By Matt Badcock
Dan Bradley should have known Jordan Pickford would play for England – his dad Dave predicted it a little over five years ago.
Back then, the Everton and England goalkeeper was on loan in the Conference with Alfreton Town following a similar temporary spell with Darlington.
Pickford will pull on the Three Lions’ No.1 jersey against Panama this afternoon having made his World Cup debut last Monday night in the dramatic 2-1 win against Tunisia.
Kidderminster Harriers midfielder Bradley was at Nicky Law’s Alfreton when a baby-faced Pickford turned up on loan from Sunderland.
“For a young kid, he had a real presence,” Bradley tells The NLP. “We were struggling a little bit at the time and he transformed our season.
“I remember my old man said, ‘I’d love to have a bet on him playing for England’. His kicking was ridiculous, honestly. He would get the ball and hit this half-volley that would put us on the attack straightaway. He was absolutely brilliant.”
Reds boss Law probably didn’t have any qualms about putting the stopper in after his performances for Darlington the season before.
With the beleaguered Quakers under a transfer embargo, they were only allowed to sign Under-19 players and caretaker boss Craig Liddle, who knew Pickford from the Sunderland Academy, brought in the-then 17-year-old to fill the sticks.
Against eventual champions Fleetwood Town at the Darlington Arena, caretaker boss Craig Liddle was soon impressed.
“He made his debut in front of about 7,000 people against Fleetwood,” Liddle told The Northern Echo. “Jamie Vardy was meant to be in the Fleetwood team, but I think he pulled out injured. We lost 1-0, but about ten minutes into the game, I remember Jordan piling through a crowd of players to catch a corner. I thought, ‘You’ll do for me’.
“He made mistakes, but you’ve got to expect that from a young keeper. The most impressive thing was the way in which he didn’t let the odd mistake bother him. He had confidence in his own ability, and that was impressive in someone so young.”
Bradley has a similar memory from Alfreton’s visit to Wrexham.
“They had a team full of old heads,” Bradley says. “They got a corner early on and Dean Keates, who is now the Walsall manager, was saying, ‘Put it on the keeper, he’s only a young lad’. But he stood up to it.
“We came away with a draw and that shows a lot about him when you come away from somewhere like Wrexham with a point. He was only a scrawny lad then, he’s put muscle on now, but he had real character and you could see his quality. We’d had a few keepers come in from higher up but you could see the difference with him. He was very quiet. He’d come in, get the job done and go home.”
Pickford himself recently recalled the Wrexham game, his second of 12 for Alfreton as he kept five clean sheets to help the Reds rise up the table.
“I was at Alfreton and remember a corner at Wrexham when they put seven players on top of me,” he said. “The first one I could have come and got it, the second one I came and took it. And they ran away.
“You can’t be frightened as you only get one chance. I’ve always taken that chance and taken it well. You are always learning and always crossing bridges.”
Those bridges eventually led back to Sunderland where, after loan spells with Burton, Carlisle, Bradford City and Preston, he made his debut in January 2016 before becoming the most expensive British goalkeeper with a move to Everton last summer for a £25million transfer fee that could rise to £30m.
Now he’s become England boss Gareth Southgate’s first choice in Russia – if only Bradley’s dad had placed that wager.
“He keeps reminding me about it,” Bradley says. “At the time I said, ‘No – that’s a long way to go’. You don’t think it will happen do you? Well, I didn’t. But it has and so quickly. It’s brilliant for young kids coming through to see.”
*This article originally featured in The @NonLeaguePaper which is available every Sunday and Monday
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