Alan Kelly first clapped eyes on Jordan Pickford when the goalkeeper’s loan team Carlisle United were being put to the sword by Preston North End.
It says something for Pickford’s class and substance, then, that Kelly’s keeper’s intuition told him he was watching a “special” footballer.
Indeed, off the back of that single viewing Kelly, then goalkeeper coach with Preston, resolved to bring the young Wearsider to Deepdale.
More than 12 months later Preston snared their man – on a temporary deal from Sunderland – and Kelly, now a key figure on David Unsworth’s Everton Under-23s staff, encountered a man passionate about his job and “determined to improve every day”.
Kelly reunited with Pickford during a stint working with the Toffees’ first-team last season and believes the England number one has developed into one of the best in the world in his position.
Moreover, Kelly is convinced Pickford, one of the heroes of the Three Lions’ run to Wednesday night’s World Cup semi-final with Croatia, is “only going to get better”.
“I saw him first when Preston played Carlisle at home [in April 2014),” Kelly told evertontv.
“We opened the scoring in about the 10th minute and went on to win 6-1. But during the game I saw something in this young goalkeeper that made me think, ‘He is special, he is going to be a fantastic goalkeeper’.
“Simon Grayson was the manager at the time and I said, ‘We should sign this lad if we can’.
“It took us a year to get him, by which time he had been to Bradford [on loan for the 2014/15 season], but he took responsibility for his actions on the pitch.
“He was clearly very talented but when you bring in his passion and determination to do well and improve every day [it is a formidable combination].
“He brought that into every training session.
“He is a really bubbly character who likes a laugh and a joke. But he does that at the right times. When it is time to work, he works.
“That sort of application from day one, for me as a coach, I felt, ‘Wow… this is someone who is going to respond to what you put on’. He did and I cannot tell you how good he was to work with.”
Pickford is renowned for his competitive spirit and has no qualms confessing a goal conceded on the training ground is enough to send him into a fury.
Kelly confirms as much – and insists the 24-year-old’s commitment and robust character have both contributed hugely to Pickford’s rapid progress in the three years since the pair teamed up at Preston.
Pickford returned from his stint in Lancashire – where he recorded 13 clean sheets in 24 matches on what was his first taste of Championship football – to claim Sunderland’s number one jersey and subsequently excelled in his debut Premier League campaign, earning the move to Everton last summer which made him the most expensive British goalkeeper in history.
He has won all eight of his England caps following his transfer to Goodison Park, establishing himself as his country’s undisputed first-choice keeper in a matter of months.
“If Jordan conceded in training he would go mad,” says Kelly. “As a goalkeeper coach I don’t mind that because it shows someone who cares and will do their utmost to ensure it doesn’t happen again.
“After the World Cup quarter-final [when England beat Sweden 2-0 on Saturday] he said that nothing fazes him. He goes into games with that mental capacity to take all the pressure.
“If a keeper makes a mistake it goes in the back of the net. People might say I am biased, but it is the most pressurised position because you cannot afford to make a mistake or you get punished.
“He handles that better than many, many goalkeepers I have worked with internationally and domestically.
“He had matured during his season in the Premier League with Sunderland [when Kelly renewed acquaintances with Pickford at Goodison last term] but I still saw the same goalkeeper who wanted to work hard and do whatever he could to keep the ball out the back of his net and be the best he could in his position.
“He has always been self-driven. As a coach that is fantastic. If someone wants to work hard and try to listen and learn and develop and get better, those are fantastic tools for a coach to work with.
“From working with a younger Jordan Pickford to seeing him now, as England’s number one, all that enthusiasm, attitude, hard work and application have come together at the right time and he is going to be a superstar, isn’t he?”
Kelly corrects himself. “He is a superstar.”
Former Preston, Sheffield United and Blackburn Rovers stopper Kelly was capped 34 times by Republic of Ireland during his 19-year career – emulating dad Alan Senior who also represented Ireland and played nearly 450 games for Preston.
Kelly Jr was in his country’s World Cup finals squad in 1994 and 2002 and coached Ireland’s goalkeepers at the European Championship in 2012.
Jack Charlton’s Ireland famously stunned eventual finalists Italy 1-0 in America 24 years ago and under the charge of Mick McCarthy in 2002 the Republic were only eliminated in the last-16 following a penalty shootout with Spain.
But while Ireland have historically performed with a sense of derring-do in summer tournaments, their English counterparts have been hamstrung by the pressure of performing with the eyes of the nation fixed on them.
Manager Gareth Southgate has helped the Three Lions escape their straitjacket, however, with Pickford one of the standard bearers for this progressive, fearless England side, which is a semi-final victory over Croatia away from reaching Sunday’s World Cup final.
“I just think he is made for that stage,” said Kelly.
“He was born for that. He has the personality and, more importantly, the ability to command the world stage. Which is what he is doing.
“A lot of Preston fans will tell you, some of the saves he pulled off in his time at Preston were probably as good as they’ve seen – since my dad!
“He is one of the sweetest strikers of the ball I have seen, be that a goalkeeper or outfield player, in more than 30 years in football.
“Sometimes his other attributes have been overlooked because of that.
“But his command of his box, the shot stopping he performed against Sweden with three crucial saves – that package is what makes you one of the best goalkeepers in the world. And that is what he is at the moment.”