Bottom of the Conference with Darlington and in his own words “getting battered every week” to a European Championship Final – welcome to the crazy world of Jordan Pickford.
He can thank his long-time mentor Mark Prudhoe, Sunderland’s experienced goalkeeping coach, for his coming-of-age trips to Darlington, Alfreton Town, Burton, Carlisle, Bradford and Preston North End.
“It was all about toughening him up because as a kid he was quite thin although there was nothing wrong with his temperament,” said Prudhoe.
“He was completely focused and was desperate to do well. Without a doubt moving away from Sunderland helped in his development.”
Pickford has never forgotten those formative years, especially Prudhoe’s help and advice gleaned from a playing career which included spells at 18 different clubs.
The Everton No.1 is a perfectionist.
Instead of revelling in the fact he had usurped the great Gordon Banks by setting a new Three Lions record of going 725 minutes without conceding a goal, he was beating himself up following the semi-final win against Denmark over Mikkel Damsgaard’s free-kick which evaded his despairing dive.
Prudhoe explained: “For him it’s all about an obsession with protecting his goal. That’s what sets him apart from many of his peers.”
Pickford, 27, admits he is never afraid to give his former coach an earful.
“I still ring him now because he isn’t afraid to tell me what he thinks,” he said. “At Sunderland he knew me as an eight-year-old when I was as daft as a brush.”
Even as a £30million superstar, life, in tandem with his younger days has never been straightforward, as death threats following his clash with Liverpool defender Virgil van Dijk in the Merseyside derby last season proved.
He also has his critics at international level, but Pickford is never fazed. When times are hard he will often reflect on those harsh days out on loan.
At the age of 17 he was at the sharp end with Darlington rooted at the foot of the Conference – now known as the National League.
“It was a great experience even though we were getting battered every week,” he recalled. “It helped turn me from a kid into a man.”
A little later, he was back in the fifth tier of English football with Alfreton Town.
Nicky Law was the manager at the time and he remembers: “Jordan was very raw but you could see even then that he was a special talent.
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“I know that Sunderland rated him and felt he had the potential to go right to the top.
“We tried to sign him permanently but they weren’t having it.”
Pickford admits his hardest time was at Burton because he was miles away from his family. There had to be plenty of assurances from Prudhoe that it was a means to an end.
In fact at Preston he impressed former Liverpool and England keeper Chris Kirkland so much Pickford almost ended up at Anfield.
Kirkland said: “I told some of the Liverpool staff that Jordan was the best young keeper I had worked with. I told them he was going to be something special. But obviously nobody listened and he eventually ended up at Everton!”
Finally he broke into the Sunderland side and his manager David Moyes was confidently boasting: “Jordan can be England’s No.1.”
Everton had no hesitation in handing over a club-record fee of £30m to land the precocious keeper. Wayne Rooney, who was at Goodison Park in his second spell, was quickly won over.
“In my eyes Jordan is the best keeper this country has got,” he enthused.
“He is a good character around the dressing room. He is vocal and you need your keeper to talk. It gives everyone security.”
Something both England manager Gareth Southgate and Pickford’s long-term confidante Prudhoe agree on.