Goalkeeping is trade that packs the odd surprise.
When Arsenal beat us 3-1 in the Premier League on December 5, the man of the match was not Ozil or any of Wenger’s other stars but Petr Cech, testament to the importance of his saves in stopping Sunderland gaining a point from the game.
And despite conceding three goals in the FA Cup tie on Saturday, our own Jordan Pickford was the best player on the pitch, ahead of the excellent Hector Bellerin and, though he played only from the 67th minute, the game-changing Aaron Ramsey.
At ESPN, I gave Pickford nine out of 10 – no one else merited more than seven from me in my ratings – and said this:
An outstanding first-team debut by the young keeper included several world-class saves, an assured command of his goal box and almost perfect distribution (even his one mishit clearance went to a Sunderland player). Blameless for each of the goals.
I also suggested he was “a terrific goalkeeping prospect for Sunderland and maybe even for England”.
Was I too generous, influenced by the player’s youth and inexperience at this level and over-anxious to talk up his performance?
On balance, I stick by the assessment. In addition to the one fluffed clearance in the first half – he kicked low out of the box; the ball did not travel far enough but it did travel to a Sunderland player so no damage was done – there were two parried saves that he might have done a little better with, one in each half. But again the ball fell to Sunderland players who were able to clear.
Goalkeepers are entitled to some good fortune and Pickford made his own – I might have made his mark 8.5 if halves were allowed in the ESPN ratings but it was more nine than eight. And since keepers tend to have a bond, I’d be fascinated too know what the magnificent Cech made of our man’s debut.
And consider the saves he did make, especially those from Kieran Gibbs and Alex Iwobi in the first half (in each case after DaAndre Yedlin had been left for dead on Arsenal’s attacking left flank) and from a point-blank Joel Campbell shot in the second with the scores still level. These were, indeed world-class and, given our wastefulness up front, saved us from a much heavier defeat.
What also caught the eye was Pickford’s assured, accurate and powerful distribution with hand and, especially, foot. The kicking was the best I have seen from any Sunderland keeper since Tony Coton and was unrecognisable from what we get all too often from Vito Mannone and Costel Pantilimon, good shotstoppers though both are.
Pickford, just 21, was born in Washington. His elder brother, Richard Logan, played as a forward for various North-eastern sides, including Darlington, Consett and Shildon. If our young keeper were not a player with the promise of a bright career ahead of him, he’d be cheering for the Lads. As the fans sang at the Emirates (ours, that is – Arsenal’s murmur to themselves rather than sing), he’s “one of our own”.
Let us hope that great career he’s capable of is with Sunderland AFC.