England's unlikely hero? Pickford can prove doubters wrong once and for all with Euro 2020 glory

Jordan Pickford England Denmark Euro 2020
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The Everton goalkeeper has been criticised and written off throughout his career, but one more big performance will cement his place in history

Whatever happens against Italy at Wembley on Sunday, one England player has already made history at Euro 2020.

Jordan Pickford is not everybody’s idea of a hero but in Wednesday’s semi-final against Denmark the Everton goalkeeper went past the great Gordon Banks’ record – set in the golden summer of 1966 – of 720 consecutive minutes without conceding in a Three Lions shirt.

Perhaps we should have known what was to come next. Minutes after reaching that milestone, Pickford was beaten by Mikkel Damsgaard’s spectacular free-kick, and suddenly the 'Great England Goalkeeper Debate', rendered largely redundant as the tournament has progressed, was reopened.

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Gary Neville was among those who felt Pickford might have done better, while Jose Mourinho suggested that, even before Damsgaard’s missile, the 27-year-old had been “showing some nerves and a bit of a lack of concentration”, namely with some questionable distribution with the ball in his hands.

This, really, is the way life is for Pickford. He will always have his doubters, even when riding high.

Memories of those high-profile mistakes for his club are hard to shift, even if Evertonians will tell you his form has been consistently superb in recent months.

His season started badly. There is always a feeling with Pickford that impetuosity, hyperactivity even, can undermine his game. 

There is a reckless side to the Wearsider, and that was perhaps as evident as it has ever been last autumn, when his Everton form was poor and he hit the headlines after injuring Virgil van Dijk with a wild, high challenge during the Merseyside derby against Liverpool.

Jordan Pickford Virgil van Dijk Everton Liverpool GFX

That incident hit Pickford hard. The criticism was fierce; Gini Wijnaldum called his challenge “completely stupid”, while Jurgen Klopp said the challenge was “hard to accept”, as Van Dijk faced months on the sidelines. 

Pickford, who apologised via Reds captain Jordan Henderson after the game, felt concerned enough to beef up security around his family home. Merseyside Police said they were investigating numerous threatening messages sent to him via social media. 

Carlo Ancelotti saw the warning signs, taking him out of the firing line on more than one occasion last season. The Italian publicly insisted that Pickford had his full faith but Robin Olsen, the Sweden No.1, would end the campaign having made seven Premier League appearances.

Pickford was culpable when Everton drew at home to Leicester at the end of January, allowing Youri Tielemans’ 20-yard shot to sneak through his hands.

Around that time, he revealed he had started using the services of a sports psychologist, as he sought ways to improve the mental side of his game and his ability to cope with, in his own words, “sticky patches.”

And as winter turned to spring, Pickford began to rebuild his form. Everton lost their way, but their No.1 found his. He was, in most fans’ eyes, their star man during the second half of the season.

That improvement was carried over into the Euros.

Jordan Pickford England Germany Euro 2020 GFX

Pickford was pretty much flawless throughout the group stage; calm, composed and able to get England up the field with his kicking. Without him, Scotland may well have left Wembley with more than a goalless draw.

There were two big interventions in the last 16 against Germany, when he denied Timo Werner in the first half and Kai Havertz in the second, though the doubters stirred when he raced from his line to slice a clearance in the quarter-final win over Ukraine. At least, on that occasion, England had the luxury of a 4-0 lead.

If England are to win on Sunday – and they will certainly fancy their chances on home soil – then they will need the relaxed, focused version of Pickford, as opposed to the one nicknamed ‘Speedy’ at school, on account of his '100 miles an hour' nature,  or the one memorably described by one sportswriter as “a human jagerbomb” after the Van Dijk incident.

Wembley will be loud, raucous, tense and emotional. Italy will be aggressive, determined, dangerous, ready to pop the balloons.

Calmness, and not just from Pickford, will count for a lot. It is what Gareth Southgate will ask for, and what could define this tightest of finals.

And of course, the opportunity for Pickford to make himself a hero looms large. Repel the Italians, save a penalty or two in a shootout, and his place in England folklore will be assured.

And who knows, maybe then, finally, the debate surrounding England's No.1 will start to shift?

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