Season In Focus: Pickford Proving Number One Value

by Paul McNamara

For a period in the mid-1980s Everton could convincingly boast of having the world’s finest goalkeeper. They could present a compelling argument for being the best team around, too.

These were not mutually exclusive phenomena. No danger, then, of the Club of Neville Southall overlooking the potentially seismic impact on a team of a first-rate keeper.

In this respect, Everton have remained ahead of the game. When they needed a new number one last summer, the Club acted swiftly and decisively. They identified England’s most talented and promising goalkeeper and did not baulk at stumping up a British-record fee for a stopper to get him.

Jordan Pickford would play every minute of every game of Everton’s Premier League campaign and clean up at the Club’s end-of-season awards night following a stellar debut season.

The 24-year-old recorded 10 top-flight shutouts, made 121 saves – some stunners among them – and won his first two full England caps, keeping clean sheets against traditional powerhouses Germany and Holland, his timing impeccable with a World Cup on the immediate horizon.

It might seem odd to suggest that a football club’s last line of defence could be chosen as something of an afterthought. But that was the way of it in large circles of the sport until very recently.

The emergence in the past decade of the sweeper-keeper, primarily in the shape of Manuel Neuer, Germany’s World Cup-winning number one, was responsible for a discernible change in attitude towards the goalkeeper’s role in a side.

Pep Guardiola’s arrival in England, with his insistence that his keeper must possess quality on the ball to match that of his outfield colleagues, crystalised the wider game's mentality shift with respect to the imperative of having a top-class number one.

Everton appreciated as much a long way back. And Pickford is at the vanguard of this new breed of goalkeeper, equally comfortable measuring a pass into midfield, or unleashing his ‘sidewinder’ to release a teammate in his opponents’ half, as he is leaping away to make a fingertip save or claiming a high ball into his box.

Centre-back Michael Keane, another summer 2017 signing at Goodison Park, developed a strong on-pitch relationship with Pickford during the pair’s first season as clubmates.

He was on the field for eight of Pickford’s 10 top-flight clean sheets. As such, Keane's assessment of his fellow England international is relevant – and far removed from the resistance Brian Clough met when he asked Nottingham Forest’s board to shell out the best part of £300,000 on Peter Shilton.

“Jordan can go all the way to the top,” said Keane. “He has everything. His shot stopping is great, he is quick off the mark to get to the floor and make his saves.

“His kicking and distribution is really impressive as well, which is massive in the modern game.

“He is dominant. He is aggressive. He has everything you need in a goalkeeper. He is still young and learning, so there are things he can improve but I am sure over the years that will come… and he will be a world-class goalkeeper.”

Keane’s voice was one of a vast number raining down plaudits on Pickford during the past 12 months.

“A goalkeeper we can get excited about… he looks every inch the part,” was the verdict of one of Pickford’s Everton predecessors, Nigel Martyn.

Former Preston colleague and fellow England goalkeeper Chris Kirkland has Pickford pinned as “the best I ever worked with”.

“He makes unbelievable saves,” continued Kirkland. “But he has the other stuff you need as a goalkeeper these days, the presence and command of his box.

“His distribution was probably the best anyone has seen: left foot and right foot. His left foot is like a wand and his right foot is almost as good.

“He is the whole package.”

Clough reckoned Shilton’s worth weighed in at roughly 12 points per season – that in an era of two points for a win.

Forest won the league title by a seven-point margin after Clough persuaded his club’s powerbrokers in 1977 that, yes, it would be a good idea to pay that much money for “a player who would not be involved for 85 minutes of every game”.

“We were mad in many people’s eyes,” Clough later reflected. “But (assistant boss) Peter Taylor and I knew our history in advance. History now tells us Shilton was worth twice the price. We weren’t mad at all, we were magic.”

In plenty of observers’ eyes, Southall eclipsed Shilton as the best goalkeeper on the planet as Everton were crowned English champions twice in three seasons between 1985 and 1987.

The Welshman’s reactions and athleticism, allied to the confidence permeated through the side by the goalkeeper’s authoritative and imposing presence, were essential components of Howard Kendall’s imperious team.

Yet still, the wider world was not necessarily cottoning on.

When Juventus paid Parma £32.6million for Gianluigi Buffon in 2001 the fee was broadly greeted with a mix of bewilderment and incredulity.

"In that sort of transfer market, I was seen as... we could say a phenomenon of sorts,” Buffon would comment.

“But a good goalkeeper is vital for a good team – just as valuable as a good striker.”

Buffon’s transfer represented a £17m jump on the previous highest sum spent on a keeper – the £15.7m Inter Milan received from Lazio for Angelo Peurzzi 12 months earlier.

Italy’s record cap holder with 176, Buffon played his final match for Juventus earlier this month. His 17 years in Turin yielded nine Serie A title and four Italian cups, while he was a Champions League finalist on three occasions.

Fair to say, Juve got plenty of bang for their buck.

While the money invested in first-rate footballers mushroomed following the turn of the century, however, the cost of goalkeepers remained immune to the trend.

In the same summer Buffon joined Juventus, brilliant French midfielder Zinedine Zidane left the Italian giants for Real Madrid in a world-record £46m deal.

That fee has been routinely surpassed in the intervening years – but it was not until Guardiola and Manchester City forked out £34.7m for Ederson last summer that Buffon surrendered his status as the planet’s costliest footballer.

Pickford is third on the world list and conclusively proving his worth. Moreover, if he matches Buffon for longevity – and the Wearsider's dedication to his profession and love of what he does, not to mention his stated intent to play 500 Premier League games, " maybe more", indicates he might be minded to – the Everton keeper will still be going at this in the mid-2030s.

“All I want to do is improve.” said Pickford. “It is not just on the training pitch, it is in the gym, too. I am working hard to be the best I can be.

“When I as at Sunderland I was constantly trying to make an impression and show how good I was.

“Sometimes, it is not about that. The biggest thing I have learned in the past year and a half is how to manage a game.

“I appreciate more how to manage a game: when to do my sidewinder or just keep it simple and give the lads a breather.

"To be playing in the Premier League in the first place, you have to be technically, tactically and mentally strong. It is about the timing of doing things and managing the game.”

Martyn – whose £2.25m move from Crystal Palace to Leeds United represented a British transfer record for a goalkeeper in 1996, in the same summer Alan Shearer cost Newcastle United £15m – survived at the peak of the game until he was stymied by an ankle injury in his 40th year.

“What Jordan has to do now, is bed down and churn out season after season of consistent goalkeeping – and I am sure he can do that,” said Martyn. "He looks a confident guy, he holds himself really well, his distribution is excellent and his shot stopping is very good."

Pickford laid down a marker at Everton early on. He saved spectacularly from Stoke City’s Xherdan Shaqiri in the last knockings of the Toffees’ Premier League opening-day victory over Stoke City.

His penalty save from Ahmed Said a fortnight later ensured his side’s Europa League progression.

The crucial stops stacked up but Evertonians never took their goalkeeper for granted – they appreciate when they’ve got a good‘ un and the inestimable value of his contribution.

He might be the last line of defence, but Jordan Pickford is the first name on Everton’s teamsheet.

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