Player Focus: Tom Heaton
Recounting the career up to this point of the goalkeeper that helped Cardiff City into our first ever League Cup Final…
Tom Heaton made his debut for Cardiff City in a match that ended 2-1 to the Bluebirds over Southampton on August 9th 2008.
Then aged just 22, the Chester-born goalkeeper agreed to go on loan from Manchester United and spend the duration of the 2008/09 season at Ninian Park, following the previous season where he had played on loan at Swindon Town.
His initial spell with the Bluebirds saw the goalkeeper make 24 appearances in all competitions throughout the 2008/09 season, as he competed for the No.1 shirt with the Peter Enckelman. Before returning to Manchester United, the loanee made several key appearances for City, including a man-of-the-match performance in a FA Cup fixture against Arsenal..
Following further loan spells at Queens Park Rangers, Rochdale and Wycombe Wanderers, Heaton returned to Cardiff City, having declined an offer to stay at Manchester United.
Heaton was warmly received at Cardiff City, in no small part due to his impressive form during his initial period at the club.
Competing for the top spot with David Marshall, Tom made 27 league appearances during the 2010/11 season, keeping seven clean sheets and helping the Bluebirds to reach the Championship Play-Offs.
Cardiff City’s League Cup run in the 2011/12 season is what Heaton will most likely be remembered for at the club, however. As well as keeping a clean sheet in each of his two league appearances in the season, the goalkeeper started in seven of the eight matches that City faced on their road to Wembley.
“When I was behind Marshy it was about getting better for me, day in day out, so when the time came, whether that was at Cardiff or somewhere else - ultimately it ended up being somewhere else - I was better.
“You have a certain amount of time to work on things and get better and as I wasn’t playing you have more time to train and you can probably allow yourself to do more in the gym, on the pitch, and you’re learning different ways.
“He (Marshall) is top top drawer. When I first signed there permanently me and him battled it out.
“I think it all adds into the mix. You try to develop and get better when it’s not quite happening in terms of getting the playing time I wanted.
“It probably makes you appreciate it when you are in the team and not to let it go."
In a campaign that culminated in the Bluebirds reaching their first ever League Cup Final, Heaton helped his side see off Oxford United, Huddersfield Town, his current team Burnley, Blackburn Rovers and then Crystal Palace over two legs in a taut Semi-Final.
With City having lost the first leg 1-0 away at Selhurst Park, Heaton pulled off a clean sheet two weeks later at Cardiff City Stadium, as an own goal from Palace’s Anthony Gardner drew the two sides level and into extra time.
With the additional 30 minutes completed without another goal for either team, the 'keeper incredibly pulled off two consecutive saves at the beginning of the penalty shootout that followed, with City going on to win 3-1.
The Final at Wembley Stadium against Premier League side Liverpool ended in much the same way, as the Bluebirds grabbed a dramatic equaliser through Ben Turner with 118 minutes played to make the score 2-2. The Reds were forced into a penalty shootout, which was Cardiff City’s third of their campaign. Despite eventually losing the shootout, Heaton’s own performance was noteworthy, as he saved the opening penalty from Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard, tipping the midfielder’s powerful strike onto the bar.
Reflecting on the match in the weeks following the Final, Tom spoke to our official matchday programme.
"We were heartbroken to get so close to winning and then lost it in the manner that we did, but sometimes football does these things to you. A shoot-out can go either way, we all know that.
“We approached the game really well, preparing in the right way to go up against a massive club and a great team in Liverpool. We managed to compete, obviously taking the lead early on and putting together some great play throughout the hundred and twenty minutes.
“The whole occasion will stick in the mind for me as time goes on as one of the highlights. It was a great experience from leaving Cardiff to running out at Wembley, That moment when we walked out of the dressing room and on to the turf sent chills down the spine – the Cardiff fans were absolutely superb.
“They made the occasion what it was in all honesty, it was an incredible atmosphere. It’s something that will inspire me to push on and do similar things again and again.”
Heaton’s aspirations for further success were met as soon as two years later. After leaving Cardiff City and spending a season at Ashton Gate with Bristol City, in May 2013 he was the first player signing of Burnley manager Sean Dyche. The former Watford manager had targeted the goalkeeper and wanted him in his side, saying:
“Tom is someone we knew all about at Watford and we have monitored his progress since then.
“He is a good technician, he has great pedigree, having come out of Manchester United and is a good age and willing to learn.
“We have been aligning things for the ‘what-ifs’, as we are in all cases, and Tom is a great signing and one we believe will do very well for us."
Dyche’s belief in the goalkeeper rang true, as he has since gone on to make over 180 league appearances for the Clarets since his signing almost six years ago. In his first season at Turf Moor, Heaton was ever present in the side’s league matches, and was a crucial factor in their eventual promotion from the Championship, having conceded only 37 goals and kept 19 clean sheets.
Following their relegation and promotion again to the Premier League in the two following seasons, Heaton remained present in the starting lineup, and was captain leading on from the club’s second promotion season.
Keeping a clean sheet in October 2016 against former club Manchester United proved costly for Heaton, as he received medical attention after pulling off an extraordinary save to stop a volleyed effort from United’s Zlatan Ibrahimović. The save was later hailed as “one of the best in Premier League history”, according to a tweet by legendary former ‘keeper Peter Schmeichel.
In more recent times, Heaton regained the No.1 jersey at Burnley just before the New Year, fighting back from injury to take over the shirt from fellow England international Joe Hart. The Clarets have three international goalkeepers in their first team squad, with highly rated Nick Pope also battling for that one spot.
Since the end of 2018, Heaton has made 14 consecutive league starts for the Clarets, keeping three clean sheets, most recently against Wolves in March. Judging by his recent performances, Neil Warnock’s men will likely have to get the ball past this former Cardiff City man on Saturday if they are to come away with all three points.