Joe Hart’s decision to turn down Sunderland last month has offered a potential successor as England’s No1 goalkeeper a long‑awaited chance to command center stage.
Jordan Pickford already has nine England Under-21 caps but watching him excel against Tottenham Hotspur at White Hart Lane on Sunday it is easy to envisage the 22-year-old from Washington, Tyne and Wear, eventually taking over from Hart at senior level. Sunderland’s coaching staff have known about his extravagant potential for years but following loan stints at Darlington, Altrincham, Burton Albion, Carlisle United, Bradford City and Preston North End, he began this season as Vito Mannone’s understudy.
David Moyes had looked on admiringly as Pickford impressed for Preston last season but when Mannone sustained a serious elbow injury, Sam Allardyce’s successor knew the chance to sign Hart from Manchester City on loan was too good to turn down. Once City’s deposed No1 opted to join Torino instead, however, Pickford was handed a chance to show everyone precisely why he is such an exceptionally confident young man.
“Jordan’s doing very well, he has everything to become a first-class keeper,” Moyes says, before adding a caveat. “He needs to keep upping his level and work-rate. He needs to change his body and its frame. A lot of work lies ahead. Young keepers need to do a lot of work in the gym and show a high level of commitment if they’re going to shape up.”
For someone with an apparently less than perfect physique for his job, the 6ft 1in Pickford did a pretty good job of restricting Spurs to one goal as Sunderland lost 1-0 in north London. It left the visitors joint bottom of the Premier League and in possession ofa solitary point. Yet if Moyes’s already mounting in-tray of worries was only exacerbated by Patrick van Aanholt’s mysterious withdrawal from the first‑team minutes before kick-off, at least he does not need to fret about his goalkeeper.
While Pickford’s string of superlative saves caught the eye, so, too, did his exceptional footwork. “Jordan’s kicking is brilliant,” says Chris Kirkland, the former Liverpool goalkeeper and holder of a senior England cap who understudied him at Preston. “I have never seen anyone kick a ball like Jordan does. I could never kick a ball as far as he can. I’ve worked with a number of top keepers in my career and Jordan Pickford’s up there with the best of them. He’s got a great chance of going right to the very top.
“The thing which first caught my eye about him is his command of the penalty area. All goalkeepers make saves – that’s their job – but the thing with Jordan is his command of the penalty area. He comes out to take crosses with a rare authority for one so young.”
Pickford averaged a clean sheet every other game for Preston before being recalled to Wearside by Allardyce last January, with such stellar performances bolstered by an absence of inhibition. “At Jordan’s age you tend to be fearless on the pitch and that’s a big help,” says Kirkland. “It’s only later on, when you get a bit older, that you start to worry about making mistakes.”
Pickford’s quite extraordinary self‑belief has been commented on by Allardyce and Moyes, with the latter presumably hoping some of it rubs off on a team desperate for their first Premier League win under his charge.
Sure enough, the goalkeeper was typically upbeat following the final whistle at White Hart Lane. “We’ll be OK,” said Pickford, who has been a Sunderland player since joining the academy as an eight-year-old. “We’re a new back-five and we’re still just getting to know each other. We’ll get there. It starts with working hard in training, which we are doing and we are also bonding. The more we play together the better we’ll be.”
If the four-year contract Pickford signed this year has offered him security it also protects Sunderland against the prospect of losing a key asset. Before leaving to coach England, Allardyce was aware that his young goalkeeper had been watched by Manchester United scouts for more than a year, with Pickford’s performances as the Under‑21s won the Toulon tournament in May further piquing such interest.
“This season’s a big chance for me,” says Pickford, who can certainly expect to be making plenty of saves playing behind the erratic Papy Djilobodji and company. “I’ve played quite a lot of games in the lower divisions on loan so I felt ready. Now I’ve just got to keep on working hard in training.”