Nick Pickering made his Sunderland debut on the opening day of the 1981-82 campaign and within two years was being touted as being one of the most talented prospects in the country – and it wasn’t just Rokerites that were saying it either.
Named the best young player in the North East at the Robinson Barley Water Awards during the 1981-83 season, a slightly more established form of recognition was just around the corner for Pickering; he was soon called by England boss Bobby Robson and on this day in 1983 made his senior international debut in a game against Australia.
Pickering, who had already impressed at U21 level, was part of a three game tour down under and was handed a full cap in the final fixture, which was played in Melbourne. The trip thus far had been difficult, forward Trevor Francis had been the victim of several nasty tackles, whilst a narrow 1-0 win in Brisbane and a goalless draw at the Sydney Cricket Ground had not been well received back home.
Things were not going to end on a collective high in the closing match either, although on a personal level the Sunderland man did himself proud.
Francis was once again in the thick of things throughout. On 24 minutes he was fed the ball by Sammy Lee and scored past goalkeeper Terry Greedy with a well-hit shot, but things soon took a downturn; moments after that Phil Neal put the ball into his own net – the first goal conceded by England in seven games – and in the second half Francis placed a retaken penalty wide of the target as the Socceroos secured another draw.
The spot kick had initially been awarded for a foul by John Kosmina on future Sunderland manager Terry Butcher, and whilst the first attempt was tucked away comfortably it was deemed to have been taken too quickly. The second effort did not go to plan however, with Francis later admitting having lost focus following more rough treatment. It was a bittersweet affair for the Sampdoria man, therefore, but for Pickering things couldn’t have gone much better on the day.
Playing the full 90 minutes at left-back his energy and skill caught the eye, with reporters suggesting his assuredness on the ball pointed towards more appearances further up the pitch.
This would have come as no surprise to Sunderland fans, who were used to seeing Pickering operate across several positions, yet despite all the promise the future call ups didn’t materialise. Undeterred, his excellent form in the domestic game continued and there was a return to U21s, with whom he won the 1984 European U21 Championships.
Also debuting for the Three Lions on this day was Nigel Spink, who came on as a substitute for Peter Shilton and like Pickering didn’t feature again. The pair both worked as coaches for Sunderland after retiring from playing, Pickering doing so in the Football in the Community programme, and whilst it didn’t lead to more caps, they will hopefully still be able to look back on today’s anniversary with pride.