World Cup 2018 semi-final: Why Jordan Pickford is breaking all the rules for England
Former goalkeeper David Preece explores why Jordan Pickford has become of the of the stars of England's World Cup campaign - and what it is which makes him different to so many of his predessors between the sticks for the national side.
Die Welt, Germany: “The English can’t win penalty shoot-outs and have a ‘butterfingers’ for a goalkeeper: two laws which have held good for decades up until Russia 2018. Jordan Pickford is impressively breaking all the rules.”
As Brian Glanville so beautifully wrote, ‘goalkeepers are different’ - and he was right. Not quite in the way that many assume, but different nonetheless. Far from the ‘all goalkeepers are mad’ misconception, what separates them from outfield players is the mental capacity and mental strength to withstand the pressures the game puts on them.
Inaction can lead to distraction and dwelling on errors can lead to more, so those who learn from these invaluable lessons early on in their careers are the ones who invariably succeed in the position. Not only that, they cannot allow their psychological robustness to be whittled away by the constant disappointments that are the fate of the keeper. A midfielder can misplace a pass without consequence as they are rescued by a colleague alongside them or a defender behind. A goalkeeper rarely has the luxury of an insurance policy and this is why they have to be different. This is why England’s Jordan Pickford is different.
Within the space of a month at Russia 2018, Pickford’s performances have been a microcosm of a goalkeeper’s career. He has had periods of having little to do but has not lost his concentration. Sometimes young keepers can be guilty of manufacturing situations or getting involved in the game where they are not needed, but he has learned from the mistakes he has been guilty of in the past. And when relied upon he has been there, making stops at crucial moments that could have changed the face of the game. A sign of a top-class goalkeeper.
In proving his doubters wrong, Pickford has joined an elite band of English goalkeepers to have left their footprints on this late stage of the World Cup - all whilst still sitting in single figures for international caps. He can deservedly join the greats, Gordon Banks and Peter Shilton, at the table, but does so at a much younger age. Shilton was 40 in 1990, Banks was 28 in 1966, Pickford is 24. It’s a remarkable achievement for someone who we were told wasn’t tall enough, wasn’t experienced enough, didn’t have enough presence. So what does make Jordan Pickford different? The answer is all in his head.
Since the retirement of Peter Shilton, the position of England’s goalkeeper has claimed plenty of casualties. Even the most stable of its occupants, David Seaman, will be remembered for the embarrassment caused when Ronaldinho sent a free-kick floating over his head at the 2002 World Cup.
To quote one of his ex-coaches, meanwhile, “David James had every physical attribute that should have made him the perfect keeper but his ability to cope with the mental side of the game didn’t match it.” James’s own admission that he hadn’t prepared properly after being introduced at half-time in a match against Denmark in August 2005, proceeding to concede avoidable goals, was evidence of that.
England goalkeeper Scott CarsonGetty Images
Scott Carson was never given a real chance to recover from the setback of being prematurely thrust in to the spotlight in the now notorious game in the rain against Croatia in 2007 as England failed to qualify for the European Championship of the following year. An example of the asking the question ‘sink or swim’, only for the answer to be the former.
Paul Robinson’s international career died on a hill of his own making, funnily enough against Croatia again, as an innocuous Gary Neville back-pass jumped up over the tee he’d made himself to aid goal kicks. It was a freakish event, but not without consequence. And then there’s Pickford’s predecessor, Joe Hart, whose decline was documented by errors in an England shirt and poor form at club level. His was a temperament that didn’t suit the requirements of major tournaments.
All very good keepers in their own right, but Jordan Pickford is different from them all. His technique may look untidy at times, his footwork perhaps not as fluid as the very best, but what goes on between his ears sets him apart. He isn’t alone in this. Jack Butland and Nick Pope are unflappable characters themselves and England are finally producing the type of goalkeeper who can not only deal with the big occasions but revel in it too.
It’s not that this new breed are fearless, they just fear less. Everyone has essentially the same thoughts when placed under pressure but it’s how you allow them to affect you that’s different. Pickford doesn’t fight against those nerves we all feel; he embraces them, and that’s what encapsulates what has been missing from English goalkeeping.
You can see it in the keepers Germany have produced in a quantity that doesn’t impinge on quality. We mistake it for arrogance, but it’s a steely confidence. It differs from the more common confidence that is usually just a superficial facade built by the praise of others but easily knocked by something minor.
In one save from Mateus Uribe in the last-16 against Colombia, he did just that. His reading of the game, footwork, power and athleticism striking each doubt off that list in one stunning moment. Then, after the performance against Sweden, when his saves helped deliver England to a World Cup semi-final, the praise flooded in.
Jordan Pickford of England makes a save during the England training session on July 10, 2018 in Saint Petersburg, RussiaGetty Images
Probably as over the top as the criticism, it showed the lack of nuance with goalkeeping analysis. As a goalkeeper, whichever character you are painted as, be it saint or sinner, hero or villain, it’s important to keep your emotional gears in neutral as much as possible. Pickford has that ability to stay in balance emotionally so that his mind is clearer, enabling him to make the right decisions, to take the right actions.
Of course, there will be errors of judgement and mistakes in the future, but when they do come he will deal with them as he always has and let them stay in the past where they belong. Move on. With the opportunity to rerun negative situations while play is down the other end, it’s difficult not to allow yourself to be dragged down by those thoughts. Jordan Pickford resets and refocuses and moves on. That’s why he is different.