In an interview originally published in Everton’s matchday programme for the Boxing Day clash with Wolves, after Jordan Pickford once again proved why he's one of the best in the business during the 2022 World Cup, we caught up with those who work with the shot-stopper every day to discuss what sets him apart…
There are few spotlights in football as bright as the one beaming on England’s first-choice goalkeeper.
It has always been the case.
Unsurprising, then, that Jordan Pickford’s performances at the 2022 World Cup dominated column inches and online media throughout — and beyond — the controversial Qatar tournament.
Strip it back and, despite a collective frustration surrounding a perceived missed opportunity following a 2-1 defeat to France in the quarter-finals, it was a run that saw Pickford reach 50 senior caps and add three clean sheets from the Three Lions’ five games to move one behind Peter Shilton’s national record (10) in major tournaments.
There were stunning saves — two stand-out moments against Senegal, as well as crucial stops to keep Gareth Southgate’s side in the fight against Didier Deschamps’ defending champions — from the man who helped England to the semi-finals of the World Cup four years ago and had the nation on the brink of European Championships glory with penalty heroics in the final against Italy last summer.
And yet, there is a lingering feeling in some quarters that Pickford is not given the credit he deserves.
While every professional player at the top of the game is open to criticism, the notion that Pickford, who has been consistently excellent for Everton in the past two calendar years, in particular, somehow raises his game on the international stage is one that rankles.
Not that it will particularly bother Pickford, who counts mental strength as one of his biggest assets.
Nor those at Everton who know him best. None more so than long-term Goalkeeping Coach, Alan Kelly, who first spotted the talents of the now 28-year-old in an unlikely set of circumstances back in 2014.
Kelly, a coach at Preston North End at the time, was on the bench as the Lilywhites thumped Carlisle United 6-1 in a League One clash at Deepdale.
Despite the emphatic manner of the victory, Carlisle’s goalkeeper — a 20-year-old Pickford — caught Kelly’s eye and soon the two would be working together at Deepdale while on loan from Sunderland.
“During that game I saw something special in this young goalkeeper,” Kelly recalls. “I thought, ‘He’s special, he’s going to be a fantastic goalkeeper.’
“I spoke to Simon Grayson, who was the [Preston] manager at the time, and said we should try to sign this guy. It took us a year to get him, by which time he’d been at Bradford as well.
“I saw he took responsibility for his actions on the pitch and it was that honesty, coupled with that ability he has that we’ve all seen that makes him special.
“He brings a passion and an honesty to his position.
“Back then, we had identified he was clearly very talented as a goalkeeper, but then you bring in his passion, his hunger to do well and his willingness to learn every day — he brings that to every training session.
“He’s a bubbly character, but he hates conceding goals… He epitomises that goalkeeper spirit.
“Jordan has always been self-driven and as a coach that’s fantastic when you’re working with someone who wants to learn, listen, develop and get better.
“They’re all the tools you want as a coach. From working with a younger Jordan Pickford to working with him now as England’s number one, all the hard work and attitude have all come together to make him the superstar he is today.”
On the critics, Kelly adds: “I don't think I've known anybody get as much stick as he does, just to deal with that in itself has showed you he's well rounded.
“He’s said before that nothing fazes him. He goes into games with that belief, that mental capacity to take all of the pressure placed on him.
“When you play football at the top level, especially at a tournament like the World Cup, if a keeper makes a mistake then it generally results in a goal. In my opinion, it is the most pressurised position because you simply can’t afford to make any mistakes. He carries that and handles it so well.
“You’ve got to take your hat off to him and say it’s been a hell of a journey. And he's only 28. He’s relatively young as a goalkeeper and I think he can be proud of himself, in terms of where he's come from as a young goalkeeper to where he is now, seen as a mature leader and a captain of Everton.”
It’s a character reference and verdict corroborated by others who work closest with Pickford on a daily basis at Finch Farm.
There are facts to back-up the opinion that he remains on a clear incline, too.
Pickford, the winner of the Premier League’s inaugural Save of the Season for a stunning stop to deny Cesar Azpilicueta at Goodison during last term’s run-in, has had a save success percentage between 62.7 per cent and 69.8 per cent since signing from Sunderland for a record fee for a British goalkeeper in the summer of 2017.
So far this season, his save success percentage stands at an impressive 77.9 per cent.
Teammate and fellow member of the goalkeepers’ union, Asmir Begovic, believes Pickford to be among the world’s best in their position — and is confident his colleague’s meticulous approach will see him develop even further in years to come.
“Coming to Everton, one of the attractions was to work with Jordan, compete with Jordan and, obviously, to push Jordan,” says Begovic. “It’s honestly been really great to work with him and we’ve formed a great relationship because he’s such a good guy.
“We’ve got a very healthy respect for each other and I’m a big fan of his and what he’s doing right now because he’s performing at such a high level.
“I think Jordan is one of the best goalkeepers in the world.
“There are certain realities in football… We’re in the most followed sport in the world. When you play for Everton, a historic Premier League club, and England, one of the biggest football nations in the world, then there is a reality that it comes with a level of attention.
“So many people follow it and they are extremely passionate.
“What’s great about Jordan is that he’s aware of that in terms of the responsibility but then it comes down to how you deal with that and you do that by simply focusing on your work every day.
“It’s a day-to-day process — not looking too far ahead, not getting too far ahead of yourself. Jordan does a great job of compartmentalising it, taking it day to day, week to week and understanding that’s how he’s got himself into the position he is in now.
“What we have at Everton is a really great goalkeeper group, we push each other every day and that helps everyone. It’s an important relationship — these groups are always very small, so being close is important.
“I think the environment for him is very good and, naturally, that rubs off on your character.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that Jordan will continue to get better.
“He’s still young, especially in goalkeeper terms. If he continues working as he does, pushes himself as he does, looks after himself as he does… he’s got many years left at the highest level.
“With goalkeepers, the greater understanding of the game you get from experience is so important and he’ll continue to benefit from that the more games he plays.”
One of the more common topics in the sea of chat engulfing England’s number one is his perceived maturation in recent years.
In February 2019, Pickford became a father for the first time and reveals his son, Arlo, is one of his biggest inspirations and reasons for his continued development.
“I think I’ve matured as a person,” Pickford explained ahead of the 2022/23 season. “I’ve got a family now, a little boy and that definitely changes you as a person.
“I think I’ve changed more as a person than I have a footballer. I think I’m getting better. You learn a lot about yourself as you go and over the five years I’ve been here, I think I’ve become a lot more consistent and I’m definitely getting better as I’m getting older.
“It’s nice that my son is getting into football now as well.
“He comes to watch me play and, when we’re at home, we’ll be sat there and he’ll find an Everton song to play on YouTube. He knows all the songs off by heart now!
“He spurs me on to get better and he definitely inspires me.”
Begovic, meanwhile, has a slightly different theory to the old adage that ‘goalkeepers get better with age’.
“I always think, is it a case of them getting ‘better’? Or is it just a case of seeing the game slightly differently from experience?,” Begovic ponders. “That experience and repetition — seeing so many more actions on the pitch — makes you wiser and it helps you foresee things, predict things you maybe wouldn’t have in your younger years.
“Then, I think you also learn how to manage yourself better through the week, what works in terms of looking after yourself and approaching things in the most professional way. That’s something that’s so important.
“You can never get tired with the day to day and you have to be smart with how you approach training and look after yourself.
“Jordan does all of those things.
“I can only speak for the 18 months I’ve been here but there’s no doubt he’s a mature guy. He’s very calm and he — and us as a group — are very particular about our work.
“It’s been great to work with him and play a part in his journey so far.”
Whatever the answer is, manager Frank Lampard is under no illusions as to what Pickford offers his squad.
The Blues boss has regularly spoke about the importance of Pickford’s quality, as well as his significant influence as one of the leaders in Everton’s changing room.
Lampard first selected Pickford as captain towards the end of the 2021/22 season and, in the absence of Seamus Coleman, has also worn the armband on occasion during the opening months of the current campaign.
“I have worked closely with Jordan and I must also say Alan Kelly, our Goalkeeping Coach, is fantastic,” says Lampard. “Alan is a really good sounding board for him and through the work he delivers for him.
“Keepers are always much closer to the goalkeeping coach so I must give Alan credit on that front.
“I think he's played at an extremely high level for a long time. Sometimes, he's not quite got the credit that he deserves, but he got the credit last year because of his performances and how in-your-face they were.
“He is very, very complete in terms of his game.
“When you speak to people around the training ground and Everton, I think there is a real sense of Jordan taking on board maturity.
“He’s a leader in the group, without a doubt.
“There is a calmness in his game. I didn’t know him before [I arrived at Everton] and now I have worked with him I see there is a calmness and a confidence in himself and that means he can affect other people around him positively, which is a huge plus as a goalkeeper.
“He's got a great attitude, he's generally been England's number one and that is always Gareth's [Southgate] choice but from my point of view… I know how important keepers are, they can make or break you as a coach and as a team.
“Seamus [Coleman] will always be Club captain as long as he is an Everton player but it’s massively important that we have other captains in the squad [for now and in the future]. Jordan is part of that.”
On Pickford’s captaincy style, coach Kelly adds: “He doesn’t go over the top, you know, doesn't put on the show.
“He’ll be going around reminding everybody what the job is, what the game plan is, how we need to start the game, what we need to know, what threats we need to look out for. It's all game-related, so in some respects it’s less emotion and more function.
“I think it meant a great deal to Jordan to be given the captain’s armband.
“One, there's not many goalkeeping captains.
“Two, I think everybody likes an arm around the shoulder, a pat on the back. And I think the captaincy is a validation of what he brings to the team and that standing within the squad and within the dressing room. You don't get that [the armband] if a manager doesn't think you're worthy of it.
“That’s a real statement of what the Club, manager, lads think about him.”
With international football now over until March, Pickford’s focus switches back to domestic matters, starting with an important clash with Wolves this afternoon as the Toffees look to hit back from a bitterly disappointing week leading into the mid-season break.
His passion to do so and determination to ensure his best days in L4 are ahead of him are clear for all to see.
“When the fans came out the way they did [last season], even when we were leaving the training ground and hotels, and you see the support the Club has… It touches your heart,” said Pickford.
“It gives me a big adrenaline rush to see and gives us all belief to see their support.
“There’s always been goalkeepers with legacies here, going back to the Neville Southall days. Tim Howard had a good career here, too.
“I think Everton has always been good to the goalkeepers and having consistent years with one goalkeeper so, for me, it would be really good to have that as well.
“Having the fans buzzing off you and seeing things like the flag in the Gwladys Street is an amazing feeling.
“Building a legacy here is something I’d be really passionate about.”
For all the external noise that surrounds Pickford, Evertonians will be hoping his legacy with the Club is only just beginning.