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Black Cats Analects: Why Not To Sell Jordan Pickford

Sometimes it's good to sell players to fund recruitment. This time it isn't.

Sunderland v Crystal Palace - Premier League Photo by Mark Runnacles/Getty Images

Remember how, back in 2011, Sunderland AFC had finally developed a club-supporting, work-horse academy graduate capable of becoming a future England captain? Remember how this club then sold that twenty-one year old academy graduate for just £15.3 million so another club could reap the rewards of his development? Now, remember last week, when said academy graduate became the current England captain? Yeah.

So, let’s talk about Jordan Pickford.

It looks like the rumour mill is simmering beneath most conversations surrounding Sunderland’s twenty-two year old first-choice goalkeeper. Maybe it’s self-prophesied fuel on the anxiety-riddled fire of supporters, or a mass-assumptive consensus based off the club’s current financial woes. Either way, the goalkeeping elephant is very much in the room: our kid between the sticks is on the radar now, and clubs will come for him soon enough.

And, y’know what, Pickford is wholly deserving any flattering transfer valuation thrown our way. The Washington native is, quite frankly, one helluvah stopper. He ticks the right boxes for everybody; the die-hard supporter likes him, the casual neutral observer likes him, the stat-studiers like him, the interim England head coach likes him, you all like him. Everybody likes him.

You’d never think he hasn’t registered a clean sheet in the Premier League yet. But then, those who pay attention know what we all know: Jordan Pickford is one of the finest ‘keepers in the country today.

And hasn’t this felt like a long time coming?

See, for those Black Cats supporters out there who love the club enough to observe it inside out, the talent of Jordan Pickford has been on display for well over half a decade. He may suffer our senior team curse now, but back when Pickford was representing our developmental squads, he proved to be an excellent young asset; the ‘keeper played 25 matches for Sunderland U23s throughout his time there, conceding just 31 goals, with 10 clean sheets.

That’s not all. You may recall the fairly-frequent moments throughout the last four years when somebody would bring Pickford’s name into whatever club-related talk you were having; often citing how well the-then teenager was performing out on loan somewhere. His time at Darlington and Alfreton Town between 2012 and 2013 brought credit to his reputation, but it was his loanee ascent up the football league that got people seriously talking.

Between 2013 and 2014, Pickford would play for Burton Albion and Carlisle United in League 2 and League 1 respectively; and it was during this time when his development truly took form. He would concede a mere 14 goals from 12 matches for the Brewers, with 4 clean sheets; whereas at Brunton Park, he would improve further with another 7 clean sheets from 18 league matches.

After this, Pickford would produce an industrious stint for Bradford City’s 2014/2015 campaign, where he would play 34 matches for the club, conceding just 36 goals, and gaining 10 clean sheets.

And, most recently in 2015/2016, Pickford ended a praiseworthy season at Preston North End in the SkyBet Championship; leaking through just 23 goals from 27 matches, with a tally of 14 clean sheets that included a commendable 6-match run from October to November 2015.

So domestically, yeah, Pickford has a good track record to call upon. Why else would supporters have gone so long calling for his inclusion to the first team?

It’s similar reading internationally too, and the goalkeeper has been on that stage since he was fifteen years old. For a player who was so rapidly and repeatedly elevated from the England Under-16s, to Under-19s by Noel Blake, to ultimately the Under-21s by Gareth Southgate last year, it is no wonder that the same latter coach has entrusted Pickford with a call-up to the senior national squad.

And after all, Pickford’s current record under Southgate: 9 matches played, 6 clean sheets. Seriously, it is as if the lad can do no wrong.

Well, except for us. But that was always going to happen. It’s not even his fault, but the fact remains, Jordan Pickford’s record for Sunderland now stands at 15 senior competitive matches played, 28 goals conceded and just 1 clean sheet. As Pickford’s career record stands at 161 competitive appearances, 212 goals conceded and 52 clean sheets, it is the Sunderland senior team that remains the only real blemish on his career.

But, again, it’s not for the want of trying.

This season, in the English Premier League, Pickford has built a remarkable statistical status over other clubs’ ‘keepers. To date; at one in every 405 minutes, Pickford has the third-best rate for saving shots from the six yard box, the second-best rate – at every 81 minutes – for making clearances, the second-best rate – at every 19 minutes – for making a save at all, and is still number one – at every 33 minutes – for rate of saving shots from outside the box, tallying the most saves in this regard too, at 24.

That is bloody brilliant; damning of our midfield and defence, but still bloody brilliant.

Better still, is that Pickford’s strong statistical reputation impresses across the continent, too. For rate of saves from six-yard-box-shots, Pickford ranks twelfth in Europe; his clearance rate ranks eleventh, fourth for overall save rate, and first for saving shots from outside the box.

You could call that being a good goalkeeper. You could also call that being underpaid. If you’ve ever done multiple shifts at work where you find yourself picking up the slack of everybody else, then Jordan Pickford probably sympathises.

So, does that mean we should get ahead of ourselves and start considering Jordan Pickford as the leading contender for Europe’s best goalkeeper? No, absolutely not. Wojciech Szczęsny is having too great a season himself at AS Roma, as are Yoan Cardinale at OGC Nice and Oliver Baumann at 1899 Hoffenheim. Hell, even in our own league you could argue Burnley’s Tom Heaton out-performs our guy.

Nonetheless, it remains true that so long as Jordan Pickford performs to the standard he has set of himself, the more likely it becomes that Sunderland will be faced with a difficult decision. A consistent Vito Mannone may be a tolerable substitute should the club follow the money route, but what would the real price of losing Pickford mean to the success of the team?

And even then, what would be an acceptable valuation of the player? We are talking about a twenty-two year old goalkeeper who has had to carry his team-mates to earn points this season, and he has often had to do it just to spare blushes of horrendous goal deficits. Not to mention, he has a career clean sheet average of 32% and a contract that isn’t set to expire until the end of this decade. You’d think only an astonishing sum of money would be required for the club to even consider selling this incredibly valuable asset on to a competitor.

But there’s another talking point to consider; and it concerns the perception of our club, matters of legacy, and loyalty. Two days ago, we saw an England team that included the captain, Jordan Henderson, and on the bench, Jordan Pickford. As a Sunderland fan, we can be proud of that because we know that our club helped develop these players to the summit of their professional careers.

However, we were also seeing the inevitable decision Sunderland will one day be forced to make. If Jordan Henderson can become captain of the national team, then that should give great confidence to the club in its ability to produce a player of that calibre. We already know Jordan Pickford is talented, but now we must ask: do we have a goalkeeper with the potential to not only play for England, but to be the team captain too?

If that answer is yes, then would repeating our money-snatching transfer of Henderson be akin to a lesson unlearnt? Funding for new players is one thing, but if you’ve got potentially the best this country has to offer already in your squad, that can be worth so much more.

For now it may be better to exercise caution with Pickford. He is a player who can only get better, and he is already beyond the talent of most seasoned goalkeepers now. To think of selling him next season or even the season after would be far too soon. We have a strong performer here; one capable of becoming the long-lasting foundation to the spine of defensive solidarity, one who would not even come close to retirement age for at least another twelve years; and one who is not only from the area, but plays for the area.

Maybe, this time, it would be better for this Jordan to stay home a while longer.

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