The week began with downing Jägerbombs and dancing on chairs at the darts and ended with swathes of Geordies jeering him and calling him a sad Mackem b*****d. Welcome back to the weird and wonderful world of Jordan Pickford, Everton’s madcap in a baseball cap who provides far more value for the Twitterati than just standing between two posts on a field.
Certainly by now, Pickford has forged quite the charge sheet for himself in the eyes of the fun police. The rendition of that awful Gareth Southgate song after a Courteeners gig in the build-up to a Premier League game the following Saturday. The pub scuffle in April. Looking, as every tabloid is at pains to put it, ‘worse for wear’ in Ibiza in July. Now the darts incident. And on Fallon Sherrock’s big night, as well. Oh, Jordan. Will you ever learn?
This is, of course, the view of the more cynical side of the coin; the one that will bemoan his lack of professionalism to the death and argue whether you ever see Alisson Becker, or indeed any of his imperious Liverpool team-mates, so publicly enjoying a night on the tiles. The other will see it more diplomatically, as a grown man enjoying some harmless fun (for the most part, anyway) while off-duty. We compartmentalise footballers as such other-worldly, ethereal beings that merely the sight of them doing something as normal as having a drink becomes a talking point in itself. Nor would we even know about half of these antics without bloody camera phones, after all.
Are they both right? Can these opinions not co-exist? Should we even care? Perhaps not, since it’s none of our business what Pickford gets up to in his spare time. Becoming a footballer is not, and should not, be a vocation that demands you simultaneously become a teetotal hermit. His issue, as it has often been on the field this season, is timing. When a player’s form wanes as his has, doubts begin to circulate and clouds of uncertainty form. Stunts like these merely prove the faceless online masses right that there is some external factor to which we can attribute Pickford’s decline.
In truth, hubris often feels at once Pickford’s closest ally and his Kryptonite. It is partly why Southgate put faith in him for the World Cup in the first place despite having kept goal behind two feeble defences at Sunderland and Everton, why he had the strength of character to see England through the last 16 shootout with Colombia, why he often comes out on top on one-on-ones. Besides, as legend tells us, if Harry Kane had only squared to Raheem Sterling in Moscow, Pickford could easily have been 90 minutes away from joining only Gordon Banks as England number ones to have lifted the Jules Rimet.
But it is also to blame for that calamitous Divock Origi goal from which he has never truly recovered, a litany of other avoidable strikes, and for his own perceived demeanour in many of these shakily-filmed episodes away from football. Particularly in the footage from the darts last week, Pickford is revelling in the attention of his adoring crowd, busting moves like some David Brent tribute act. No shrinking violet would even dare. And yet we all deride Jürgen Klopp for playing to the cameras.
Even if mountains have been sculpted from molehills here, St. James’ Park was probably the last place Pickford wanted to end the week; as a boyhood Black Cat, he will be eternally unpopular in these quarters. It was just nine months ago, of course, that he delivered an error-strewn performance on the pitch and pulled tongues and remonstrated with Newcastle fans off it, as Everton conspired to throw away a 2-0 lead to lose 3-2. Having failed his resit of the Anfield examination earlier in December, wilting under the pressure of Liverpool fans poking fun at his ‘little arms’, and of Origi again, here was a second opportunity to rectify past misdemeanours.
This time, to his credit, Pickford made amends, and got his just rewards with Everton earning a priceless 2-1 win on Tyneside. There was no clean sheet, but nor was there the goading of the home faithful, the regular stray goal kicks, or the concession of an ostensibly manageable effort from a man in black and white. Rather than allowing any personal battles to take centre stage, here was a goalkeeper who walked into the maelstrom and parried it away with little fuss.
Indeed, whereas Newcastle away last season offered up Pickford’s shortcomings in microcosm, this embodied all that is good - and can be even better - about England’s number one. Then, he made the most perfunctory attempt at claiming a simple cross which resulted in shoddily conceding a penalty (which, admittedly, he saved well), later presented Ayoze Pérez with an equaliser on a platter, and throughout seemed far more intent on winning the moral high ground than the match itself. Now, he exuded composure, carved perfect parabolas from his goal kicks, made one striking save from Fabian Schär just as Newcastle began turning the screw, and ultimately deserved to emerge the winning goalkeeper.
Pickford, for all of his previous lapses in concentration, is no mug, either. He knew this match would offer a particularly unique challenge for him, and knew that, under the microscope of the 50,000-strong Toon Army, he could ill-afford to compound his own lack of form with another show of petulance. “I was in my own world out there, I knew that last time I was here I let it all affect me. That was a big learning curve for me and it’s always been a tough place to play, especially for someone with my background,” he said afterwards.
“That makes it a lot worse as an opposition players; you always try and enjoy it on the pitch, and today I just blocked the Newcastle fans out and showed focus. I thought my mentality was top drawer and that got me through the game.”
To the plethora of other positives that Carlo Ancelotti must harness as Everton’s new manager, we can now add Pickford’s own rediscovered maturity. The Italian’s arrival represents yet another clean slate, but one which Pickford especially must relish and thrive on. Two clean sheets and a strong performance against all odds here suggest the early signs are good, at least.
Pickford has not had it easy. For much of his four years as first-choice Premier League stopper, he has had to marshal shoddy back lines who wince at the first sight of trouble on the horizon. Not to mention the four Everton managers (six, including caretakers) in his two-and-a-half seasons at the club, all the while lacking a competent deputy to truly drive him on that extra mile. The trials and tribulations of becoming a father for the first time, as he did earlier this year, should not just be dismissed as immaterial, either.
But there must be something about a goalkeeper who was Everton’s player of the season in 2017-18, who was a worthy World Cup semi-finalist, and who kept ten clean sheets in 13 games between the end of last campaign and the start of this term. If Pickford can keep defeating his own worst enemy - himself - as he did on Saturday, then half of Everton’s battle is already won.