Asmir Begovic is close to becoming the first signing of the Rafael Benitez era at Everton, and while it is a goalkeeper to whom the club are turning to kick-start their summer transfer business, there is no disputing who is No 1.
Jordan Pickford’s performances for England at the European Championships this summer come as no surprise to Evertonians who have witnessed a turnaround in fortunes for a man who has at times been unfairly cast into the spotlight.
His critics will say it comes with the territory as the man in possession of one of the most highly-scrutinised positions in English football.
Speaking in March 2020 when assessing Bruno Fernandes’ long-range strike in a 1-1 draw with Everton, Roy Keane told Sky Sports: “The bottom line with Pickford, I don’t need to see the stats I know he’s not a good goalkeeper. He’s not up to it.”
That was Everton’s final game at Goodison Park in front of supporters before the outset of the coronavirus pandemic. It was questioned how Pickford would perform without those in the stands.
Would it sharpen or reduce his concentration levels?
While some players soon appeared to be thriving behind closed doors, his early-season form was a hangover from an unimpressive end to the 2019/20 campaign.
A mistake during a 3-0 defeat at Wolves last July in ‘Project Restart’ stood out, allowing a routine shot to go through his legs before recovering to prevent the ball from crossing the line. He tried to laugh off the error, but his displays hadn’t been good enough to justify such hubris.
Everton were the early pace-setters last term, but that was in spite of another mistake in the 4-2 win over Brighton, a fortnight before his now infamous incident with Virgil van Dijk in the Merseyside derby which drew scathing criticism from Graeme Souness.
“That was an assault, that wasn’t a tackle,” he told Sky Sports.
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There were even calls for retrospective action. One pundit even suggested Pickford be banned for the length of time Van Dijk was out. Sympathy was in very short supply, but Jamie Carragher offered a form of defence.
“Yes, it was a terrible tackle,” he said. “I’ve had my leg broken, and I nearly broke Nani’s leg. These things happen unfortunately in football. I don’t think anyone deliberately goes out of their way to hurt someone.
“Jordan Pickford is all over the place with his game at the moment. He comes out and makes a crazy decision as he has been doing for the last 12 months, and Van Dijk is obviously in a bad way. But I really hope that Pickford will also not been in a good place tonight.”
By the end of the month, Carlo Ancelotti had taken his much-maligned goalkeeper out of the firing line for the trip to Newcastle, a place where he had perhaps previously allowed the occasion of facing his former club Sunderland’s biggest rivals affect his mindset.
The hope was that at the very least it would act as a line drawn in the sand and an opportunity for Pickford to reset but Everton’s 1-1 draw at Burnley in December featured the fifth time he was beaten by a shot from outside the box last season – a league high.
Further concerns were raised at the turn of the year when he allowed Youri Tielemans’ shot to slip through his grasp for Leicester’s equaliser in the 1-1 draw at Goodison.
It went down as Pickford’s 10th error leading to a goal, according to Opta – more than any other player in the Premier League since he signed for Everton in June 2017.
His erratic form had understandably led to suggestions Gareth Southgate would be tasked with looking elsewhere for a new No 1, less than six months out from the European Championships.
He was far from being the unanimous choice among Sky Sports writers following March’s World Cup qualifiers which coincided with the player aggravating a rib issue, denying him the chance to put his case forward.
Conversely, those in favour of Dean Henderson and Nick Pope were both talked up, but the counter-argument was that Pickford had never let England down – and more importantly, he retained his manager’s backing.
At Everton Ancelotti had warned Pickford would be rotated on occasion with Olsen, irrespective of his performances, but he remained his first choice.
It was hoped that Everton’s 2-0 win at Anfield against Liverpool on February 20 would act as a seminal moment for the club, but while crippling home defeats would ultimately render the lifting of this psychological block as meaningless, it has in time represented a turning point for Pickford.
He was outstanding on the night, denying Jordan Henderson before his withdrawal from long-range before smothering at the feet of Mohamed Salah to preserve his team’s lead before Gylfi Sigurdsson ended the contest late on from the spot.
Further heroics ensued as Everton put together a three-game winning run that included a superb one-handed save at West Brom to deny Mbaye Diagne.
Pickford then made nine saves in the defeat at Chelsea as Ancelotti set his side out to limit another Stamford Bridge beating, and yet it didn’t prevent criticism of his performance after bringing down Kai Havertz inside the box to lead to Jorginho converting from the spot.
Everton’s quest to remain in the hunt for European qualification ultimately faded towards the end of last season, but the run of three wins from their final 12 league fixtures was in no way down to individual goalkeeping errors.
The debate was still rumbling, however, over whether or not England should stick or twist.
Fitness issues for Pope and Henderson removed any such unwanted selection headache despite Southgate’s unwavering support, but it was now Pickford’s turn to repay the faith.
With the eyes of the world watching, it was perfect stage to remind his critics of his true value, and during the course of his seven displays through to the final, he won over the nation’s hearts.
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Having progressed through the Academy of Light to the first team at Sunderland, Pickford has represented his country at every level from under-16s though to the senior team, for whom he made his debut against Germany in November 2017.
It was therefore fitting that against the same opposition this summer, he collected a signed shirt from Manuel Neuer after matching Gordon Banks’ record from the 1966 World Cup of four successive clean sheets at a major competition.
During the group stages, he was already piecing together a strong case to be the best goalkeeper at the tournament, saving his country from the embarrassment of defeat to Scotland.
Gone was the frantic Pickford that punctuated the previous 18 months and attracted ridicule. Here was the new and improved, unflappable and more mature version that was the product of time spent with a sports psychologist.
“We talk about everything,” Pickford had said of the arrangement back in January. “We cover a lot of bases: mentality and how to be better in all aspects.
“He can help me develop my thinking and learn how to cope with various things and get through sticky patches. I want to be the best goalkeeper for me.”
Here, he was the best goalkeeper in Europe.
His distribution in getting his side up the pitch was a noticeable tactic which Southgate called upon in the slender victory over Croatia and the Czech Republic before the knockout stages.
The save from Stephen O’Donnell in the game against Scotland and the way he spread himself to deny Timo Werner portrayed Pickford’s calmer side.
It wasn’t until the semi-finals that he was beaten as Mikkel Damsgaard brilliantly put Denmark in front. His spikiness flickered back during a brief 10-minute period but by now it was endearing, and a reminder of his human side. England were on the brink of making history after all.
We all know what happened next in the final against Italy, but what has not been widely documented is that Pickford was in line to step forward from 12 yards as England’s first sudden-death penalty-taker.
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Footage on social media clearly indicates the goalkeeper was assigned the sixth spot-kick. It would have been a big call from Southgate, placing him in front of Raheem Sterling and Jack Grealish among other outfield players.
The England manager would not have seen it as such, having subsequently explained the science behind his selection of the players.
Pickford scored when he stepped up as the fifth taker for England in a penalty shoot-out against Switzerland in the Nations League in 2019, and it was another sign of the faith Southgate has in him. He knows how Pickford functions, thriving on the pressure of representing his country.
After Jadon Sancho’s miss, England were on their knees knowing another converted Italian penalty would signal the end. But Pickford collected his thoughts and was seen mouthing “no problem” to referee Bjorn Kuipers when reminded to have one foot on his line.
What followed would consist of the “best meaningless 47 seconds in England’s history”, as the Independent’s Mark Critchley brilliantly described the joyous scenes as Pickford kept the Three Lions in with a chance by saving from Jorginho.
Now, imagine for one second Bukayo Saka had scored. Pickford had saved again, and then stepped up to end 55 years of hurt. There would have been his statue erected in Sunderland by now and the inevitable calls for a knighthood.
Over a week on from the final, the pain of another shootout defeat is slowly dissipating and while Southgate’s decision-making remains a bone of contention, Pickford’s emergence as one of England’s key men is now undisputed.
The new line of thought was that Pickford transforms into a different player for his country, but that has rightly been vehemently discounted by those who have watched him and played with him during the course of the past six months.
“I thought he had a brilliant tournament,” said Southgate. “The number of times I’ve sat here and his place in the team has been questioned, but he’s constantly delivered for us. This tournament was his best run of performances for England. He should be hugely proud of that.
“He could do little more in terms of keeping the ball out of our net and that’s always the starting point for any goalkeeper. He had a really outstanding tournament.”
When he returns to Finch Farm later this month, he will be introduced to his fifth permanent manager in as many years, hardly ideal for the development of a goalkeeper who is still only 27 and still short of his prime.
Pickford has his peak years still in front of him, and his stellar Euro 2020 displays underlined the growing sense he has turned a corner in his career. Last year, he married his childhood sweetheart Megan Davison with whom he has a son, and his own personal growth is being reflected on the pitch.
“There’d be nothing better for me than to win a medal with England,” he said during one media commitment. “Personal stuff, that takes care of itself. To win a medal with England would be the pinnacle.”
For a player who has never lacked ambition, the World Cup in Qatar will already be in his sights. Each international renewal between now and then will be greeted with a burning feeling of unfinished business.
At Everton, Benitez has already vocalised his stance that talk is cheap during his first press conference last week, and he shares Pickford’s preference to ‘walk the walk’.
His reputation restored, his club will hope their goalkeeper rises to the occasion on a consistent basis to provide their new manager with the perfect platform upon which to silence his own doubters.
How Pickford rated at Euro 2020
England 1-0 Croatia – June 13 (Group stage)
Biggest task throughout was to pick the right pass, with very little else to do. Not afraid to go long from goal kicks, but one of his quietest afternoons in an England shirt, bar some commanding late aerial claims – 6.
England 0-0 Scotland – June 18 (Group stage)
Excellent save to deny O’Donnell’s volley was one thing – the strength to palm the shot so quickly away was impressive rather than a fault to criticise – 8.
Czech Republic 0-1 England – June 23 (Group stage)
A spectator for the opening 30 minutes before producing a flying save to deny Holes. Touch wood, but the Everton goalkeeper hasn’t put a boot or glove wrong in the tournament so far – 8
England 2-0 Germany – June 30 (Last 16)
His reputation continues to soar. Excellent sprawling save to deny Timo Werner with his feet and then an even better fingertip to deny Kai Havertz. Only Raheem Sterling is above him for overall excellence in an England shirt this summer – 9.
Ukraine 0-4 England – July 3 (Quarter-finals)
One save to make either side of the break and he kept both of them out, but then made a complete hash of what should have been a relatively straightforward clearance and looked oddly frenetic and frazzled when England reached the dreamland of a 4-0 lead in a quarter-final – 7.
England 2-1 Denmark – July 7 (Semi-finals)
Seemingly surprised by Damsgaard’s excellent free-kick just moments after setting a new England all-time record for the most number of minutes without conceding. Should he have at least got a hand on it? Probably. But note the saves he made – albeit one from an attack deemed offside – in the later stages – 7.
Italy 1-1 England (3-2 on pens) – July 11 (Final)
Superb. His opposite number will, of course, take the plaudits and headlines, but Pickford’s save from Jorginho in the shootout was the most important of his career while the save onto the post in normal time would be recalled as an outstanding stop if only Leonardo Bonucci had not been on hand to bundle the ball over the line – 8.
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