A year ago Jordan Pickford was a talented young goalkeeper with just one full season of first-division experience, no national team call-ups and a reputation built more on promise than proof.
On Wednesday he’ll start against Croatia in a World Cup semifinal in Moscow, with a chance to take England to a promised land it hasn’t seen since 1966. And nothing has done more to fuel England’s historic run than Pickford’s rapid rise from prodigy to polished shot-stopper.
He was the difference in England’s Round-of-16 game with Colombia, which England won in a penalty-kick shootout. And he followed that by shutting out Sweden in the quarterfinals. Almost forgotten was the fact that that game was just the eighth of Pickford’s international career.
“It’s quite a remarkable rise. He can be what he wants to be. I don’t see any limitations with him,” said former Welsh keeper Neville Southall who played more games for Everton — Pickford’s English Premier League club — than anyone in history.
“If he wants to be the best in the world, that’s up to him. He can take it by the horns and go, ‘I’m going to be England’s No. 1 for the next 10 years.’ I think he’s got a good mentality for that, and there’s no reason why he can’t achieve what he wants to achieve.“
Few outside of Everton’s home of Liverpool were singing Pickford’s praises before the World Cup. Although England came to Russia loaded with offensive talent, its back line was considered suspect and Pickford was the first choice in goal mainly because the two backups — Jack Butland and Nick Pope — were equally as inexperienced internationally and inspired even less confidence.
The Three Lions were considered such long shots, in fact, that one popular internet meme showed players getting off the team plane in Russia beneath the caption, “Keep the engine running we won’t be long.”
Instead, England beat Tunisia on a stoppage-time goal from Harry Kane and pummeled Panama on a hat trick from Kane to get out of the group stage, then outlasted Colombia and Sweden in the knockout stages behind two great performances from Pickford, who made six saves in the two games, not counting the one-handed stop that decided the penalty shootout.
And this could just be the start for an England team with only four starters older than 26 — too young to remember the Three Lions’ last trip to a World Cup semifinal in 1990, much less their only World Cup title in 1966.
“If you asked any English player, manager, coach and fan what they wanted at the World Cup, it would have been to get out of the group,” Southall said.
Now, thanks to its keeper, that goal has changed.
“The World Cup is up for grabs,” Southall continued, “because there’s no one playing outstandingly well.”
If Pickford, 24, is new to the world stage (he made his national team debut in a November friendly with Germany), he introduced himself to England last season, playing every minute for Everton while making 121 saves and posting 10 shutouts. That justified the $33 million Everton paid Sunderland for his services, the highest transfer fee ever paid for an English goalkeeper.
And while England manager Gareth Southgate was suitably impressed by all that, a bigger factor in his decision to make Pickford his starter was the coach’s technical approach, calling the keeper “an important fit for the way we want to play.”
Southgate favors ball possession and a three-man back line, a style that requires a mobile goalkeeper who can play the ball out of the back and who also communicates well with his defenders.
“A goalkeeper sees everything, so he needs to talk. That communication with your defense is vital,” said Maarten Stekelenburg, who started in goal in the 2010 World Cup final for the Netherlands. “Somebody told me at the start of my career the best goalkeepers do not have to make saves. You put your defenders in the right positions.
“Jordan talks all the time, which helps his defenders. Having the confidence of the coach is vital.”
But perhaps the biggest indication that Pickford has arrived is that opponents have started trash-talking him.
“All members of our team are dangerous so I imagine somebody will find a way to surprise him,” Croatia forward Mario Mandzukic bragged this week.
Stekelenburg isn’t betting on that. Now that Pickford has brought England this far there are only two options after Wednesday: the World Cup final or a summer vacation. The vacation will always be there, but the World Cup final? This may be his best chance.
“Jordan has a lot of self-belief and is so focused,” Stekelenburg said. “He does not panic and he works hard. He will not be bothered by anything.
“When you lose you have to go on your holiday. You get your holiday anyway, so you want to delay it as long as possible.”