The title suggests that I don’t, but I really like Vito Mannone. I do. I’m eternally grateful for his form in the run-in to the last campaign, and also his performances in the business end of the 13/14 season. Who can forget his two penalty saves at Old Trafford? His heroics meant we could dream the impossible, for fifty-five minutes at least, under the Wembley arch on 2 March, 2014.
But in order to improve - to make our team better - Big Sam needs to be ruthless. Sentimentality should be thrown out of the window; pragmatism should be welcomed with open arms.
To best demonstrate this, I will use an example from Championship Manager 01/02 - bear with me. Anyone who knows me, knows that I have learnt most of my life lessons from this game. Most of my vocabulary comes from Champ Man (I was using "indispensable" aged ten based on the original Ronaldo) and, likewise, most of my examples are rooted in that beautiful alternate reality.
Anyway, I had a regen who had come in to replace a thirty-five year old Kevin Phillips. His name was Washington Torres and he was just a boy from the streets of São Vicente. He scored 73 goals in 103 games for my Sunderland team. He even fired me to the title with a 35 yard free-kick away at Elland Road. I loved him. But then he started to get itchy feet. Barcelona had come in with a £30M bid, then a £36M bid, then a £41M bid including add-ons. I swatted those offers away like they were just wasps at a picnic. But it all got to Washington’s head. His form was appalling at the start of the next campaign and the grey icon telling me that he was "unhappy" never left his side. I sold him to Madrid for £38M (screw you, Barcelona) and moved on. You have to be ruthless for the good of the team.
If you want a real life example, fine, think on Juan Mata. Mata is an exceptional footballer but he doesn’t fit Jose Mourinho’s tactics. He is too slow, he doesn’t press with enough intensity, and he doesn’t suit the system. He was player of the year at Chelsea just months before Mourinho packed his bags for him and sent him off to United. Now that Mourinho has made the same journey, Mata’s time is up. He won’t be given a chance. He wasn’t good enough for Mourinho before and he isn’t good enough for him now.
This brings us on to Jordan Pickford. Pickford doesn’t just suit Allardyce’s system, he looks like he was created in a laboratory by Big Sam himself. He is an excellent all-round ‘keeper with pin-point distribution. Big Sam is often accused of long-ball football but I think there is an important distinction between playing the long-ball and playing direct. His mantra appears to be ‘if you can get the ball to the striker’s feet as quickly as possible, do it’. The salient point there is finding the striker’s feet. Not his head, his feet. There were signs that our players were getting this toward the end of last season and we saw the number of balls fired at Defoe’s shoulders and neck decrease every game.
Pickford would allow us to spring counter-attacks and start attacks from deep. His kicking is phenomenal. He looks like he could find a particular blade of grass from 70 yards out. Chris Kirkland noted during Pickford’s loan spell at Preston that he had "never seen anyone kick a ball like he does". This could be a huge asset for us next year under Allardyce. It is also the most noticeable difference between him and Mannone. If Pickford can hit a blade of grass from 70 yards, Mannone couldn’t hit a cow’s arse with a banjo. Mannone has other strengths of course, but I can’t think of a ‘keeper with worse distribution than him playing in the Premier League.
It shouldn’t be forgotten that Pickford is not just a glorified punter. He is a brilliant all-round goalkeeper who equaled Preston’s all-time clean-sheet record when on loan with them at the start of last season. His authority and confidence in his penalty-box belies his years. If he gets more Premier League experience, he is only going to get better. We have the chance to continue his development at the club (he’s been at the Academy since he was eight) and turn him into one of the best ‘keepers in the league.
Finally, Pickford may need to start just to fend off potential suitors. There have been multiple reports in the last few weeks that United and Mourinho are circling round our young stopper. In fairness, it would be foolish for big clubs not to take notice. Pickford has excelled playing for the England U21s and promises to be the future England number one.
The next step in his career should be becoming first choice for his boyhood club. He is more than good enough to be our number one.