By Jason McKeown
If Grey Dyke’s vision were a reality, Jordan Pickford would not be playing for Bradford City – but lining up against the Bantams.
The ‘B Team’ proposal that the FA Chairman presented last May would see Premier League teams fielding second teams in the Football League, with the aim of providing elite young English players with the development opportunities of regularly playing against lower league footballers. It was a half-baked proposal filled with ignorance, one that has been widely condemned. As many observers, including Bradford City joint-chairman Mark Lawn, commented – what is wrong with the current loan system?
A system that has seen Pickford borrowed by City for the season, with his parent club, Sunderland, hoping that their young goalkeeper will gain valuable experience towards, ultimately, establishing himself as their number one further down the line. The FA too will be hoping that another year playing in the rough and tumble of League One – as opposed to Premier League Under 21 football – will push Pickford further down the route of becoming a full England international.
And do not be in doubt that is what we are looking at with Pickford. Width of a Post’s North East contacts have told us that Pickford is extremely highly rated within the game, and very well-thought of at Sunderland. He has represented England at Under 16, 17, 18 and 19 level – making him one of the brightest goalkeeping hopes in the country. Yet youth football is famously littered with examples of prospects failing to progress. The next step in Pickford’s career, establishing himself as a senior player, is a huge one to make. That is why the move to West Yorkshire, and playing week-in week-out, is such a big deal.
Under 21 games offer limited value in comparison, given the players are competing against opposition their own age, with very similar levels of physicality and experience. Apart from the occasional Sky TV showing, these matches have very low exposure. There is not even crowd. You can see why the FA think B teams in the Football League are a good idea; even if they are blind-sided to the likelihood that it would completely wreck the football pyramid which they are supposed to be responsible for.
Pickford has already completed four loan spells with Darlington, Alferton Town, Burton Albion and Carlisle United – but his move to Bradford City is clearly another level. He is scheduled to be here for the entire season, and is performing in front of five figure crowds and an ever-increasing spotlight. It is sink or swim time for the 20-year-old, but still with an element of life-ring protection in that individual mistakes will be accepted by Sunderland observers, for the greater good of how he learns from them.
And if Pickford excels at Valley Parade, he is closer to contention on Wearside. And in two to three years time, he could be the Black Cats’ first choice stopper. And if he continues to impress, he could find himself in the England squad.
That is the road in front of Pickford, it is down to him take the opportunities laid out.
Which is all well and good for Pickford and Sunderland, but what about his temporary employers? Valley Parade is not a playground for a goalkeeper to make mistakes. This League One business is serious stuff. City might have acquired a goalkeeper whose potential far exceeds that which the playing budget could realistically afford, but what use is a possible future England international if they prove under-developed or a liability?
There is no doubt that bringing Pickford to Valley Parade this summer was a gamble by Phil Parkinson – especially when judged against the fact the manager allowed the club’s longest-serving player to depart in order to afford him. Six years of developing our own goalkeeper were essentially thrown away so we can develop someone else’s. It remains to be seen if Parkinson has made the right decision. At this still early stage, the jury can only be out.
Pickford has been unfortunate that he not even taken his first goal kick for Bradford City and he had already been judged harshly by some supporters. There are two widely held perceptions – or, more accurately, prejudices – that Pickford was battling against: his age and his loan status.
On age, accepted wisdom in football is that goalkeepers peak later than outfield players, and go on to play for longer. 20-year-old first team goalkeepers are few and far between. You cannot escape the reality that, at this age, goalkeepers are raw; and that the only way to gain experience is to go through the ups and downs – mistakes included.
It’s all about building judgement on dealing with crosses, for example. There’s no quick way around learning this, it is game time or nothing. It means that we ultimately watch Pickford knowing that he is not yet as good as he one day should be. That can be a difficult perspective to ignore.
The loan status too carries some negativity – even though, over the past 12 months, the merits of loan players are more widely accepted at Valley Parade than they were.
It’s all very well to give Pickford the opportunity to develop, but City don’t benefit in the long-term. Already you can hear supporter grumbles that we should be giving an extended chance to “one of our own”. The inconsistency in this argument is that Ben Williams – who these people are referring to as “one of our own” – currently has a less certain contract status than our borrowed Sunderland stopper.
We have been here before with young goalkeeper loanees over recent years, with mixed results. Scott Loach in 2008, Simon Eastwood in 2009. Further back there was Ross Turnbull and Boaz Myhill, who flopped at Valley Parade but went on to play Premier League football.
Like Pickford, Watford loanee Loach was highly-rated when Stuart McCall brought him in on half a season’s loan, and he performed extremely well. Yet, at the time, it didn’t stop Loach receiving a large amount of criticism on message boards. Loach’s career has not taken off to the level expected, and he now plays for Rotherham.
And what about Eastwood? Borrowed from Huddersfield on the eve of the 2009/10 campaign – McCall had just £600 a week budget to sign a stopper – the teenager endured a difficult period. Good games – and he did have good games for City – were overshadowed by bad mistakes during others. The crowd simply didn’t warm to him or hold any trust in his ability.
Eastwood’s loan was not extended beyond the initial half-season, and his career seemingly sank like a stone. I remember watching FC Halifax Town’s televised FA Cup defeat to Charlton, with Eastwood in goal for the non-league club. Was this his true level? Amazingly, he turned it around via Portsmouth, and is currently the number two at Championship side Blackburn.
Pickford’s name has been mentioned in the same sentence as Eastwood by several City supporters, in reference to the downside of the risk of young loanee goalkeepers. But Pickford is on the books of a Premier League club, not a League One side (as Huddersfield were at the time). Pickford certainly appears to be a more accomplished and composed stopper than Eastwood looked to be.
And so far, Pickford is coping well with the pressure of a sceptical crowd. He has made some mistakes for sure – against Coventry on the opening day of the season, and at MK Dons in the league – but these errors did not cost the team points. There have been other goals conceded where some have attempted to pin the blame on Pickford, but they are hardly clear cut. Certainly those criticisms carried more than a whiff of those prejudices.
In the back-to-back September home defeats to Yeovil and Swindon, for example, criticism of Pickford was aired. Yet the terrible goals conceded in both matches were evidently the blame of the defence in front of him. If you’re going to allow opposition players free headers from set pieces, it barely matters who is keeping goal – you are going to get punished.
And at other times, Pickford has made some superb saves. In the Swindon match there was a stunning tip over – with City a goal up – that was quickly forgotten due to the events that overtook it. At Colchester United, Pickford made another incredible save from distance. Against Crewe last Saturday, he made two vital blocks at 0-0 to prevent an embarrassing home defeat. Pickford’s all round play has looked fine, and his long throws are a useful weapon for a team that seeks to break out quickly.
The weaknesses, so far, are in Pickford’s kicking and decision-making on crosses. The mistake against Coventry – coming out for a ball he was nowhere near reaching – has perhaps rattled his confidence in that regard, as he now stays glued to his line. From one extreme to the other. But he is not the first City keeper to struggle with crosses. Many of his predecessors have had similar difficulties in recent years, even those who were vastly experienced.
What I really want to see from Pickford most of all though is his personality. Goalkeepers have to throw their weight of personality over more than just the six-yard box. Pickford has to be more vocal with his defence, and be more forceful in his instructions to others. People like Andrew Davies and Rory McArdle might have a wealth of experience compared to Pickford, but they don’t have eyes in the back of their head. Even the best centre halves in the world need to play in front of a goalkeeper who communicates.
What I find, watching Pickford, is that he is barely noticeable for periods of games (often for good reasons in that City’s defence are not letting the opposition in). He is a quiet man in the corner. We need to see more presence, more authority. It’s not an easy thing to develop, but it has to be one of his key objectives over the coming months.
Pickford is doing a more than adequate job so far. He is not out of his depth, and any mistakes have been balanced out through other impressive saves. Every goalkeeper I have seen at Bradford City has made errors, to expect different from Pickford is unrealistic.
And it is also unfair to judge him too harshly on his early days. Those crowd prejudices towards young, on-loan goalkeepers seem unfair to place upon Pickford’s shoulders. It seems to be beyond the reach of some people to praise him – and you get the feeling this stance is a result of those summer pre-judgements. Many expected the worse and indeed some continue to, but four clean sheets from 11 games is an excellent start.
The bottom line is that Pickford is holding up well, contributing positively and shaping up to be a good young goalkeeper. Whether that one day takes him to Sunderland’s first team or the England squad is certainly debatable. But in the short-term – and on the evidence so far – he is certainly good enough to keep goal for Bradford City this season.
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Categories: Midweek Player Focus