Everton face Stoke at home on the opening day of the 2017/18 season. It is news that would have been received with some relief by Evertonians on 14 June, but the blue half of Merseyside is still coming to terms with the prospect of trips to Stamford Bridge, the Etihad Stadium and Old Trafford shortly afterwards. A home match with 2016/17 runners-up Tottenham also stands out, within what is undoubtedly this season’s toughest opening five-game sequence. With Jordan Pickford now a confirmed Everton player for £30m, the man seen largely as England’s next great hope will be under the sort of pressure no English goalkeeper has experienced for many a year.
Image: 2017 has been an illustrious year for Everton in the transfer market – and it’s only mid-June.
Everton opportunity unmissable
A majority of Sunderland’s defeats in 2016/17 were characterised by defensive surrender, and Pickford was often called upon to simply keep the scores respectable. Though his value of £30m speaks volumes, he managed just four clean sheets from twenty-nine appearances in 2016/17, and this is a statistic that serves only to douse the optimism surrounding him. Pickford will also be involved in European football for the very first time, and the pressure on him is multiplied when one considers that Everton (as of 15 June 2017) are priced at 25/1 odds by Betway to lift the Europa League. There is already an expectation that the Europa League squad will be younger and more inexperienced – but no less hungry for success – than the regular starting XI. Merseyside’s first professional club has always been considered a champion of youth talent, and it was a reputation reinforced afresh when fringe striker Dominic Calvert-Lewin scored the winner in this year’s U20 world cup final.
It is a welcome contrast from the situation just four years ago, when only one Everton player (Ross Barkley) could be considered amongst the top five young players in the league. Pickford will also have the ideal mentor at Goodison Park. The man responsible for overseeing his prime years will be Everton’s incumbent goalkeeping coach Patrick Lodewijks. Guiding such an expensive, high-profile talent will be nothing new for the 50-year old Eindhoven native, who once coached for the Dutch national side. Between 1989 and 1998, Lodewijks made 270 appearances for a Groningen side low on resources, but never once experienced relegation while he was a first team regular.
Pickford takes shots from Joe Hart, the man he aspires to replace for England in the long term.
Pickford an ‘uncut diamond’
With Liverpool players garnering much hype ahead of the 2014 World Cup, there is every chance that it will be Everton who have such ample representation in Russia next year. Barring a terrible season, Pickford will almost certainly be in Gareth Southgate’s 23-man shortlist. Appropriately, the easy nature of Everton’s 2-0 win over Sunderland, as reported by BBC Sport on 25 February, revealed much of what needs to be done with Pickford over the next twelve months. In a truly one-sided encounter, Pickford’s now-former teammates seldom crossed the halfway line. By contrast, the blue and white fury of his future team poured forward and tested him no less than eight times. Despite being faced with the wrath of an in-form Romelu Lukaku, the Black Cats academy graduate marshalled corner kicks and set pieces with an expertise that defied his tender years. A majority of his reactions were also of a Premier League standard, but he showed below-par wrist conditioning and was inconsistent in his decision-making.
Everton Football Club revealed the 2017/18 Umbro home kit earlier this year. The inclusion of three Everton academy graduates hints at an emphasis on youth talent in the coming years.
That February clash against his future club was a prime indicator that Pickford is currently the definitive ‘uncut diamond’ that Ronald Koeman needs. It is undeniable that Pickford almost gifted Everton as many goals as he saved on that day, but the obvious nature of his errors will make it easier for Lodewijks to address his weaknesses in due course. Four years ago, when Roberto Martinez was Everton’s newly-appointed manager, Everton had aspirations to finish in a Champions League berth. Such aspirations proved unsjustified, but with Farhad Moshiri spearheading what is already looking like a spending spree, 2017/18 represents a great chance for Everton to finish in the top four for only the second time in the Premier League era. Should Everton finish in the top four, with Pickford’s efforts the telling factor, then the Black Cats academy graduate will soar like no goalkeeper has done for a generation.