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Jordan Pickford earns redemption at scene of his darkest hour

The Merseyside derby, particularly when at Anfield, has been the Everton goalkeeper’s biggest mental block. On Saturday, as the 22-year drought ended, he delivered his best performance for the club

Liverpool v Everton - Premier League
Pickford was superb in Everton’s 2-0 win at Liverpool on Saturday
Photo by Robbie Jay Barratt - AMA/Getty Images

First they ridiculed his purportedly tiny arms. Then they reduced his Instagram comment sections to a cesspit of middle-finger emojis, death threats, and the word(?) ‘Dickford’. Then they could only watch helplessly from afar as he returned to his own personal hellhole and parried his demons one by one out of harm’s way. Everton’s first win at Anfield since 1999 will take the headlines. But what shouldn’t be overlooked or underappreciated in the hazy morning after is the wholesome completion of Jordan Pickford’s redemptive arc.

From clutching at thin air while Virgil van Dijk headed home, to teeing up Divock Origi, to shipping five in Marco Silva’s last stand, Anfield has long felt Pickford’s Waterloo. Time and again, he’s been left frazzling in the white-hot heat of the big red machine, of the febrile Kop baying for blood.

But his collision with van Dijk in October’s Goodison derby, an overwrought 2-2 draw played to an audience of zero, opened a whole new Pandora’s box. Liverpool fans, it seemed, used to simply pity Pickford as some sort of figure of fun. Now, at least among the more belligerent contingent, a burning enmity surfaced. ‘In a world where you can be anything, be kind,’ they say. Unless your totemic centre-half and arguably most important player has his season ended by a terrible accident. Then, suspend kindness and vent spleen at will.

None of them were able to confront Pickford in person at Anfield on Saturday, nor did Liverpool’s red arrows carry that same bloodthirsty hunger as in previous derbies. This their fourth successive home league defeat, the walls have been tumbling down across this once-impenetrable fortress for some time, now. But nothing should diminish the scale of Pickford’s milestone. After a series of self-inflicted wounds and a torrent of unwarranted abuse, he deserved his clean sheet as much as his moment in the swirling, driving wind, if not the sun.

Liverpool v Everton - Premier League - Anfield
Pickford made six saves for Everton on Saturday, equalling his best for a match so far this term
Photo by Laurence Griffiths/PA Images via Getty Images

A beleaguered, blunted force Liverpool may be, but Pickford was still made to work for his reward. A dipping early volley from fellow Wearsider Jordan Henderson, whose late strike in October Pickford fumbled only for VAR to bail him out, could have been tailor-made for another instalment of Calamity Jordan. Yet Pickford’s save was immaculate, leaping across his goal to divert Henderson’s fierce effort away with his fingertips. It set the tone for a night when the goalkeeper mocked for minuscule physique proudly stood ten foot tall.

Much credit must also go to Everton’s impregnable back five, in particular the warrior-like displays from Seamus Coleman, who led by example, and from Michael Keane, the beating heart of their defence. It was thanks to them, too, that the early lead provided by Richarlison’s cool finish stayed intact, and could then be doubled late on through Gylfi Sigurdsson’s penalty.

But in-between the goals which book-ended a faultless team endeavour, Liverpool inevitably had their moments. Mohamed Salah and Xherdan Shaqiri combined to pick the lock midway through the second half, only for Pickford to dart out without hesitation, spread himself wide, block Salah’s goal-bound shot and fling on the rebound like a live grenade. Sadio Mane’s earlier header was also collected calmly. And while the win was already secured by injury time, so too was the clean sheet when Giorginio Wijnaldum’s looping effort was tipped over with no fuss.

That was the most notable aspect about Pickford’s performance, in truth - no fuss. At times in the past, it’s felt less Liverpool vs Everton, more Jordan Pickford single-handedly wrestling a tag-team of the ghosts of derbies past - Ian Rush, Mark Clattenburg, Dirk Kuyt, anyone else who’s done Everton wrong in this fixture before. Perhaps his biggest sin is merely caring too much. Either way, too often, he’s played the occasion rather than the game, and allowed his own red mist to descend.

Liverpool FC v Everton FC - Premier League
Pickford has cracked under the pressure of Anfield derbies previously
Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

And of course, Pickford is not so much as a goalkeeper as he is an entertainer, a trailblazer. Those YouTube-ready highlight reels of Hollywood saves, those pinpoint parabolas which leave Gareth Southgate swooning, these are certainly assets to Pickford’s game and make him a more interesting footballer, but can at times feel like overcompensating for deficiencies between the sticks. Here, not so: his distribution and his shot-stopping were both simple yet effective for the most part. So much so, in fact, that it felt strange seeing this skittish stopper radiate such calmness, not least at the scene of his own nadirs.

The challenge must now be for Pickford to maintain this extended attention span. It’s often felt like the biggest barrier to him joining the pantheon of elite goalkeepers is not so much any physical shortcomings, but Pickford himself. Like the Anfield mental block he has now overcome, or how, when he has fallow periods in games, his mind wanders and he appears at his most vulnerable. This is, after all, the goalkeeper with the most errors leading to Premier League goals since the start of last term.

Conversely, Pickford made six saves in Saturday’s game, a feat he has only matched once this term - in October’s derby. Indeed, the most common theme in his best Everton outings is that they’ve all been matches that have not just kept him busy, but have seen his goal peppered for much of it.

And while to say it was rearguard action stuff from Everton on Saturday may be a stretch, Pickford will certainly face less taxing examinations of his goalkeeping credentials than at Anfield on Saturday. The key, then, as it’s always been with Pickford, is his head: keep this level of focus in games where he may play more of an extra than a leading role, and a greater level of consistency will come hand-in-hand.

For now, though, Pickford has earned his chance to celebrate clearing his most arduous psychological hurdle. Cynics may point to the arena’s eerie emptiness and to Liverpool’s fading star for mitigation, as if to depict it as Anfield Lite. But after the slew of mental tribulations this fixture has hurled his way, Pickford deserves more respect than that. Ultimately, on the stage of his darkest hour, he delivered his best Everton performance yet.