This evening’s clash between the Netherlands and England in Amsterdam should act as a timely reminder to Sunderland’s youngsters that whilst this is most definitely a club in turmoil, there is a fantastic opportunity awaiting them to succeed should the stars align and their chances arise.
At a press conference held in the lobby of the Steigenberger Airport Hotel yesterday, England manager Gareth Southgate - flanked by Jordan Henderson - confirmed to the listening press pack that Jordan Pickford will start between the sticks for the Three Lions tonight at the Amsterdam Arena.
Speaking about the Washington-born stopper, Southgate said;
Jordan Pickford will play in goal tomorrow night. He is a very agile goalkeeper, quick around his goals, he is capable of making big saves, his distribution is excellent - a really outstanding distributor of the ball with his feet which is how we want to play.
It is a great opportunity for him. He played really well against Germany in November and it’s a good chance for us to see him in another international game.
The decision to place faith in Pickford signals an important marker set down by Southgate, and for a number of reasons. The most telling is that he’s finally lost patience with regular ‘keeper Joe Hart, who has also been shunted aside by Adrian as West Ham first choice, enduring a torrid time since putting in some tepid displays for England at EURO 2016.
Hart’s place in the England set-up for a long time appeared to be water-tight, but with preparations for this summer’s tournament ramping up it is clear that the man on loan from Manchester City can no longer be protected and, as such, the England boss has been forced into making a tough decision.
Pickford’s place as England number one is his to lose, particularly since so many of his counterparts have failed to shine in the Premier League this season.
Whilst Jack Butland is Pickford’s only natural competition for the spot in Southgate’s team, he’s suffering from a bad spell of form himself as part of a Stoke side that are second bottom in the Premier League table, staring relegation straight in the face. Nick Pope - who is having a fantastic season at Burnley in the absence of Tom Heaton - is even more inexperienced than Pickford and is very much an unknown quantity on the grand stage.
Realistically, a good performance tonight will further enhance Pickford’s claim as the first choice heading towards this summer’s tournament in Russia.
All going well he will be joined in that side by Jordan Henderson, the Liverpool and England captain and another who is a proud graduate of the Sunderland system. To see just how much Henderson has progressed as a footballer over recent years should fill every Sunderland supporter with immense happiness, such is the pride we all feel when we see one of our own doing themselves justice on a national stage.
Surely if you’re one of the current incumbents of the Academy of Light dressing room you must look upon these two men as huge inspirations and role models for how your own career path can progress if you’re willing to put the graft in and take your chances.
Henderson in particular is the epitome of hard work. Not perhaps in the same mould as a Cristiano Ronaldo or a Gareth Bale, but certainly as a player in the level just below the elite - transforming himself from a skinny, raw yet talented teenager at Sunderland to a robust, tough central midfielder that is heralded so much by his peers that he not only captains one of the top teams in world football but also his country.
Jordan Pickford, on the other hand, is arguably the single most talented player that our club has ever produced - a once in a lifetime footballer, the kind that has the unique ability to get you up off your seat when showing what they’re capable of on a weekly basis.
But with that Jordan was afforded countless opportunities from a young age to play first team football elsewhere and from each spell he returned a better, more experienced professional. At the age of 24 it appears likely that he’ll be the one of the fortunate men tasked with guiding England towards their first glory at a World Cup in 51 years.
News this week emerged that Sunderland were keen to tie down forward duo Josh Maja and Joel Asoro to new, longer-term contracts. With change at Sunderland undoubtedly on the horizon, the pair couldn’t ask to have a better manager behind them in Chris Coleman, nor could they wish for a better football club than this one to be a part of once the wheels of change start turning in the right direction.
Regardless of where Sunderland end up next season there will be increased opportunities for our youth products to play regular first team football, whether that be in the Championship or League One.
That’s not to say that we have two future superstars in waiting here - to expect every player at the Academy of Light to follow the same path as Henderson and Pickford would be naïve.
Instead, Asoro and Maja are two incredibly talented young men that stand currently in the shadow of their predecessors, both of whom are a shining example for what can happen if you grasp the chances afforded to you by this football club with both hands.
Whilst this is quite obviously a huge decision for them to make at this stage in their careers, it’s important that they recognise just how coveted they are by Sunderland, and what such adulation could lead to if they stick around long enough to seize the opportunity fully.