Issue #54 Why Sunderland should be begging for Jordan Pickford to play in the FA Cup

As told by Michael Wood

Preamble

The BfB legal advisor Joe – who is a man who just occasionally gets time off – enjoys playing Poker. He plays it and he is good at it. Very good.

Often he is asked ask to teach you how to play the game. Those who are are told to get out their wallets. You must bet in training what you do not want to lose. Only when the stakes involved are significant can you learn about how the game is really played.

You can play for pennies and for counters but that will not teach you how to play when the turn of a card actually matters. To get better at Poker – Joe says – the game has to matter.

Mu-Hill-Whaeal

A trip to Millwall for the third round of the FA Cup was nobody’s choice for a reward from beating Dartford. One doubts too that the Londoner’s would have been especially pleased to see themselves paired with Bradford City.

Ian Holloway’s side are struggling in The Championship while Phil Parkinson’s City team bubble in the middle of League One. Not much to pick between the two.

The strength of the teams that either side puts out could tip the game in one direction or another and no result could be considered much of a shock nor will be considered season defining.

Other ties were far more appealing. There was much flapping about the idea of last season’s final being replayed, and of a repeat of the 1973 final when Leeds United go to Sunderland. Sunderland’s interest in the competition being is significant importance to City’s on loan Jordan Pickford.

Remembering Jordan Pickford

Pickford arrived at Valley Parade looking as full of rawness and potential as any goalkeeper I can remember seeing. In his opening month one wondered if the rawness would be exposed to deeply that his potential be lost.

Pickford’s communication with the back four was so poor it was counter-productive. He came for crosses and then dropped back, or came and served only as a distraction, or did not come at all and saw the ball go past him. He was a liability.

But his reflexes were excellent, and his positioning good, and he made impressive saves some of the time. Even that communication problem was mitigated in some way by the fact he shouted at all. The sooner a nineteen year old goalkeeper learns that it his job to shout at seasoned defenders to get them into position the better for everyone.

Real football

A player only learns those things from what is termed “Real Football” but what “Real Football” is is open to interpretation and context. When a modern Premier League player gets a first cap for England against San Marino in a World Cup qualifier he has probably never played against worse players but the experience of a real international is useful. What use it is to someone with fifty caps is less clear.

For this definition when talking about Bradford City and Jordan Pickford we shall say real football is football where the result matters and where something important is at stake. Something like three points, or a place in the next round, or a manager’s job, or just the emotions of supporters.

When Jordan Pickford got into real football at Valley Parade the mistakes he made, and he made them, were forgiven because of the obvious potential in the rest of his game. Pickford needed games. And Pickford got games. Every league game so far. And now Pickford is realising the potential he has.

When Sunderland watch Pickford’s improvement over the last five months they must not recognise the footballing man compared to the juniors kid who joined City, but they must also have been expecting such a transformation, else why send him to Valley Parade in the first place?

But Pickford had played games before on loan outside the league with Darlington and Alfreton Town, and in it with Burton Albion and Carlisle United, with about seventy games under his belt thirty five of them in the league.

Cribbed maths could tell us that it has taken fifty professional football matches for Jordan Pickford stop having to rely on potential as the justification for having him in the team. Sunderland have to find a club, or clubs, who will give a player a season of games they could think of taking him back and having him in their team.

The tickets on the last train home

A first team place in the Football League is a rare thing. Each week less than a thousand players will get onto a field the Football League. Only assuming each team plays two loanees a week in the fourteen who can play then less than one hundred and fifty players are loan players places are available.

That one hundred and fifty includes players like Jon Stead who is both loaned from another Football League club and not a player in development. How many spaces are available for a player to be loaned from a Premier League cup for first team games when he needs development rather than being able to offer something immediately? One hundred? A dozen more, a dozen less? For twenty Premier League clubs with a few dozen kids each.

We are accustomed to looking at this from the point of view of teams loaning players. That teams like Bradford City are given the chance to have a player (like Pickford) who could go onto Premier League or International football and that they sometimes pay for this but sometimes are allowed to borrow future talent for nothing at all.

From the eye of a needle

Rarely is the idea flipped around.

A first team shirt in the Football League is a rare thing. One of the biggest assets that any club has is that it creates eleven development opportunities every week that clubs loaning players out want.

Teams like Bradford City’s side gives them away for free at best, or sometimes even pay for the privilege.

Every player I have ever been impressed by with has proved this to be true. Being able to run fast or kick a ball accurately is one of the first steps a player needs. The rest of the steps he learns through playing in real football matches. And more specifically applying himself well in real football matches.

Without this the talented youngster becomes the typical non-league nearly man who could have had his shot at the big time and seems to have the skills but never does work hard enough.

If clubs in Bradford City’s position knew the value of what they had they would charge clubs to take their players on loan rather than just looking at the system as a way of filling shirts. If clubs loaning players understood the value they would be willing to pay.

And if Sunderland understood the value of playing in a competitive, FA Cup tie at Millwall that really matters to the development of Jordan Pickford they would not be refusing to allow him to play, they would be begging Bradford City to put him in the team.