown out to Belgium to United’s feeder club Royal Antwerp. While in Antwerp, more famous for its port than its football and with a population similar to that of some London boroughs, Heaton came to the realisation that he needed to adapt himself to succeed, with or without United.
“I came away that summer  having not played there and did a real big assessment of where I was at, and realised I needed to step things up and probably step things up off the pitch in terms of lifestyle. Outside the walls of Man United I needed to make sure I was getting things right so if those walls were taken away I was still able to perform and produce at any football club that I went to. That was a massive learning curve for me.”
His time in Antwerp certainly was ‘very tough’. Although “there were a few lads [from United] out there at the time, you have to learn to live on your own and in a different country you have to find ways to get to work and different training methods you have to get used to.”
“The hardest thing for me was the fact I wasn’t playing. I went out there to develop my career and learn and it turned out that I went there for the second half of the season and never played. So it was very difficult, but I think by my own admission that second half of that season was probably one of my biggest turning points in my career so far. The food wasn’t easy to come by, it took a lot of organising from the club and they didn’t want us to eat in the hotel, it was too expensive. So we had to go out, drive half an hour and that was for lunch and dinner. I arguably didn’t eat as well as I had done so far in my career because it wasn’t easy to sort out. There were a lot of logistical different things, I probably didn’t train as well as I could do, getting used to different things. There was so much that perhaps didn’t, that was so different, that I perhaps didn’t get right at the time.”
Those days are gone, for now at least, for Heaton. He has now returned to the Premier League, part of the Burnley side who achieved the incredible by being promoted with barely an 18-man squad. After making forty appearances for Cardiff City, including many in their route to the League Cup final, Heaton was allowed to leave on a free transfer. Sean Dyche did, in fact, sign him then. “It’s interesting that the year before, I signed at Bristol City after I left Cardiff. I actually signed for the manager [Dyche] when he was Watford manager. Unfortunately, there was a little bit of a snag when the new owners took over, he was sacked and my deal got torn up.”
“So I had an inkling about what he was about, I’d spent the day with him and spoke to him on the phone quite a few times. So when the call then came to sign at Burnley, it was a no-brainer for me. I wanted to play for him [Dyche] and then from then on really he set us all out as you’ve seen, we had a lot of belief. We were superb fit and the squad got better and better as time has gone on. So, yes, it was no surprise in the four walls for us that we managed to snowball it and be successful that year, albeit I think there was probably a few surprises on the outside of the club.”
Currently in English football, there is an obvious overuse of the loan system, with big clubs abusing the system and offloading young players, English and foreign, as fast as possible. Heaton was an early example of the consistent use of the loan system, but he sees it as a vital factor in the upbringing of him as a player and person.
In 2005, Heaton pulled out of the England under-19 squad for the European Championships, choosing to push through a loan to Swindon Town instead. “To get that first step on the ladder, which I think the one in 2005 was for me, the Swindon one, is not easy to come by. You look at the standard in my position, goalkeeping, throughout the league. It’s very high, you’re playing with people’s livelihood so every game means something. For someone to take a chance on you then, having never done it before, having not been out on loan, I was very fortunate. The manager Andy King and the assistant at the time, Ian Woan, who is now amazingly the assistant manager at Burnley ten years on, I’m very grateful for that chance. I think it’s a vital ingredient to build the foundation of your career on, the loan experience for me was brilliant.”
Even though some moves like the 5 months at Antwerp in 2006 were “not all positive”, Heaton thinks that “you need those building blocks of your career, to build the foundation, which there is no substitute for.”
Heaton saved a penalty on his league debut for Swindon, as he recalls. “It’s certainly something I recollect, it was fantastic as you’d probably expect with a young goalkeeper at the time. I had a good upbringing at Man United, and playing for England at different age groups, training with the first team was something regular. So to then go in and play some real men’s football was brilliant, there’s no substitute to the practical realities of it. That’s how you learn, how you move things forward, and that was certainly the case for me.”
Yet despite a great start to his time at Swindon he then made a “high profile mistake”, a “calamity”. Even so, Heaton remembers it “as a fantastic learning curve.”
“Obviously I was devastated and it stuck with me for a good few weeks but in reality you probably couldn’t get a better learning curve in terms of how to handle it, you have to get your shirt back on and play again the week after. It was all around brilliant. In terms of people you talk to you obviously have contact with your parent club, and I was no different. You talk to the goalkeeping coach [at United], I kept training there [Swindon] just to keep tabs on things at United as well. There was plenty of people to talk to at Swindon too.”
Tough times came for Heaton but “motivation was never really a massive issue” because he “was fighting for a career in the game.” Having returned from loans at Swindon and Antwerp, Heaton was needed by Manchester United.
“It was always a big marker at the football club, I came back from that loan [at Antwerp] and I moved into the first team dressing room. I was in and amongst it as number three goalkeeper. That was certainly a big learning curve. Being in and around the standard that they played at, training every day, that was brilliant.”
It isn’t regarded as the best moment for Heaton because he wasn’t involved in it properly, but the UEFA Champions League win for Man United in 2008, beating Chelsea in the final on penalties was one of the best experiences for the Burnley captain. “I was in the 24-man squad that went to Moscow and won the Champions League. I didn’t make the bench but to be in the dressing room, to see how things work and how things go at the very top, it was an invaluable experience.”
“The only slight frustration” during Heaton’s spell with the first team for United was the "limited game time, reserve football instead. There’s an argument to be said it could have been better to go out and play, get more games with other clubs. But I wanted to be at the club at the time and I have to say I certainly came on a lot in that two-year spell.”
With Edwin van der Sar then having a superb backup in Tomas Kuszack and Ben Amos, Heaton was no longer needed by United but the club still wanted to develop a goalkeeper they saw as someone who could take on van der Sar’s high mantle. “The dream was to be United’s number one,” he told VAVEL.
“To be brutally honest, though, that take is always difficult when you’re in amongst the four walls. A club like Manchester United needs the best in the world and at that current moment in time, it was very difficult to call a goalkeeper the best in the world if they’re not playing. It’s difficult when you haven’t got the proven record and you’re not playing week in, week out. I understood there was a process to it, I definitely understood that, so I tried to look at it in an individual level, a process of my development. There was no getting disheartened, it was all about staying on the upward curve really. As long as I could keep developing, keep learning and continue to get better, I could not be disheartened. I’ve always been a believer that if you get better every day then the sky is the limit and that’s something I’ve tried to live by day in, day out.”
He did learn, and he did develop and his preparation for life without United paid off. Having spent a season at Cardiff City on loan, making twenty three appearances, from United, he then joined the Bluebirds when United released him. At 22, he became first choice immediately on loan, above thirty-one-year-old Peter Enkelman. Yet an injury in November that season meant Enkelman took over Heaton’s goal and the young Englishman couldn’t regain his first team spot. Coming back a year and a bit later, having played for another three clubs on loan, he had to wait for first-team action, until David Marshall picked up an injury.
Heaton took his chance, being named Young Player of the Year in that 2010/11 season, but lost his first-team place after an injury in February. Next season, despite no reward for team or player, was a memorable one. Malky Mackay’s Cardiff side bashed away the underdog status and reached the final of the League Cup, with Heaton starting throughout. “I was very grateful for Malky [Mackay] for playing me in that game, I wasn’t actually playing for Cardiff at the time with David Marshall playing in the league,” he says.
In the final there, Cardiff equalised with just two minutes left of extra time after it finished one all at ninety minutes. Penalties it was, and Liverpool’s superiority shone in that department, but Heaton still tipped Steven Gerrard’s penalty away to keep the tensions up. “I think for one moment, that probably is still the high for me,” Heaton says. “There’s obviously been some good ones, getting promoted with Burnley and walking out at Old Trafford but for one moment, the pinnacle would probably be that save.”
Even though Heaton says Cardiff “played well, got back in it late on and took it to extra time and then penalties,” there was no final reward. As underdogs going into the game, with Heaton “playing at Wembley for the first time”, he says that in terms of the smaller side going out to enjoy the experience, and accept that victory may not come, “there’s elements of that.”
“To be brutally honest, though, whether you’re underdog or favourite I certainly try and have the mentality to enjoy it either way. However, you can certainly use that underdog spirit to your advantage sometimes. When there is a weight of expectation on the opposing team, that can sometimes land in your favour. Even then, we had a game plan, we focused on what we were about and what we wanted to do that day. It worked, we played really well. On a different day, we could well have won it. Obviously, saving the penalty was the big moment.”
Another big moment for Heaton at Wembley Stadium was Wayne Rooney scoring his 50th goal for his nation, breaking the record of Sir Bobby Charlton set more than 40 years ago. “It was obviously a massive moment and a fantastic achievement for him, one that’s well deserved. Looking back in the future, it will be a great moment to be there and be involved.
“He’s a great captain, he leads by example and we have massive respect for what he’s done in the game. It was a good night to be in there. After the game he was presented with a shirt with 50 on the back of it. He had a little speech, it was just a good night and I think it was a great moment for him, a great achievement and one that he thoroughly deserves.”
Heaton now has his third chance with England, an opportunity not many have and one that must be taken. Everything he says makes me believe he has taken the first two and will take this third one.
“Obviously the standard is very, very high. It’s the best players in the country coming together,” Heaton said of the England squad. “So yeah, it was sort of an incredible moment.”