Mocked by Belgium’s Thibaut Courtois for being too small for a top-class goalkeeper, Jordan Pickford stood tall when England needed a penalty shootout hero to end years of pain from the spot.
On just his seventh international appearance, Pickford became the first England stopper in 20 years to save a penalty at a major tournament.
With the sides tied at 3-3 in the shootout, the Everton ‘keeper leapt to his right and got a strong left hand to Carlos Bacca’s strike, putting the Three Lions on course to win a knockout game for the first time since 2006.
It was a sweet moment for Pickford, and for his manager Gareth Southgate, whose decision to back the 24-year-old despite his inexperience and leave 75-time capped Joe Hart out of his squad was vindicated.
“I don’t care if I’m not the biggest keeper,” said the 6 feet 1 inch (1.85 metre) tall Pickford. “I’ve got that power and agility to get around the goal. I’m very good at it.”
Pickford deserved to have won the game a lot earlier on a tense night in Moscow.
As the game entered stoppage time he flew high to his left to turn Mateus Uribe’s blistering long-range effort behind.
Pickford had barely got to his feet, though, when Yerry Mina’s towering header from the resulting corner brought Colombia level with a crushing blow that more mentally fragile England sides of the past may not have recovered from.
“It was a top-class save. I’m surprised he could reach it given his height,” Southgate said with a wry smile.
“He’s really athletic around the goal, he is excellent and he executed the plan in the penalty shootout.”
– ‘Strange’ technique –
Pickford was one of just two first-team regulars not rotated by Southgate against Belgium for England’s final group game last week and was criticised for his technique in failing to stop Adnan Januzaj’s effort that sealed top spot in Group G for the Red Devils.
“The goalkeeper is 10 centimetres smaller than me,” Chelsea’s giant goalkeeper Courtois told Belgian website Voetbal24. “I would have caught it. He was too busy throwing his legs in the air.”
Courtois was not alone. Former Manchester United captain Gary Neville, who also formed part of the England coaching team at Euro 2016, described Pickford’s attempt to stop Januzaj’s strike as “a bit strange”.
“I’ve been criticised for going with my top hand, but as long as you save it, that’s all that counts,” said Pickford after silencing his critics. “I might be young but I’ve got good mental strength and experience and I used that.”
Southgate has suffered more than most from England’s penalty torture in the past. Even after Tuesday’s success, he admitted his miss in the Euro 1996 semi-final on home soil against Germany will live with him forever.
But in refusing to dismiss penalties as a lottery like many of his predecessors, his attention to detail paid off.
On top of psychometric tests for his players and incessant practice on the training ground, he even made sure Pickford handed the ball to each of his teammates to ensure opposite number David Ospina could not play any mind games by delaying their lonely walk from the centre circle even by a few seconds.
England had already waited too long to win on penalties. Thanks to Pickford that curse is now broken and their best chance in a generation to end 52 years of hurt at the World Cup remains intact.