England goalkeeper Jordan Pickford’s reputation and profile has soared at this World Cup.
The 24-year-old followed up his penalty shootout heroics in the last-16 tie against Colombia with another stellar display on Saturday to help Gareth Southgate’s side overcome Sweden and reach their first World Cup semi-final for 28 years.
In the space of a year he has gone from Premier League relegation with home-town club Sunderland to the national team’s undisputed number one.
So how has the now Everton keeper emerged as a key component of an England side 90 minutes away from their first World Cup final since 1966?
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Pickford’s hard yards
Pickford, who had worked with Southgate at England Under-21 level, was pencilled in as his manager’s number one long before this World Cup – but he has still played only 156 league games in his career.
He came to prominence in June 2017 when Everton paid Sunderland £30m for him, happily meeting the Black Cats’ asking price as a serious investment for the future.
But Pickford had proved willing to go out and learn his trade in the toughest surroundings before playing in the Premier League – an experience that moulded the confident, strong character we have witnessed in Russia.
He had the rough edges knocked off him in non-league football with Darlington and Alfreton, where no allowances were made for youth, and he recalls: “I learned quite a lot from getting battered by fully grown blokes. You got really battered going for crosses.
“You’d go to away grounds and hear everything shouted at you. I remember being at Southport going for a drink of water and one old bloke shouts ‘hey you lad – your grandad is under that grass.’ I just turned around, gave him the thumbs-up and said ‘nae problem.'”
Pickford, who also had loan spells in the English Football League with Burton, Carlisle, Bradford and Preston, has had his size questioned – he is relatively short for a modern goalkeeper at 6ft 1in – but no-one can question his courage.
And the agility and elasticity that have served England so well in Russia have made a nonsense of worries about his height.
Pickford’s show of strength
When Pickford returned from his nomadic existence to his beloved Sunderland, he walked into a club in freefall from Premier League to League One – and even since his big-money move to Everton, he has not had it easy.
He was Sunderland’s stand-out performer when they were relegated from the top tier in 2016-17, making 135 saves from 185 shots on target with a save ratio of 72.97%.
The move to Everton under then manager Ronald Koeman was meant to be the start of a vastly more pressurised life – but with perhaps fewer saves to make – at elite level for Pickford.
Everton, however, went into almost instant meltdown under the Dutchman before he was replaced by Sam Allardyce – but in a season of almost unrelenting misery, Pickford was head and shoulders above every other player.
It was these performances that persuaded Southgate, a regular visitor to Everton games last season, to give him his debut in the friendly against Germany at Wembley in November 2017 before selecting him as his World Cup goalkeeper in Russia.
Everton’s end-of-season awards were a Pickford procession as he picked up Player Of The Season, Young Player Of The Season and Players’ Player Of The Season.
His signing was a rare success for Everton’s sacked director of football Steve Walsh.
Everton needed a goalkeeper and Pickford was Walsh’s first and only pick – he pressed hard to sign him, he said, as he feared a club of the stature of Real Madrid might even be interested, and willing to pay twice what the Toffees did. The £30m fee is starting to look a bargain already.
Growth on World Cup stage
Pickford, under England goalkeeping coach Martyn Margetson – who was also with him at Everton, before leaving this summer – is now the leader of what he calls “the goalkeepers’ union” at their Zelenogorsk training base.
He cuts an animated, hyped-up figure watched at close quarters in training, a blizzard of body movements and facial expressions, especially when he makes a rare mistake. By goalkeeping standards, he is a bundle of perpetual motion.
One of Pickford’s greatest strengths, according to those who know him, is an ability to put mistakes behind him – not that he takes them lightly.
A moment of uncertainty in an otherwise magnificent display against Sweden led to Pickford inadvertently punching his knee rather than the floor, hence the bandage on his left hand as he showed off the man of the match award.
He is a steely character, too, unaffected by criticism of his performance in England’s loss to Belgium, when he was perhaps ring rusty after little action against Tunisia and Panama.
He has been superb since, making a flying save from Colombia’s Mateus Uribe in normal time then saving from Carlos Bacca as England won a penalty shootout – before the brilliance of his performance against Sweden in Samara.
There is no question he had to prove his credentials as England’s number one, not simply with his saves but by fulfilling a vital role in Southgate’s plans via his work with the ball at his feet.
Pickford’s deeds in the past week have made him a prime contender for Fifa’s World Cup team of the tournament and proved England have a goalkeeper who could serve them for the next decade.
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