When I was growing up, the only removal firm in England that anyone knew was Pickfords Removals – so ubiquitous were those vans and trucks that Dinky toys made a model, which I played with as a kid. A name that resonated safe keeping.
Today the name Pickford is also ubiquitous in the media – as the latest goalkeeping villain, with regular mistakes and errors costing his team and country games and points. More recently that has included violent conduct and injuring a rival.
Here is a typical, though accurate compendium of Jordan Pickford’s errors.
This is the same Jordan Pickford that graced the last World Cup, becoming the Nation’s hero amongst a team of nearly-men, unfancied, yet only minutes from the final.
What happened ?
In this post we attempt to understand what has happened to the player, what may be the solutions, and what lessons flow from the latest demands for Pickford’s Removal.
The end of the beginning
Jordan was born in Washington, only 8 miles from Sunderland, in England’s North-East, and naturally signed for the Sunderland Academy at 8 years old. By 16 he was playing in the championship-winning EPL-Reserve team at Sunderland, who’s first team squad at the time boasted 3 international keepers.
Having journeyed through the ranks of football, with loans to lower league teams like Bradford and Carlisle, he had a classic English upbringing. Indeed he attributes his success to the verbal (and physical) battering he received during his non-league days at Darlington and Burton Albion.
Here’s a couple of quotes from an excellent article on Planet Football
“When there are just 500 fans inside a ground, you can hear everything they say, every little word. So that’s what turns you from a kid into a man,” Pickford recalled of his time at Darlington, who were bottom of the Conference “getting battered every week………I remember going for a drink of water and one old bloke shouts, ‘Hey you, young lad! Your grandad is under that grass!’ I just turned around to him, gave him the thumbs up and said, ‘Nae problem!‘”
First one and Done
Given his personality, a shy individual off the field, yet dominant, verbally commanding on the field, it’s surprising his first red card came in a League one “Pennines rivalry” game playing for Bradford City against Rochdale. Bringing down Rochdale striker Mickey Done inside the penalty area, Pickford was shown red after only 11 minutes on the notorious Bradford quagmire, yet the FA showed leniency, allowing the club to apply the one game ban against a cup tie that Pickford wasn’t even eligible to play in, a sign that the ban would have been overturned, and the foul deemed far from dangerous.
Less than a month later he saw his second red in the game against Port Vale, and again his 2-match ban was appealed and rescinded, the FA agreeing Pickford had not denied a goal scoring opportunity to the Vale striker.
Almost a year later, while on loan to Preston, Pickford was shown another red, this time handling the ball outside the area attempting to deny a Leeds striker. At the appeal video evidence proved he had used his chest and the ban was again rescinded.
A simple conclusion stems from these events – Pickford was far from a dirty keeper at all throughout his initiation in the 4 lower divisions of the English game – a climate which is notorious for making or breaking young keepers and their tempers.
Making a splash
Only a month after that red against Leeds in the Championship, Pickford was recalled by his club Sunderland, who were 19th in the EPL and facing a keeper problem. When he made his EPL debut, losing 1-4 to Spurs, he became one of the few players to have played in all 5 top divisions of English football before the age of 22.
That year continued to be one he’ll always remember, helping the England u21’s to the country’s first championship in 22yrs. It also helped the coach, Gareth Southgate, on his path to the Senior England manager’s role.
Later in that year, it was Southgate who gave Pickford his first England senior cap while caretaker manager, a World Cup qualifier against Slovenia.
The rest of the 2016-17 season went well for Pickford, despite the clubs relegation, and he was shortlisted for the PFA Young Player of the year award. At Sunderland, fans rightly named Jermaine Defoe as player of the year, for his contributions both on and off the field. Jermaine’s friendship and support for 5 year old Sunderland fan Bradley Lowry during his battle with cancer is legendary in World Soccer.
Without a doubt, Jordan Pickford had made a splash.
Pickford’s exploits were getting a lot of airplay, and with Sunderland’s relegation, it was inevitable that he would be snapped up by an EPL team – and Everton captured him with a £30m bid making him the most expensive British keeper.
But Everton were far from the finished article and he continued to “get battered” in the Toffees goal, although exceeding expectations and as Wayne Rooney attests, “saved us points”
He continued to win praise for his communication, distribution, and above all his catching. He was dominant in the air and oozed confidence.
But any keeper will tell you, it’s the mistakes that make or break you.
“Carlisle’s goalkeeping coach Tony Caig recalled: “Jordan came for a cross, and it was as though he was thinking about what to do with it before he caught it. He dropped it, and they scored. At that point I thought, ‘Ooh, let’s see how he reacts to that.’ Five minutes later another cross comes into the box and he comes and takes it, as confident as anything.”
While Pickford was clearly able to brush off mistakes and immediately get back into a routine, perhaps this quote lends some insight into a weakness – planning ahead a little too much and making a mistake.
John O’Shea also felt this was a “growing pain” in the younger Pickford.
“Pickers has been impressive, his kicking is quality at times but sometimes he has to calm himself down because the game is going so fast,’ said Sunderland’s John O’Shea. ‘It’s end to end and we just need to try and keep control of it because that kind of adds to the tension. If he can control that a little bit then he is going to be a top-class keeper.”
We can’t have it both ways, and here we discuss the need to “know the chess board and plan your move ahead” when distributing the ball. But it’s risky to be thinking so far ahead that the present (ie the ball) hits you full in the face.
We wonder if this fault remains in the “older Jordan Pickford” and can explain some of his strange decision making.
(Almost) Up for the cup!
Jordan’s club career continued to blossom in a mediocre Everton side, while his international career hit fresh heights, culminating with his standout performances in the 2018 World Cup. England were far from fancied and struggled in an average group, but largely due to Pickford’s heroics made the semi-final, and were within minutes of the final.
His penalty heroics continued into 2019 when he became the only Englishman to both convert and save a penalty in a competitive shootout for his country. Those that know a bit about England and penalty shootouts will recognize that as some record!
However Jordan holds another record he probably prefers to forget – in 2011, Playing for England at the 2011 FIFA U-17 World Cup against Canada, Pickford allowed a downfield punt by Canadian goalkeeper Quillan Roberts to go past him, which remains the only goal scored by a goalkeeper in a FIFA finals to date from open play.
But this wasn’t to be his biggest mistake. And foolish words about a rival’s error, made only three months earlier were to come back and haunt him.
The beginning of the end.
Those of us that have followed his career, and raved about his future, will have one thing in common – we all winced when we saw his error at the twilight of the Merseyside derby that same year.
Ironically, a volley by Virgil Van Dyke (VVD) seemed to be harmlessly going over the bar and the game set to end with a worthy draw, when Pickford reached up and palmed the ball back into play only to see Origi head home a 96th minute winner.
Indeed, the month got worse, with a 6-2 thrashing at home by Spurs only 2 days before Christmas adding to his woes, though watching the game you’d be hard felt to blame him for all but the first comedy mix up with Zouma.
However when the game was tied 1-1, Jordan seems to make a rash challenge on fellow England player Deli Ali who is clean through but offside.
Some have suggested this is identical to the recent challenge on VVD but we felt at the time the ref was spot on only verbally warning the keeper, who was helped by the Spurs player staying on his feet and even accepting a hand-slap apology.
Going back to the derby gaff, to fully understand the gravity of such a mistake one has to understand what the big derby games mean to the fans that live in the area. Months of bragging rights to fellow workmates, the passion and the disappointment, the history and the vendettas. To some, as Bill Shankley famously said, “it’s not life or death – it’s much more important than that”.
Keepers are always more exposed than outfield players to the “spotlight on their errors”. And most cope well with that, even in this day of “keyboard warriors” and twitters. But working or even livimg in a community that would normally defend you after an error and help you move on, you come face to face with it daily. When that includes the bitter rival or enemy living next door, it can be impossible.
Jordan Pickford is from a similar culture to that of Merseyside. He became a Sunderland “mackem” from childhood, and the rivalry with their neighbors Newcastle (and up the road, Middlesborough) certainly ranks alongside that of Liverpool and Everton. So he should be used to it and understand the need to deflect and ignore. The quotes we used above showed that he was indeed forged in that very fire.
But it seems to us that this event was the beginning of the end for Jordan – at least this “upswing phase” he was on, hitting the pinnacle in that World Cup, only to fall like that ball tipped back into play, into his own goal, only months later.
Taking a dive
The latest goalkeeping (rather than tackling) error was the dropped catch which led to a goal against Brighton.
The afore-mentioned compendium details the gaff, but makes some assertions about goalkeeping that we want to debate.
Anyone who’s played between the sticks knows there is no such thing as an easy cross, pass, catch or save. There are always the unknown unknowns that can make comedy of the simplest of things. From the spectator’s 180-degree vantage point everything looks easy – but when the ball is racing, or just ambling towards you, your eyes are fixed on it, your mind is doing the mental geometry to judge its flight, and your muscles are getting the emails to get a move on. Oh and your reflexes and senses are trying to work out the trajectory of other bodies in motion – sometimes on a collision course with yours.
We’ve discussed above the potential flaw of being too forward thinking, and failing to begin the well-thought-out distribution by making the initial clean catch. A flaw that Jordan has been accused of by other professionals (see above).
And in watching the game and this goal in particular, it looks to us like a classic example.
The compendium also talks of “erratic distribution and proclivity for spilling shots from distance” – but these were his greatest assets (catching and distributing) according to other seasoned pros.
The beauty of this article is that it seemingly analyses the current state of the Pickford game without any prior knowledge or experience of his previous abilities and as such is completely independent. None of the “he dropped that one but he’ll gobble up the next, don’t worry”.
And in doing so, we feel it correctly arrives at the same point that we do – it’s all in the mind.
So what is going on in the mind of the young keeper?
Fame is a very sharp two-edged sword – it cuts through barrier that hold back normal people, but it can also cut you in half. All successful sports personalities have one thing in common – they manage their persona well. To fail in this arena is as certain to end their careers as failing in the sporting arena.
Fame also gives you a platform from which to do some good for others. Jordan’s work with the Duke of Cambridge is one of those worthy platforms.
We can’t be sure, but we wonder if Jordan’s personal life has been net-net, a support or an additional pressure, since he hit the heights of his fame (and salary).
Jordan has been with his childhood sweetheart since they met at school when he was 16. They married earlier this year at a very low-key private registry office ceremony and have a baby boy, Arlo. They canceled a bigger event in Maldives due to COVID-19.
But the media loves the lives of famous sports personalities and their families, and his wife Megan has not been able to stay out of the limelight, even if she’d wanted to.
At least until their son was born, shortly after that derby-error.
They have sensibly kept their son out of the spotlight, with his face obscured from pictures, and little information about him.
If Jordan was readying himself for the full force of the madness of the football crowd, when a controversial event inevitably occurs, he was being smart. Sadly, the latest challenge on VVD has led inevitably to threats against him and his family.
While 99% of fans detest this level of hatred and abuse, the passionate rivalry we mentioned above is notorious for generating it. We discussed an example here, although before the advent of social media.
Since the derby-gaff, Jordan’s career for both club and country has been on a rollercoaster, with more downswings than up. Regular mistakes, often resulting in goals, have become the norm.
Remember though, that they are still rare, but with keepers they are long-remembered and the blame is often isolated (when in truth it’s often a team-error). But the pressure has been mounting.
In April last year, against rivals Newcastle, Jordan was booed as a “mackem” by their fans and replied by putting his tongue out.
Earlier he brought down their striker and saved the resulting penalty, having been shown neither red nor yellow card, further inflaming the crowd. According to reports of the game he was shaky, dropping or punching crosses and conceded 3 goals giving the Tynesiders the win.
Add to that, competition at England level has become intense again, with a host of names challenging for the shirt, led by the impressive Dean Henderson (though as we discussed here, no one is error-free)
With Henderson recalled from his amazing loan at Sheffield Utd to become understudy (threat) to De Gea at Manchester United, he’s off the radar, while others like Butland only just returning to the EPL with a transfer to Crystal Palace, this gives Jordan some relief and time to get back on track.
Then there is new manager and legend Carlo Ancellotti at Everton. He’s ambitious and has already caused a stir by table-topping the early games in the EPL. So errors have been spotlighted there too and with other clubs’ keepers under pressure and the global keeper pool being drained, Jordan has had to watch his back there too. The latest VVD controversy has not made matters better, while the occasional goalkeeping error has piled on the pressure. But his boss seems to be backing him for the moment, in fact suggesting the VVD controversy may be influencing referees in subsequent games.
And Jordan was hardly at fault for Southampton’s two goals and made a couple of solid saves in the 0-2 loss.
Keepers union 101
Whenever a fellow keeper attempts to defend one of his brethren the cry of “keepers union” is usually heard.
But it’s been telling that the breath of support for Jordan Pickford has been so widespread. When a Liverpool veteran like Jamie Carragher calls for common sense you know this is not the “union” at work.
Our own evaluation of this VVD debacle would run something like this;
- If an outfield player had made that challenge it would definitely have been a penalty – unless VVD was offside
- And it was offside so it can’t be a pen – but it was clearly foul-play.
- It’s reckless and at least a yellow, likely a red despite offside.
- This is one of the highest pressure games in football – Merseyside derby, and he has made howlers in them before – so he was trying far too hard.
- Pickford is in a horrible place with his game, and needs help, both coaching and psychological. He is becoming a liability and needs everyone’s support. He’s coachable and honest, and seems to be coping given this is well into “annus horribilis“ territory having begun late in 2018.
- if even Jamie Carragher can see the above, and remain calm, why can’t the rest of us?
- Conveniently for football’s authorities this is distracting from the true failure at Stockley Park, and the VAR fiasco that appears in about 50% of games. This was a clear error by the VAR officials and that’s what needs to be debated – not the players involved. Furthermore the on-field referee should be forced to review all acts of suspected serious foul play, on the sideline monitor, and not rely on the VAR officials.
Phoenix or Picknics?
In summary, we’ll never know if Pickford meant to hurt VVD, but the evidence above strongly suggests not – he’s a hard and competitive player who can barely see or breath for the black clouds that currently follow him around.
We’ve discussed here how keepers should react to setbacks, especially if they’re becoming prolonged.
Personally, if asked whether Jordan Pickford will again rise like a phoenix and return to the form seen in the World Cup, we’d bet on it.
That said, many a goalkeeping career has been destroyed by less, leaving the player with time at home to enjoy picnics with the family.
We’re hoping for the Phoenix, for England’s sake.