Jordan Pickford had been on ‘the scene’ for quite a while – he’d been a Premier League sub on a number of occasions for Sunderland, had made a handful of friendly appearances from the bench – but on this day six years ago he final got his first start in a Sunderland shirt, in a friendly win over Darlington.
The 19-year-old academy graduate was given his start by Dick Advocaat – the Dutch manager, who’d kept the club up the previous season had decided not to renew his contract and headed for ‘retirement’. A deluge of flowers to Mrs Advocaat later, and the former Rangers manager was back. It wouldn’t last.
It wasn’t a dream debut for Pickford, as it went. And the opening 20 minutes must have given Advocaat pause for thought, too, as Darlington raced into a 2-0 lead, thanks to goals from Stephen Thompson and former Sunderland player Adam Mitchell.
Mitchell had played one game for us (well, two minutes) from the bench in the last game of the season versus Tottenham two years earlier (you remember, it was the game that preceded a remarkable ‘rant’ from Di Canio).
It was a typical preseason ‘slow start’ – Lee Cattermole lost possession for the first, and midfield partner Liam Bridcutt lost possession for the second – and we’d not created anything in attack.
That changed five minutes later when Emanuele Giaccherini (criminally underused by Poyet, in my opinion) volleyed home a free kick from the right.
2-1 to the hosts at half-time, and Pickford was withdrawn in favour of Vito Mannone, who saved a second half penalty from Thompson as Sunderland restored a semblance of pride with three second half goals – a second from Giaccherini and one each from Connor Wickham and Danny Graham. Yes, that is not a mis-type – Danny Graham actually scored. [Insert sarcastic comment about finding his level here.]
Pickford got one more pre-season start – in a 3-1 defeat to CF Pachuca during our Californian tour, however the defeat could have been heavier if it wasn’t for Pickford’s penalty save from Ruben Botta in the 71st minute. Jack Rodwell opened the scoring for Sunderland (again, not a mis-type) but two goals from Nahuelpan and one from Lozano gave the hosts victory.
When the real action got underway, however, Pickford was starting a season-long loan in the Championship with Preston North End, with the club deeming his development would be best served at Deepdale, rather than playing third fiddle to Pantilimon and Mannone.
By the time he equalled Preston’s club record for six consecutive clean sheets in the November of 2015, Advocaat had long gone and had been replaced by Big Sam – who promptly took advantage of a clause that enabled the club to recall Pickford. Allardyce hadn’t been particularly impressed with either of his more senior keepers – he let Pantilimon leave for Watford and promoted Pickford into the first team squad.
A full debut in the FA Cup at Arsenal was quickly followed by a Premier League start away at Spurs, meaning he’d played in the top five divisions of English football by the time he was 21.
Pickford was back on the bench with Mannone in the starting line up as Allardyce moulded the squad for a survival bid that was ultimately successful, only returning to the team once survival was guaranteed.
The following season was his breakthrough campaign, playing 29 league games after an early season injury to Mannone.
Pickford was the one bright light in an otherwise utterly horrendous season, and it came as no surprise that clubs were quickly circling.
Everton wasted no time in making the young keeper the most expensive goalkeeper in history, paying £25m rising to £30m for his services, shortly after he’d helped England under 21s to the semi final of the 2017 European Under 21 Championships.
Gareth Southgate called Pickford up to the senior squad in the 2017-18 season, and he made his national debut against Germany.
Having starred at the 2018 World Cup, Pickford is receiving deserved accolades for his performances so far in Euro 2020.
Whatever happens in the final, Pickford’s done all of us proud – but wouldn’t it make it all the sweeter if Pickford and another academy graduate Jordan Henderson picked up that trophy on Sunday?