And so it finally came to pass when Sunderland’s relegation was confirmed on Saturday. The Black Cats had been hoping to claw their way to safety, but their blunt attempts were to no avail with David Moyes’ side dropping into the Championship after a ten-year spell in England’s top tier.
“If we can win tomorrow it will give us an opportunity to go again. But I’ve said that week in week out and we haven’t won,” Moyes said on Friday in the build-up to the welcome of Bournemouth, yet it seemed as though the Sunderland boss and the team had given up the fight weeks ago. Or before the start of the season.
While most Sunderland players are unlikely to retain their Premier League place for a new team over the summer, one or two more than warrant a stay in the top flight of English football. Jermain Defoe proved he still has the attacking quality to improve a number of Premier League teams, but the stand-out candidate comes in the form of Jordan Pickford. As one might expect, the young shot-stopper has been courted by a host of top teams in England following a series of fine showings for the Black Cats.
Indeed, the 23-year-old has been a shining light in the ever-darkening clouds looming over the Stadium of Light, with the likes of Arsenal, Everton and even RB Leipzig believed to be keen on Pickford. It’s for good reason too with the youngster establishing himself as one of the finest goalkeepers in the country.
England are blessed with an array of good ‘keepers, of that there is no doubt. Joe Hart is the current number one, with Burnley’s Tom Heaton, the returning Jack Butland and Fraser Forster – despite an indifferent campaign – all capable challengers for the national side.
However, in Pickford, Hart has arguably his strongest contender for the number one spot. Having been routinely tested between the sticks for Sunderland, the England hopeful has proven he is more than up to the task when his side is under pressure. He has faced the fourth most shots (159) and made the second most saves (115) in the Premier League, with a 72.3% success rate a notable figure given Sunderland’s circumstances.
Without Pickford in such fine form this season, the Black Cats would have used up their nine lives much sooner than the final weekend of April.
The question now is how he would fare in a team that would likely be on the front foot for matches. Only West Brom (40.9%) and Burnley (42.2%) are averaging less possession than Sunderland (42.8%) in the Premier League this season, with Moyes’ side largely on the back foot for 90 minutes. As such, this naturally increases the likelihood of the Sunderland goal being attacked more regularly, noted in that only Burnley (18) are conceding more shots per game than the Black Cats (17.4) in England’s top tier this term, while 60 goals shipped is also one of the worst returns.
With Pickford more often than not the busier of the two goalkeepers in any given match, there is less chance of being caught unawares. Part and parcel of being a top-level goalkeeper is to maintain a high level of concentration to avoid being stung by surprise attacks. Interested parties Arsenal and Everton both average significantly more possession than Sunderland, so it’s unlikely that Pickford would be called upon so frequently.
This would add a different type of pressure for Pickford, who would be relied upon to wait before being challenged and yet expected to maintain his consistency. Having made a name for himself for Sunderland, the next logical step is to sign for a Premier League side where he can continue his development. His time at the Stadium of Light has been a learning curve, but for Pickford to realise his potential, he needs to be playing for a top Premier League team week in, week out, not languishing in the Championship.
Pickford has proven how capable a goalkeeper he can be where required for a relegation-threatened side and now is the time to establish himself as a first-team regular for a club challenging for a European finish and more.
The approach may change for Pickford, but there is no reason why – with the right coaching – he can’t go on to excel for a higher Premier League side considering his shot-stopping qualities coupled with his impressive command of the area.
Ben McAleer – follow him on Twitter here