Karl Darlow's journey to Newcastle's first-choice goalkeeper, his influences and a possible England call-up

Newcastle stopper Karl Darlow has staked his claim to the goalkeeping spot after an injury to Martin Dubravka in the summer; follow Arsenal vs Newcastle on Sky Sports Premier League and Main Event from 7pm on Monday; kick-off 8pm

Karl Darlow

"I just enjoyed chucking myself on the floor." Karl Darlow's words will resonate with most primary school kids who are in the first stages of developing that love for football. The Newcastle United goalkeeper recalls with great fondness just what it was that appealed to the number one role.

"You notice it more and more with kids at that age who want to play in goal, getting rid of excess energy, whatever it may be. There's quite a fun aspect to going in goal and chucking yourself around."

Darlow has been at St James' Park for six and a half years. He has had spells as the club's first choice 'keeper previously, most notably under Rafael Benitez when his 13 clean sheets in the 2016/17 season helped Newcastle win the Sky Bet Championship title.

But only now is he establishing himself as a first-choice Premier League 'keeper. With an injury to Martin Dubravka during the summer, Darlow seized the moment and his impressive displays in the opening half of the season have attracted the plaudits.

"I was always waiting for the opportunity to come," he told Soccer Saturday's Johnny Phillips ahead of facing Arsenal on Monday Night Football.

"Obviously I was never sure when or even if it was going to come, so I was remaining patient, training as hard as I could and just making sure I was ready for the opportunity when it came through. As soon as I came into the team, I wanted to prove I was good enough to be playing at this level and doing a job for Newcastle."

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A child of the 1990s, Darlow signed schoolboy terms with Aston Villa at eight years old and two goalkeepers in particular were role models during his time growing up. He then moved on to Nottingham Forest where he earned his league debut at the age of 20.

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"In the early years, Peter Schmeichel was the one who I'd watch quite often," Darlow explains. "Later on, Joe Hart at his peak was one who I really aspired to be like. Being English and with his athleticism, then later winning the Premier League with Manchester City, I watched him closely. That first title-winning season he had there was phenomenal, so he was a big influence as I was growing up into a more mature goalkeeper."

Darlow's own development to become a top Premier League performer can be put down to the work of some of the game's most well-respected goalkeeper coaches.

Karl Darlow saves from Mohamed Salah
Image: Karl Darlow has kept three Premier League clean sheets this season

"I've gone through stages with coaches. I had Andy Quy and Eric Steele at Aston Villa when I was young, who shaped me technically," he continues. "I then went to Nottingham Forest and had Steve Sutton, who worked with me tirelessly to get me more well-rounded. Then coming here to Newcastle and stepping into the Premier League, our goalkeeping coach Simon Smith has known what it has been like at this level for years. So I have gone through three different stages from club to club where I've had big influences on what I have become now."

With Dubrvaka back fit, and third choice Mark Gillespie snapping at their heels, competition at the club's Little Benton training base is fierce but healthy.

"It's a very good relationship. Mark has come in this season, played a couple of cup games and done well. And then Martin has just come back into training and played in the FA Cup game last weekend. We work really well, we are a good outfit together. Simon Smith has been fantastic since I've been here and we gel as a group and push each other on.

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"Attitude-wise in training, knowing that everyone is going to be working and helping each other out in terms of service and not slacking, is key. We've had that in the group for the last three or four years. It was the same when Rob Elliott was here before. Everyone works as hard as they possibly can in training. I think that is all you can ask for, especially when you are playing, just getting honest lads around you who want to train and want to work. There's no one trying to stab you in the back or do anything that might unravel the situation, which is brilliant."

He admits to being hugely self-analytical. It is not always a healthy approach for some goalkeepers, who need a special kind of mental resilience to cope with being that last line of defence, but Darlow thrives on a dedication to his craft

"I go into it in great detail, if I'm honest," he says. "After the game I remember every kick, every cross, every punch and, of course, I'll go through the goals. But then I'm quite good at dealing with it and moving on to the next bit. For me it helps, that's just the way I deal with things, I know what I've done well and where I want to work and get better."

The Covid-19 pandemic has brought much disruption and despair to many in football. Newcastle have had their own issues to combat, with several players taking a significant amount of time to recover from the effects of the illness. Darlow has been fortunate in that regard, but the absence of a home crowd when he has discovered the form of his life brings its own disappointments.

"It's a great miss to everyone and we speak about it often enough," he reflects. "We're desperate for fans to get back in when it's safe. That penalty save against Fernandes when it was 1-1 against Manchester United, the roar it would have had at St James's Park is something that could have spurred us on to get a better result. You do miss that when the fans are not there, the big moments at key times. The sooner they are back the better."

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FREE TO WATCH: Highlights from Sheffield United's win over Newcastle in the Premier League

It took another penalty to breach Newcastle's defences in midweek against Sheffield United. Until Billy Sharp's spot-kick, Darlow was on course to secure another clean sheet to follow up the impressive shut-out earned against champions Liverpool two games earlier.

The local North East press have been making a strong case for Darlow's inclusion in the next England squad. Gareth Southgate would be hard pushed to find a 'keeper in better form right now, and Darlow admits he has allowed thoughts of an international career to enter his thinking.

"It's a target that is hopefully achievable, especially with how I've started and where I am at," he concludes. "That needs to keep me motivated in terms of keeping my performances to a high standard. It's something I definitely have half an eye on, but I'm concentrating on keeping my spot in the team here at the minute. So there's added pressures everywhere, but hopefully I'll just take it all on, enjoy it and look forward to what is to come."

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