Meet the real Jordan Pickford – by those who have played with him


Chest out, shoulders back, straight into the action.

No matter what division he has found himself in, no matter how grand or humble the stage, Jordan Pickford’s fearless approach has endured from early days in lower-league relegation scraps to the business end of major international tournaments.

Now the 28-year-old is the England goalkeeper Gareth Southgate is once again relying on in Qatar.

In their own words, those who formed part of Pickford’s football journey tell The Athletic his story; from thunderous goal kicks that almost cleared a pitch, to dealing with mistakes and becoming the man who hopes to taste glory with England.

Sunderland (2011-17): Kevin Ball, academy coach

“Jordan would always be prepared to challenge you, which I liked. He was fun to deal with and had confidence that he could go on to great things. Our job at the time was to manage that expectation and recognise when he needed to be challenged again.

“You see it in schools sometimes where supposedly the kid in the class who’s not doing what he should be or misbehaving might not actually be getting challenged. We were very mindful of that.

“We felt Jordan needed to be challenged out on loan. He’ll have found each place he went tough but that’s when he shows his strength of character.

“We never pussyfooted around him. He would be told when we thought he wasn’t doing as well as he should. He was never an angel but you want them to have character and make mistakes because that’s how they learn. I used to love saying things to him because I knew he was thinking, ‘I’ll show you’.

Jordan Pickford’s promise was evident at Sunderland a decade ago (Photo: Kiyoshi Ota/Getty Images)

“He’s a perfectionist. He hated making mistakes and that was the one thing we did try and temper. We explained to him that nothing ever goes smoothly as a goalkeeper.

“We always had a mantra of playing out from the back and actively encouraged it at the right time. He would ping the ball from the penalty box into the forwards’ feet and I’d go, ‘Jordan, can you play out from the back, please?’ He’d just look at me as if to say, ‘But Kevin, I’m better than them (his team’s defenders)!’. I knew he was. He’s awesome with his feet.

“Jordan could go short or long. We played him at centre-back in training sometimes, because I wanted him to see things from a different angle. You could have played him anywhere on the pitch, no problem.

“Jordan has some unbelievable attributes but he’s just a normal lad from Washington who loves his football and a laugh. He was lucky to have the support of his family like he did. He had something in him where he was always going to the top.”

Darlington (2012, loan): Drewe Broughton, team-mate

“I remember we were away at Telford and we were really good that day. We started full of running and got 2-1 up. Our midfielders were dominating, the back four — marshalled by young Jordan — were commanding.

“Three points that day would have been huge. We knew going into this tough game that if we got three points we had a real chance of staying safe.

“Jordan made a mistake, as we all had hundreds of times in our careers, but being a keeper must be brutally lonely. After the game, you could see he was devastated. We all knew what was on the line. The fact it hurt him that much shows it all.

“What a brilliant exposure to the brutal pressure of the men’s game. I remember a plucky young guy who was up standing tall, surrounded by scared youngsters and battle-scarred old dogs.

“That moment once all the preparation is done, all team talks finished, before players leave the dressing room, he was up, chest out, shoulders back, not shirking, saying, ‘Come on, boys — clean sheet’.

“You saw that he was real. He was fighting to establish himself. I was the main header of the ball on defensive set pieces and I remember him getting us organised. It’s no place for a boy when in-swinging corners and elbows are flying, but he clearly had toughness. ‘Win the ball, go and win the ball’, he said.”

Jordan Pickford toughened up during a loan spell at Darlington (Photo: Steve Drew – PA Images via Getty Images)

Alfreton Town (2013, loan): Theo Streete, team-mate

“Our first-choice keeper had been injured and I remember Nicky Law, our manager, saying they were bringing in a lad on loan from Sunderland. We have Derby and Burton very close and normally they’d have just tried to loan one of theirs. But Nicky said this guy was very highly thought of.

“I was half expecting a young, naive lad who would just come in, play a couple of games, and make no impact.

“I was suspended for his first game and because we didn’t have a goalkeeping coach at the time they asked me to help him with his warm-up. I said, ‘I’ll do my best. Just tell me what you want me to do’. He was very serious and was like, ‘I need you to do this’, then, ‘Right, now can you do this? Can you come out onto the pitch before kick-off as well and work with me, so I’m ready’. He knew exactly what he wanted.

“I thought, ‘Fair play, he knows what he’s about this kid’.

“Just before kick-off I told him to be confident and come for as much as he could and he said that’s exactly what he does.

“As a centre-back, playing in front of him was good. Sometimes when the ball goes over your head and it’s going to be a 50/50 foot race with the forward it can be worrying, but he’d always be there. It was refreshing.

“His kicking, too — wow. The Alfreton pitch is really narrow — it’s one of the smallest in the league. He caught the ball from a cross one time, boomed it up the pitch and it bounced just outside the opposition box!

“He was a bit more wiry in his build then, but he was robust. We were a physical team who liked to impose ourselves and it was a godsend having him because with his kicks we could play deep in the opposition’s half.

“He grew with each game and we went on a really good run with him in the team.”

Burton Albion (2013, loan): Ian Sharps, team-mate

“He came in the week before the season started and went straight into the first game against Cheltenham.

“I remember he was a bundle of energy. He was nervous in that first game and it got to him a bit. Their keeper took a huge goal kick and Jordan rushed out for it but it bounced over his head and one of their players just tapped it into the empty net.

“The following week we played Sheffield United in the first round of the Carabao Cup and he made a fantastic save at Bramall Lane. Michael Doyle hit one from about 30 yards away and it was flying into the top corner. I saw it leave his boot and was like, ‘Oh no’, but Jordan somehow got across to it and tipped it over. To do that, with what had happened in the last game, just showed such self-belief.

“He’d come in so late in the day and I think there was a bit of resentment that he’d taken the other keeper’s place, but he just took it in his stride.

“We based some of our game plans on how far he could get his goal kicks — in League Two sometimes, the further away you can play from your own goal the better. Jordan could kick 20 yards further than most of the other keepers in the division.”

Jordan Pickford in his Burton days (Photo: Richard Sellers/PA Images via Getty Images)

Adam McGurk: team-mate

“I don’t remember much about games from that long ago but I remember that howler. I was thinking, ‘What have we signed here?’.

“You could tell that technically he was very gifted. Even then, he had that absolute wand of a left foot; that ability to ping a ball 80 yards onto your foot.

“There was talent and on top of that just dedication. He’d go back to Sunderland on his days off, but when he was with us he was working extremely hard.”

Carlisle United (2014, loan): Mark Gillespie, team-mate

“I’d been released by Newcastle before going to Carlisle and Jordan was at Sunderland. He must have been 19 and I was only a couple of years older than him so I watched him closely.

“Although he was a bit quiet initially, there was definitely an aura about him. Coming into League One isn’t easy for kids from big Premier League clubs but he took it in his stride. Even then, his left foot was brilliant.

“He wasn’t the biggest, but he wasn’t ruffled physically. He was like he is now: he’d come for things, he’d always get involved and he made an impression on everyone.

“For me, it was really interesting. I knew he wouldn’t be staying to take my place and I wanted him to do well because we’d started to struggle at the wrong end of the table.

“Watching him showed me the level you needed to be at if you were going to be at a Premier League club.

Jordan Pickford

Loanee Pickford launches a trademark goal kick for Carlisle (Photo: Nick Potts – PA Images via Getty Images)

“His temperament for a young lad was good but what impressed me most was how he dealt with mistakes.

“At the time I found it hard not to let errors I’d made stay with me and affect the next game. I remember in a game against Preston he made a clanger in a high-pressure moment. He put his hand up after on the pitch and acknowledged it, but after that, it was gone.

“He had a good six months with us and even though in the end we still went down, it was a lot closer than it would have been if we didn’t have Jordan.

“I’m at Newcastle now and I know he gets a lot of stick when he plays at St James’ Park (because of his Sunderland links). I was watching the game here earlier in the season and I don’t recall any player getting that many boos every time he touched the ball. But knowing him, I think he would thrive on it.”

Bradford City (2014-15, loan): Filipe Morais, team-mate

“The goalkeeping coach, (Lee) Butler, spoke so highly of him and that was rare, so we knew we had a player on our hands. Jordan was actually quite quiet in the dressing room, maybe because he was so young. But it was different on the pitch.

“Jordan had someone next to him in (fellow goalkeeper) Ben Williams who was really mature and I think that probably helped. We went on a Christmas trip to Dublin. It was a two-dayer, which was hard going. But Jordan decided to go home a day early, which showed maturity. He was grounded and wouldn’t be around the town all the time.

“Bradford was perfect for him. We averaged crowds of around 20,000 but he took it all in his stride. His confidence was insane and he wasn’t fazed at all.

“He got a couple of red cards coming out of his goal, so you could see he needed loan spells to learn. He’d just brush himself off after mistakes and bounce in again with ultra-high confidence as though nothing had happened.

“The manager (Phil Parkinson) was quite ruthless but he continued to back him. You could see with his mentality that he was going to go far.”

Coventry City’s Jim O’Brien has a shot saved by Pickford against Braford (Photo: Nigel French – EMPICS / Contributor)

Preston North End (2015-16, loan): Chris Kirkland, team-mate

“I went to Preston towards the end of my career and they wanted me to help (fellow goalkeeper) Jordan on his way. But I didn’t need to tell him much.

“He was unreal — man of the match every game. Dominated his box and took everything. He made it look easy and was one of the best I worked with. His footwork, distribution and calmness. Even after the first three or four minutes in training, I knew he’d play for England.

“He went about his business and trained as well as anyone. He and (goalkeeping coach) Alan (Kelly) were close, which is normal in goalkeeping departments as you’re together a lot of the time.

“There was no bouncing around or anything brash. He’s had a bit of stick before for getting involved with the crowd but I didn’t see any of that back then.

“He’d train with the outfielders at times and would be one of the best on the pitch. Everything was so easy.”

Everton (2017-now): Alan Kelly, goalkeeping coach

Jordan is embracing leadership,” Kelly said last year. “He is getting older, and being a parent and life situations change you as a person.

“It’s his decision-making (that has improved). Jordan has always been a bubbly character and hard worker and that’s not changed from his Preston days.

“He doesn’t have an ego, he is an international but doesn’t care if he goes first or last (on drills) in training. I’ve been in situations where the No 1 demands he goes first in everything but Jordan is great to work with.

“It is maturity, in terms of life experience. He has a body of experience with Everton and England that allows you to cope with situations.”

(Top photo: Marc Atkins/Getty Images)


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