When Jordan Pickford was unveiled as Everton’s new £30million goalkeeper 12 months ago, there were more than a few who baulked at the transfer fee for a 23-year-old with just 31 Premier League appearances under his belt.
It was a club-record deal at the time [Gylfi Sigurdsson would break it later last summer when he signed for £45m from Swansea], and remains a British record for a goalkeeper.
He is the third most expensive shot-stopper in the world, behind Ederson [Benfica to Manchester City, £34.7m] and Gianluigi Buffon [Parma to Juventus, £33m], but Pickford was unflappable, keeping his head when all about him were losing theirs during a season of turmoil at Everton.
“In football you get only one shot and I’ve always taken it,” Pickford said after Saturday’s 2-1 win over Nigeria at Wembley. “I don’t show any pressure on the pitch, I show I can play out from the back and I don’t feel nervous.
“There’s so many good goalkeepers in England you’ve got to be at your very best [to be selected].
“We’ve got likes of Popey, me, Butland, [Ben] Foster and [Alex] McCarthy, so there’s a lot of competition. But I can only focus on myself and as a goalkeeper you’ve got to have mental toughness – that’s something I’m good at.”
It’s not something that can be said for every talented professional. Davy Klaassen was brought to Everton on the same day as Pickford – June 15, 2017 –for £24m from Ajax, but their careers have headed in opposite directions.
The midfielder featured three times as a substitute this year under former manager Sam Allardyce, and he missed out on the recent Holland squad for international friendlies against Slovakia and Italy while Everton are in talks with Turkish club Besiktas over an initial season-long loan move.
Pickford merely continued his ascent with performances that at times kept defeats respectable, making an early impression as he played a vital role in the club booking their place in the Europa League group stages courtesy of his penalty save in the third qualifying round second leg against Hadjuk Split.
Unsurprisingly, he cleared up at the end-of-season club awards night in Liverpool, winning a hat-trick of prizes: the Player of the Season, Players’ Player of the Season and Young Player of the Season at a ceremony at Philharmonic Hall.
It has led to Pickford being linked with a move to Bayern Munich ahead of the World Cup, with the Bavarians reportedly seeing him as a long-term replacement for Manuel Neuer.
A host of elite European clubs will be monitoring his performances given the now-annual speculation of a goalkeeping merry-go-round intensified by Thibaut Courtois’ likely departure from Chelsea.
New Everton manager Marco Silva stressed at his first press conference this week that he will try to attract ‘big names’ to the club this summer, but the Portuguese should not be caught out by the interest in his No 1.
The likely departure of Joel Robles after five years this summer offers the chance to bring in a deputy that can push Pickford onto the next level.
It has the potential to be problematic given the difficulty of usurping the 24-year-old as Everton first-choice keeper, but contingency plans must be put in place if the vultures begin to circle.
Pickford, who has been designated the No 1 shirt by Southgate, is still short of being world class and he will relish a greater challenge next season if Silva can find the ideal understudy, given that he has thrived with competition for his place in England’s side.
At 25 and with seven caps to his name, Jack Butland has been on the international scene as part of England senior squads for far longer than Pickford.
He was named as one of the standby options at Euro 2012 before being called up for the tournament in Poland and Austria after John Ruddy sustained a broken finger.
He was overlooked as the third-choice option by Roy Hodgson in favour of Fraser Forster at the last World Cup and a fractured ankle ruled him out of the European Championships two years ago.
Butland is now fit and can take little blame for Stoke City’s relegation from the Premier League last season, but Southgate has made his decision.
The visit of Costa Rica to Elland Road on Thursday could bring an eighth cap, but Pickford has won the battle for the No 1 spot in the opening group match in Volgograd against Tunisia.
Joe Hart’s absence allows the Everton man to excel without the shadow of the 75-capped keeper behind him. Hart was perhaps spared the humiliation of having played throughout the qualifying campaign only to lose his place when the tournament gets underway.
But Butland has been waiting for his moment to replace him as England’s No 1. Now, he could be destined for another period as a deputy at international level, at a crossroads in his career similar to where Pickford was this time last year.
While Harry Kane has been handed the armband, Southgate has spoken of the need to be a team of leaders, and Pickford’s command of his penalty area makes him an England captain in waiting.
October 2015 was the last time Raheem Sterling scored for England, 20 games ago. Dele Alli’s international record in front of goal is little better, meaning the Three Lions look set to be reliant on two players above all in Russia.
Other than Kane’s consistency as a striker capable of scoring for club and country, it is Pickford and the question of whether he can keep the opposition at bay that will determine how far Southgate’s men progress this summer.
In his first two international caps, the former Sunderland keeper kept shutouts against Germany and Holland – impressing with the ball at his feet and his distribution on both occasions – and he appears a man capable of taking the increasing demands in his stride.
Ten clean sheets and penalty saves against Hajduk Split and West Ham this term are further indication he is tournament-ready should England progress to the knockout stages.
Pickford has worked with Southgate before at Under-21 level; the understanding and faith in one another cannot be overstated, and he is a man confident in his own capabilities.
Having his club goalkeeping coach Martyn Margetson fulfilling the same role at England will further benefit his development. Pickford has been seen working on shot-stopping drills that alternate with improving his footwork at St Georges’ Park, like he had done at Finch Farm throughout the season.
Such is the player’s self-confidence, he revealed last week his willingness to take a penalty if England face a shoot-out at the tournament.
This is England’s most inexperienced squad at a tournament since 1962, but the man from Washington, Tyne and Wear, appears ready to take the weight of the world on his shoulders.