Coming into this World Cup, England was facing a bit of a goalkeeping crisis. Joe Hart, the long-time starter, simply wasn’t good for West Ham last season. Manager Gareth Southgate made the brave and certainly correct decision to drop him, but England’s other options in net all had question marks too. Fraser Forster hasn’t been the same since his serious knee injury in 2015. Jack Butland wasn’t responsible for Stoke’s relegation, but he didn’t have his best year either. Nick Pope had a wonderful campaign with Burnley, but has no international experience.
Almost by default, the job went to Pickford, who had a roller-coaster of a campaign for Everton. The Toffees stuttered en route to an eighth place finish, and Pickford made some high profile errors in his first season with the club. And at 6’1”, Pickford is more prone to getting bullied by big opponents in the box. But he still earned positive reviews from Everton fans, wins more balls in the air than you’d expect for a man his size, and was almost universally regarded as the correct choice for the Three Lions despite having just three caps coming into the tournament.
Goalkeeper is a position that’s haunted England in its recent past. There’s David James’ whiff against Austria in 2006 World Cup qualifying, though the Three Lions did eventually qualify. There’s Paul Robinson’s mistake in Croatia and Scott Carson’s error against the Croats in London, which, together, kept England from qualifying for Euro 2008. There’s Rob Green’s mistake against the USMNT at the 2010 World Cup. And then there’s Hart, who had to bare the brunt of the blame for England’s Euro 2016 exit at the hands of Iceland.
So far, Pickford has avoided making big mistakes, and has made some incredible highlight saves instead.
And against Sweden in the quarterfinal, he kept a clean sheet in a brilliant performance.
Hopefully, Pickford’s first heroic act — against Colombia — won’t be forgotten. We never got to see a replay of it during the live broadcast because Colombia scored a goal from the ensuing corner kick, just 10 seconds later. But if the match ended in regular time, its defining moment would have been this unbelievable stop by Pickford on a rocket of a shot by Santiago Arias.
In the shootout, he came up huge when England needed it badly. Jordan Henderson had missed his spot kick, and England was down. If Colombia scored all of its remaining penalties, they would have been through to the quarterfinal. Instead, they’re going home because Pickford did this.
Pickford’s teammates recognized how spectacular the save was. After Eric Dier converted the game-winning penalty, the England players rushed to mob and start a human dogpile on top of Pickford, not Dier.
And against Sweden, Pickford had a man-of-the-match performance, making three huge saves on point blank chances to keep the Swedes off the board and keep a clean sheet in the quarterfinal. Sweden didn’t have a ton of chances, but the ones they had were good, and Pickford was huge in denying them.
Pickford hasn't had to do much today, but he just came up big for England! pic.twitter.com/k2vA0jMFXj— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) July 7, 2018
Thanks to Pickford, England won its first penalty shootout at the World Cup in its history. They’ve slayed the demons of their manager Gareth Southgate and Euro ‘96. And to think, this was a position where the Three Lions thought they might have another crisis. Perhaps Pickford can break their curse.