During Jordan Pickford’s Sunderland days he occasionally played in midfield during training ground practice games. The goalkeeper showcased an extraordinarily varied passing range, crowned by the unerringly accurate, long range, side-foot volley which has become his hallmark, he invariably looked the best individual on view.
Impressed onlookers routinely agreed that Pickford possessed the sort of assured left foot leading coaches pay millions of pounds for. “It’s like watching a top midfielder,” said David Moyes, his manager at the time. “Jordan’s got a very big kick but he’s also got a very good passing range, he can go short, he can go long. Distribution is such a big part of goalkeeping these days and his is very good indeed.”
Signed by Everton for £30m last summer, Pickford is also rather useful in central defence. Granted, with the ball at his feet, the 24-year-old often looks a natural-born midfield playmaker but he also seems adept as a classy sweeper.
“I played Jordan at centre half in training so he understood what it was like for defenders when keepers came over the top of them for crosses,” recalled Kevin Ball, Sunderland’s former academy manager. “Jordan loved it. He could easily have been a centre half.
“When he was in goal, the centre halves would split, hoping to take the ball from him but he’d just ping it upfield perfectly. I’d say ‘play it out Jordan, let them do it,’ but he’d reply ‘why? I’m better than them.’ He wasn’t being a pain, just honest. Jordan has confidence in his ability and his opinions. He’ll challenge you, he’ll say ‘I don’t agree’. I like that.”
For his part, Pickford thrived under the exacting taskmaster. “Bally was a great coach who wouldn’t give us any leeway,” said Pickford. “We had to do all the old apprentice jobs, clean the dressing room, put Dubbin on the coaches’ boots.”
Ball recognised that Pickford needed challenges and helped ensure that the boyhood Sunderland supporter from Washington, Tyne and Wear, received them.
Loan stints at Darlington, Alfreton, Burton, Carlisle, Bradford and Preston duly followed with their fans being treated to not only a series of stunning saves but early glimpses of that trademark rocket like sidefoot volley with which Pickford would later make so many goals for Jermain Defoe in Sunderland’s first team.
A prime example of this art can be found in filmed clips of the 75-yard ball Pickford’s left foot dispatched perfectly for Dominic Calvert-Lewin as Everton beat Hajduk Split 2-0 in the Europa League last August. It emphasises that this is a keeper who creates, as well as prevents, goals.
“There’s no place to hide at places like Darlo and Alfreton,” reflected Pickford who was driven to the latter club’s home games by his parents and would sit in the back seat consuming the chicken and pasta lunches his mother had prepared in a tupperware box as they traversed the motorway network. “Playing for Darlington at 17 I learnt so much. You’re up against men, it’s a physical and mental test against big centre halves needing to pay their mortgages.”
The stellar hand-eye co-ordination which would serve him so well was possibly inherited from his father, now a builder but once a gamekeeper on Lord Lambton’s County Durham estate.
By the time he reached Preston, Pickford was a star in waiting. “I’ve never seen anyone kick a ball like Jordan can,” says Chris Kirkland, the former Liverpool goalkeeper who deputised for him at Deepdale. “I could never have kicked a ball as far as Jordan.
“But the biggest thing about him was his command of the penalty area. All goalkeepers make saves but Jordan’s command of the area impressed me. He came out for crosses and high balls with an authority rare for one so young. He was brilliant.”
Such fearlessness was evident as a small boy in Washington. Playing football with his older brother on the family’s asphalt drive the budding goalkeeper threw himself repeatedly onto that unforgiving surface as if it were a soft play area.
A similarly unflinching candour, sets Pickford slightly apart from the crowd in today’s sometimes publicly synthetic football world. After Everton recently beat Newcastle United, Sunderland’s great rivals, he married a triumphant Instagram picture with the unapologetically undiplomatic message: “No better feeling than keeping them quiet.”
If those north-east roots are the ties that bind the life of an England international who remains close to his family and lives with the girlfriend he has dated since they were 14, Pickford’s imposing amalgam of psychological and physical strength threatens to unnerve opponents in Russia. “Jordan has exceptional wrist and forearm strength,” says Adrian Tucker, Pickford’s goalkeeping coach at Sunderland. “He’s got excellent hands.” Not to mention exceptional feet and an exemplary mindset.
For years England have been looking for a No 1 that can take them far in an international tournament. Finally, they may have found someone.