The making of England's World Cup hero
Pickford’s attitude marked him as destined for top, Steve Walsh tells Chris Bascombe
The man who made Jordan Pickford the most expensive English goalkeeper can allow himself a satisfied smile as the country celebrates reaching a World Cup quarter-final.
Steve Walsh was Everton's director of football when he urged the club to pay what may eventually be £30 million for the player. Walsh's main concern was not overvaluing Pickford when agreeing the deal with Sunderland, but how long Everton might keep him if Real Madrid called.
"We never actually paid £30 million," says Walsh. "It is fair to say it might eventually be that much. But when a player proves you right, you are happy to pay. He is worth £30 million now and will be worth a lot more the more mature he gets. My big fear at Everton was that eventually a club the size of Real Madrid would want to get him, offering about £60 million."
Walsh recently left Goodison Park following a restructure. This is the first time he has spoken since. Understandably, there is some reticence. "Don't make me sound like I am trying to appear a hero for signing Jordan," he requests. "Equally, it is nice to look at successful deals and not to be thought of as a villain, too!"
For all the criticism of Everton's spending under Walsh, Pickford stands out as an unqualified success. "When I went to Everton, a 'keeper was a priority and I said, 'It has to be Pickford'. I never had any doubts about him.
"While I was at Leicester, I watched him on loan at Bradford, where he was playing under Phil Parkinson, and then Preston under Simon Grayson. I spoke to both of them about his character and work ethic and all the reports were hugely supportive. They said he was a very good 'keeper destined for the top. When I joined Everton, I pushed for him and I am really happy I was part of the process that brought him to the club."
After the North-East boy worked his way through Sunderland's academy, loan spells included Conference clubs Darlington and Alfreton Town. Walsh believes this went some way to creating the full package by the time a Premier League opportunity presented itself at Sunderland in 2016.
"What we saw when he came to Everton was what a great attitude he possessed," says Walsh. "He is very driven and wants to go to the top of the game.
"One of the qualities I liked when I met him and saw him was how there is nothing that fazes him. What I like in goalkeepers as much as natural ability and agility - which Jordan has - is guts. That means bravery in terms of coming for crosses, for example. The last thing you want is a good shot-stopper who never comes off his line to catch a cross. Jordan is decisive. Sometimes you might not get there, but he does 95 per cent of the time."
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Craig Liddle, who managed Pickford during the loan period at Darlington in 2012, echoes that view. "He was 17 and you're worried about throwing a young kid like that in goal. But he was always a confident lad and he fitted in well," says Liddle, now working at Middlesbrough's academy. "He made his debut in front of about 7,000 against Fleetwood. We lost 1-0 but about 10 minutes into the game I remember Jordan piling through a crowd of players to catch a corner. I thought, 'You'll do for me'. During that game alone, he pulled off three or four top-class saves.
"The most impressive thing was how he didn't let the odd mistake bother him. What he was capable of was making fantastic reflex saves. He had confidence in his own ability and that was impressive in someone so young."
At Alfreton, where Pickford played in front of 1,100 spectators, his impact was such that there was an audacious attempt to sign him.
"There was a wry smile and a laugh from Sunderland when we suggested that," recalls Wayne Bradley, the Alfreton chairman. "They were having none of it. It's not a surprise. He was head and shoulders above everyone his age. We had seen him for Darlington and it was pure chance we got him because they suffered a transfer embargo, so our manager - Nicky Law - called Martin O'Neill to see if we could take him and he agreed.
"Nothing he has done since has surprised us, although my club secretary did say to me he never thought he would see the day an Alfreton player would become England's No 1. We would love to be able to invite him back to Derbyshire to show off a World Cup medal. We're rooting for that."
Walsh anticipated the speed of Pickford's international elevation.
"You can see why Gareth [Southgate] would put him straight in at the World Cup," he says. "It helps he is working with goalkeeper Martyn Margetson, who Sam [Allardyce] took with him to England and Everton. Jordan has a great relationship with Martyn.
"History shows goalkeepers get better with age and experience. Not too many have played two full Premier League seasons at the age of 24 - from any country, not just England. I thought he was capable of this when I first saw him and my eyes did not deceive me.
"There is always an element of taking a leap of faith with transfers. It gets to a point where you have to make a decision. I'm pleased I put my faith in Jordan. He repaid Everton last season and now England are getting the best out of him." (© Daily Telegraph, London)