England vs Croatia. The year is 2006-07. Steve McLaren is the coach of England, Slaven Bilic at the helm of Croatia. England are in trouble, trying to qualify for the upcoming European Championships. They go to Zagreb, looking for a win and end up losing 2-0. But there is still hope. Later, in the final group stag game, they need just a point against the Croats at Wembley, but end up losing 3-2. There have been many low points for England since the turn of the century, but not qualifying for the continental championship has got to be the lowest.
And on both occasions, there was one thing common: goalkeepers who made howlers first, headlines later. Paul Robinson, first. Scott Carson, next. Two mistakes that resulted almost directly in England’s year of ignominy.
Fast forward 11 years and England are in the semi-finals of the World Cup. And as they prepare to face Croatia once again, they do so, safe in the knowledge that they have a goalkeeper capable of winning them matches.
Enter, Jordan Pickford.
The last time England reached a World Cup semi-final was at Italy 1990 when 16 of the current squad members were not even born. One of them is the 24-year-old Pickford. Ever since the build-up to the World Cup started, manager Gareth Southgate has remained adamant about one thing – that this team is not weighed down by history, by years of repeated failure.
When it comes to the goalkeeping position, that problem has been more significant than most others.
2002 World Cup saw a very competent England team lose to Brazil, because of David Seaman’s inability to judge the flight of a looping ball. 2010 World Cup saw Robert Green, a slightly controversial choice, let Clint Dempsey’s shot tamely roll under him, a la David de Gea against Portugal. 2016 Euros saw England eliminated against Iceland by a Joe Hart blunder. Throw in Robinson, Carson and David James into the mix, England have had a history of problems with goalkeepers producing howlers at the most inopportune time.
Coming into Russia 2018, there was a worry that the pattern might continue. While the rest of the squad was not blessed with experience either, the three goalkeepers selected – Pickford, Jack Butland and Nick Pope – did not inspire immediate confidence.
As it turned out, Southgate knew all along what he had in his hands. In Pickford, a talent waiting to burst onto the big stage. And just as he did against Colombia, Pickford was fantastic against Sweden too as England put themselves 90 minutes away from a World Cup final.
It was overshadowed by his penalty shootout heroics, but Pickford’s save seconds before Colombia’s late equaliser was one of the best efforts of the tournament by a goalkeeper. Mateus Uribe’s blistering long-range effort was destined for the top left corner but the England goalkeeper managed to push the ball out. He took the confidence from that ahead into the shootout and later spoke of the trust he has in his preparation and reflexes.
“I don’t care if I’m not the biggest keeper,” said Pickford afterwards. “I’ve got that power and agility to get around the goal. I’m very good at it.”
And in the quarter-final against Sweden, he reiterated just that.
With England leading 1-0, Sweden came out of the half-time break, flying. They knew they needed an early goal to force their way back into the game and Marcus Berg almost did just that, rising tall and heading powerfully to the right of Pickford. As his luck would have it, Pickford had moved to a good position in anticipation, put in a dive and palmed it away.
A goal for Sweden then would have changed the course of the game. Pickford would make two more saves late on, one to deny Olga Toivonen and Berg again – once diving to his left and one diving vertically. He had, so to speak, completed the full set for a goalkeeper. And earned the man of the match award, deservedly.
“This is what football’s all about, being on the big stage,” said Pickford. “I don’t put myself under any pressure, I embrace the moment and play in the moment. Nothing fazes me, the pitch is always going to be the same, same lines, same goal height, it’s just a game of football.”
Pickford has also been central to England’s attempts at playing out the ball from the back under pressure. Not quite Barcelona-like, but just to ensure that they keep possession as much longer than they normally would by hoofing the ball up to the center-forward.
“Pickford, for me, is a sort of prototype of what a modern goalkeeper should be,” said Southgate. “The number of touches goalkeepers have with their feet is exceptionally high in the modern game, especially in international and European football. The Premier League is different with crosses into the box, so [demands] different skills. But the saves Jordan made today at critical times, and his distribution in picking out [Kieran] Trippier with a reverse pass - we need goalkeepers of that ilk moving forward.”
And Southgate’s confidence over Pickford, has translated into Pickford’s confident showings between the post for England. Come Wednesday, England face Croatia again, in a setting completely different to the one 11 years back. They’ll know they have a born in prime form as their last line of defence. In what was largely a routine win for England against Sweden, one man stood taller than most. And it’s safe to say his height won’t be a matter of discussion anytime soon.
“I wasn’t born the last time England reached a World Cup semi-final,” Pickford said. “We have always said we would it take one game at a time but we can go on and create our own history.”
History beckons, indeed.