When a furious Jordan Pickford conceded a goal during a training exercise with England’s Under-21’s at St George’s Park this week, he whacked and burst one of the inflatable mannequins that had been put up to complicate the strikers’ route to goal. “I just don’t like conceding,” he explains with an endearing chuckle. There was an obvious quip that could have been made about being accustomed to it after a campaign behind the dummies in Sunderland’s defense but his club’s relegation is no lighthearted matter for the 23-year-old.
Pickford is still hurt by his hometown team’s fall from the Premier League even if things are looking up for him personally, with his acclaimed performances throughout the season likely to result in offers from several top-flight clubs waiting for him when he gets back from this month’s European Under-21 Championship, from which he is confident of returning as a winner.
“It’s hard to take that I got relegated with Sunderland and it’ll always be hard to take but I’m mentally strong,” says Pickford, who has been on the club’s books since he was eight. “[The impact of relegation] is massive – 40-odd people lost their jobs throughout the season and financially it’s not ideal for the whole club. For me, having grown up and been there since I was a kid, seeing people you’ve known for a long time losing their jobs, it’s not nice. But I feel like as a team and staff behind the scenes we did the best we could do and it was just unfortunate that we never got the results we needed.”
Of course it was more than misfortune that caused Sunderland to finish bottom of the table but the failure was certainly not the fault of Pickford, whose excellence earned him a place on the shortlist for the PFA young player of the year award. It is fair to say promoting Pickford to No1 rather than buying a more experienced goalkeeper when Sunderland’s first choice, Vito Mannone, was injured in August was one of the few decisions David Moyes got right during a miserable campaign.
“He has been great, to give me that experience,” says Pickford. “There was a lot of talk about certain keepers coming in, like Joe Hart, but the manager just brought in a No2/No3 [Mika, from Benfica] and gave me the opportunity. It was top drawer, really. I was a young lad thrown in at the deep end but I felt ready for it.”
His description of how he became ready for it begins with a memory from his early childhood, when his brother Richard, six years his senior, would invite him to kickabouts with the instruction: “Get on the tarmac and dive about lad.” He went on to hone his talent in the more formal surrounds of Sunderland’s academy and then, after turning professional in 2011, spent loan stints at a variety of Football League clubs, most recently at Preston North End in the 2015-16 season, when he kept 14 clean sheets in 30 matches. “That was proving that I was good enough,” he says with the confidence he has gained from working his way up steadily.
Another sign of that confidence, and his readiness, was the way he hollered instructions at veteran defenders as soon as he was thrust into Sunderland’s first team. “Around the place I’m just myself really but as soon as you cross that white line I feel it’s my job and I’m here to do it and get the lads going,” he says. “You don’t do it nastily, you do it to help the lads in front of you and you know you’re doing it when they look round and give you the thumbs up or, after the game, they bring up something you’ve done well and that you’ve saved a goal by talking.”
Pickford is all about the bottom line. The saves he cherishes most are not the most acrobatic or difficult ones but the ones that matter most. “I go back to the [Peter] Schmeichel thing: you save it how you have to, any way that you can. Technique goes out the window sometimes.” So his favorite stop in his career was the close-range one he made to prevent Leicester City’s Wes Morgan from equalizing in the sixth minute of stoppage time at the Stadium of Light in December. “It wasn’t an unbelievable save, it was just the timing of the game,” he says. “A match-winning save and we thought that win might have got us going.”
The win did not get Sunderland going – they were battered 3-0 by Swansea City a week later – but it lengthened Pickford’s list of admirers. Arsenal, Liverpool and Chelsea have been mentioned as potential destinations for him this summer. He admits to being torn about the possibility of having to choose between staying at his hometown club or heading back up to the Premier League, where his talent suggests he belongs. “Ideally it would have been better if we had stayed up; my heart is massive towards the club,” he says. “It’s a hard one, really. What will be will be.”
He has resolved not to think about it until after the European Championship. England kick off their campaign on Friday against the holders, Sweden, before completing their group fixtures against Slovakia and the hosts, Poland. “The Euros is massive for me and a lot of the other players. I don’t want to be getting distracted and I am really excited for it. We have got a chance to win it with the squad we have got. We have come this far, we have to get out of the group first but we are capable of doing that easily. We will see where we go from there.”