Jordan Pickford was one of England’s shock stars at the 2018 World Cup, and it all started “having abuse hurled” at him in the Conference.
Pickford rose through the ranks at Sunderland and became the most expensive British goalkeeper in history when he joined Everton in the summer of 2017.
His progression led to a somewhat surprising call from Gareth Southgate to be his No.1 ahead of the World Cup in Russia, but the decision paid dividends with some outstanding performances.
The 24-year-old saved Carlos Bacca’s penalty to give Eric Dier the chance to earn England’s first ever World Cup shoot-out win in the last 16, before a stunning performance against Sweden earned him a clean sheet and a man of the match award.
But Pickford’s wonderful tale starts in the fifth tier, being sent on loan to struggling Darlington two months prior to his 18th birthday.
— BBC Sport (@BBCSport) July 8, 2018
“When there are just 500 fans inside a ground, you can hear everything they say, every little word. So that’s what turns you from a kid into a man,” Pickford recalled of his time at Darlington, who were bottom of the Conference “getting battered every week”.
Manager Craig Liddle was forced to take a punt on Pickford due to financial restraints and a transfer ban, but he knew he was getting a potential gem.
“Without the embargo, I’d probably have gone for a more experienced keeper,” Liddle said. “But I’d coached Jordan when I’d helped with Sunderland’s under-12s and, even at such a young age, it was clear he was a really special talent.
“You worry about throwing a young kid like that in. But he fitted in well straightaway.
“Jordan made mistakes, but you expect that. The most impressive thing was the way in which he didn’t let the odd mistake bother him.
“In addition he wasn’t afraid to give lads almost twice his age an earful if he thought they were doing something wrong. He hasn’t changed.”
Jordan Pickford on playing for Darlington in 2012:
"I played nearly 20 games for them and it was quality. I really enjoyed it, it was a great experience for me, despite the team getting battered every week during what was a difficult time for the club." https://t.co/UeOSwX2LjJ
— Craig Stoddart (@CStoddartEcho) July 9, 2018
Pickford ended another goalkeeping crisis a year later, returning to the fifth tier to join Alfreton Town.
“He was very raw but you could see he was special,” said Nicky Law, long-time Alfreton manager and now head of youth recruitment at Burnley.
After Pickford’s second outing at Alfreton, which yielded five clean sheets from 12 appearances, Law said: “He is a bright lad and he has got a big, big future ahead of him. Speaking to people at Sunderland, they rave over him and they think that he will play at the top end of the Premiership. I am sure he will do.”
“Jordan was a good lad,” Alfreton chairman Wayne Bradley added. “He kept himself to himself and was a little shy. But when he crossed that white line it was all so different. He was so focused and so commanding. He was a class act.”
“We tried to sign him when his loan ended but we didn’t quite make it happen. You can only wonder what might have been if we’d managed to get a deal done.”
On the constant audible abuse, Pickford said: “I remember going for a drink of water and one old bloke shouts, ‘Hey you, young lad! Your grandad is under that grass!’ I just turned around to him, gave him the thumbs up and said, ‘Nae problem!'”
Five years ago, Jordan Pickford was playing for Alfreton Town.
Now, he's preparing for a #WorldCup semi-final.
— BBC Sport (@BBCSport) July 7, 2018
“I’ve always said that my hardest loan spell was at Burton, moving away from home and friends and family for the first time,” Pickford said of his stint at the League Two club, his first taste of full-time football.
“Jordan is a player of undoubted ability who I know is regarded very highly by the coaches at the Stadium of Light,” then-Burton manager Gary Rowett said as Pickford joined on loan – a spell which was interrupted by a brief return north to deputise as substitute goalkeeper in the Premier League.
“It’s a position that requires a lot of consideration and I believe Jordan has the attributes and temperament to be a really valuable addition to the squad.”
Rory Delap, who was lining up for Burton in the latter days of his career, said: “You could see from the day he came in that he had quality. It didn’t take an expert to see his potential.
“Sometimes you see that in young lads, but they fall by the wayside, while some go on to have exceptional careers, and pretty early on we saw Jordan’s commitment and attitude to football.”
England number 1 Jordan Pickford made his Football League debut, for Burton Albion, at Cheltenham Town on August 3, 2013, beaten by @JamieCuro (18) and Byron Harrison (32), but the Brewers hit back to draw 2-2 #ctfc pic.twitter.com/SZhwEnAgvm
— Jon Palmer (@JonPalmerSport) July 3, 2018
Having been recalled once more by Sunderland, Burton hoped to re-sign Pickford for a third time, but after another handful of games as an unused substitute at the Stadium of Light, he joined League One side Carlisle on a temporary deal.
“He’s shown some good things and he’s working hard to improve all the time,” said manager Graham Kavanagh, after extending the initial one-month loan until the end of the season.
Recalling one particular match at Preston, Carlisle’s goalkeeping coach Tony Caig recalled: “Jordan came for a cross, and it was as though he was thinking about what to do with it before he caught it.
“He dropped it, and they scored. At that point I thought, ‘Ooh, let’s see how he reacts to that.’ Five minutes later another cross comes into the box and he comes and takes it, as confident as anything.
“He was very driven, and just got on with things. He was very grounded, trained well, and could kick the ball a mile. You could tell he had something about him.”
If you were Scouting #ENG four years ago the club you would have to follow
Jordan Pickford – Carlisle
Harry Macquire – Sheffield United
John Stones – Barnsley
Kieren Trippier – Burnley
Dele Alli – MK Dons
Eric Drier – Sporting Lisbon
Jesse Lingard – Derby County
— Aaron Nielsen (@ENBSports) July 7, 2018
It was at League One Bradford where Pickford came into direct contest with future England team-mate Dele Alli, who recently described Valley Parade as “horrible” when recalling a 2-1 defeat for his MK Dons side in which he scored in front of the Sky cameras, labelling the match his worst experience in the lower leagues.
Pickford, on the other hand, was with a Bradford side on the up – though the terms of his loan forced him to sit out a run to the FA Cup quarter finals, which included victory over parent club Sunderland on the “horrible” pitch in Yorkshire.
“He didn’t have the greatest start, then there were a few games after that when he didn’t do so well,” remembered Lee Butler, City’s goalkeeping coach. “It’s not easy as a young goalie. You make a mistake and everyone is on you. But it never bothered him one iota.
“It was unbelievable strength of character in such a young player and that was the thing that really stuck out for me. A few could have wobbled. He was only just 20 but for someone so young to show that level of maturity and character was fantastic.”
Assistant boss Steve Parkin said: “He’s a young goalkeeper who’s brave, makes good decisions and stands by them. The one outstanding thing about him is that he’s a terrific character. There’s no doubt in my mind he’s going to be an outstanding goalkeeper.”
Pickford was forced back to Sunderland in March, after his youth loan was no longer valid following his 21st birthday. “Jordan has been brilliant for us since coming to the club and he has been a pleasure to work with,” manager Phil Parkinson added.
— James Mackenzie (@Kenzie1975) July 7, 2018
“I was raving about him to the Liverpool staff, saying this lad is the best I’ve worked with,” recalls then-Preston goalkeeper Chris Kirkland, who touted Pickford up for a move to Anfield during his Championship loan spell in 2015.
“I told them he is going to be something special – but not many people take notice of me to be honest! Unfortunately they didn’t get him and Everton got, for me, a steal even at £30million.”
“I always felt he would be a Premier League player and an England No.1 of the future,” added his boss at Preston, Simon Grayson. “He is a great kid, fantastic shot saver, good ability, good distribution. He is only going to improve.”
He equalled a club record six consecutive clean sheets during six months at Deepdale, making 14 in total from 30 appearances before a recall to Sunderland in January.
Pickford had a 54% clean sheet record for Preston last season, the best ratio of 'keepers with 5+ starts in England's top 4 tiers. #SUFC
— Tim Clement (@Tim_Clement_) September 12, 2016
Pickford returned to struggling Sunderland on January 1, featuring in an FA Cup loss to Arsenal before another defeat to Tottenham in the Premier League – meaning by the age of 21 he had featured in each of England’s top five divisions.
“It was a dream come true as a young lad coming from Washington and a Sunderland fan,” Pickford said after his debut against Arsenal. “I have been on a lot of loans and have benefited from each of them. I came back and there’s nothing better than to go out there and play.”
“Jordan can be England’s No 1,” manager David Moyes said, as Pickford made it into the England squad for the first time in October 2016.
“I remember Joe Hart at Shrewsbury and was recommended to sign him when I was Everton boss. We didn’t quite do it. I knew about Jack Butland when he was young as well. Jordan is definitely in that bracket.”
“Pickers has been impressive, his kicking is quality at times but sometimes he has to calm himself down because the game is going so fast,” said Sunderland captain John O’Shea.
“It’s end to end and we just need to try and keep control of it because that kind of adds to the tension. If he can control that a little bit then he is going to be a top-class keeper.”
And Jermain Defoe added: “Jordan has been amazing and he has great potential. I have been singing his praises since the first time I saw him. He is one of the best goalkeepers I have seen in my career.”
Pickford's side volley is porn. pic.twitter.com/glcJVFg5xo
— David Preece (@davidpreece12) May 16, 2017
“Jordan is a very talented young professional who also has a real hunger for success,” said Everton manager Ronald Koeman, after making Pickford the club’s record signing, and the most expensive goalkeeper Britain has produced.
“For such a young man, he looks very mature for his age. And he still has a long way to go in terms of improvement because his talent is that big,” added Koeman’s replacement, Sam Allardyce, who had also overseen Pickford’s first appearances at Sunderland.
“He is performing at the top level of his game at the moment. But there is still room within his potential for more.”
Wayne Rooney furthered the praise from Goodison Park: “He is the best keeper this country has got, in my eyes Jordan is number one. He is a good character around the dressing room. At times this season he has saved us points and kept us in games.
“He is vocal and you need your keeper to talk. It gives everyone security, especially your back four. It makes them feel safe to have someone behind them who is speaking to them.
“He has performed really well for us this season. He was a great signing and will be here a long time, I am sure.”
Jordan Pickford at Everton's end of season awards night:
Young Player of the Season
Players' Player of the Season
Player of the Season
A diamond in the rough. pic.twitter.com/wubW0KNOkP
— Footy Accumulators (@FootyAccums) May 2, 2018
“He is a very agile goalkeeper, quick around his goals, he is capable of making big saves, his distribution is excellent – a really outstanding distributor of the ball with his feet which is how we want to play,” said manager Gareth Southgate in March, giving his first hint that Pickford would be his first choice for the upcoming World Cup.
The 24-year-old went on to steal fans’ hearts with admirable performances, notably saving Carlos Bacca’s penalty in the shoot-out against Colombia before three top drawer saves helped him to a quarter-final clean sheet against Sweden, to go with a man of the match award.
“I’m forever in his debt,” said fellow Sunderland academy graduate Jordan Henderson, who had seen his penalty saved to put Colombia ahead in the tense shoot-out.
“I can’t thank him enough, he says the Mackems stick together! He deserves all the praise, I am so happy for him to achieve that.”
“Our togetherness and our mentality is different gravy,” added Pickford himself, before going on to claim he is a “man not a mouse” after shaking off a “daft” injury inflicted by punching his own knee in frustration.
“If you’re going to be successful in a tournament, you need your goalkeeper to stand firm,” said BBC pundit Rio Ferdinand after the Sweden victory. “What he showed here was great character, personality, and the confidence that has come out of that penalty save is so apparent in this game.”
Alan Shearer added: “We were professional and thorough and every single player played their part, but Pickford was outstanding in goal when he had to be, when they got through our defence.”
In honour of England's rock solid Yorkshire defence, we've popped down Malham Cove with a chisel.
— Yorkshire Tea (@YorkshireTea) July 10, 2018