Having journeyed from non-league football to Everton and now the cusp of England World Cup history, Jordan Pickford - the Blues’ young player, players’ player and player of the season - explains how he’s got there one step at a time…
Jordan Pickford, his right foot resting on his left knee, is sat, relaxed as ever, recalling one of the earliest lessons he received in football.
“It was Wrexham away and their first corner they put seven of their lads on top of us,” he says in a Mackem accent as broad as the Wear is long. “I thought, ‘here we go’. I didn’t get the first one, didn’t get the second one, but the third time I came out and caught it. They didn’t do it again.
“Those tests are what you need as a goalkeeper. You find out who you are. It was quality.”
It was this combative, unforgiving grounding in non-league football – and his own positive approach to the task at hand - that Pickford believes has helped him, by the age of 24, amass experience many in his position aren’t able to call upon until some point in their thirties.
Already he can boast of playing more than 200 senior games, of which over a third have come in the Premier League, while on Monday night he could become the youngest goalkeeper ever to represent England at a World Cup finals.
But it was those afternoons being bullied and bulldozed, a targeted teenage glovesman representing National League Darlington and Alfreton Town, that shaped the formula for all that was to come – and all that remains to be realised. It’s been simple but effective; one step at a time.
Those scholarly spells led to league shots with Burton, Carlisle and Bradford, before a sixth loan stint - at Championship side Preston North End - saw Pickford produce such quality he was recalled to parent club Sunderland midway through the season and thrown straight in for an FA Cup third round meeting with Arsenal. He’s not looked back, that upward trajectory carrying him on to Everton and now the cusp of Three Lions history.
“I’ve always classed it as crossing bridges,” says Pickford. “Every step has been about moving on to the next, eventually becoming a Premier League goalkeeper, and now England goalkeeper.
“I take each stage as it comes but I have always taken opportunities. I had six loans and every loan I had to prove I was good enough.
“But I never thought, ‘imagine going to the World Cup in 2018’. It was always just about taking the next step to being the best I can be.”
Should Pickford, as expected, find himself adjusting his gloves at the Volgograd Arena ahead of England’s opening tournament fixture against Tunisia, his journey will have reached a new zenith.
Any appearance in Russia will see the Everton stopper eclipse the achievements of Ron Springett and Paul Robinson, who were both 26 when they played in the 1962 and 2006 competitions respectively.
An England international at six successive youth levels from Under-16 to Under-21 before making his senior debut and keeping a clean sheet in a goalless draw against reigning world champions Germany at Wembley in November last year, he says achieving the feat would be “a dream come true”.
If the pressure has been on Pickford to make those No.1 gloves his own in the face of unwavering competition from Stoke City’s much-lauded Jack Butland, the tournament-experienced Joe Hart and Burnley bright hope Nick Pope, he has hidden it well. Very well.
Gareth Southgate was a frequent attendee at Everton games throughout the course of 2017/18, the Three Lions boss having seemingly been ultra-keen to note-take on how the Blues’ new custodian was progressing during his first campaign on Merseyside.
But for Pickford the mindset to achieving his goal was obvious. Whatever the level, it’s never changed. Forget the destination, focus on making the bridge to it as sturdy as possible.
“If I play well for Everton, then England will come - that’s how I’ve looked at it,” Pickford reasons when asked about his approach to handling the upscaled scrutiny he faced last term. “Always if you keep your standards high then the rest will come with it, so I have to do well for Everton.
“Sometimes I didn’t know if he [Southgate] was there until after the game. I didn’t think about it.
"He knows what I am capable of doing and I know what I am capable of. I knew as long as I kept doing the basics well and kept being consistent, that’s all I could do.
“It’s just been about doing what I do well, well."
Understandably, Pickford doesn’t want to look too far ahead when it comes to Russia and his potential involvement over the coming month.
He indulges us momentarily, however, to consider England’s role at a tournament for which the pressure on the country’s chosen 23 is widely perceived to be less than on those who have gone before.
“People said a very similar thing two years ago [before Euro 2016],” Pickford correctly identifies. “But then as the tournament got closer, optimism and expectation grew, so I think the same pressure will be there for us.
“As a squad, we’re mentally strong. If we get stick, we’ll take it, and if we get praise, we’ll happily take that as well.
“If people think we’re underdogs, we’ll be determined to prove we’re good enough to be mentioned with the top sides.
"We are raring to go. There is that much ability in the squad and so many players fighting for places you can't afford to be slack for one day.
"It is not just about ability it is about who works hardest and we know as a team we all work hard and we have all got the top ability to go far in the tournament."
Whatever lies ahead for England - and whatever Pickford’s role – one thing is for certain; sampling football’s biggest stage can only make this wise young head, wiser still.
Everton’s standout player in 2017/18, typically he is already thinking one step ahead.
“The World Cup will be an experience, that’s for sure,” he concludes. “And if I get the opportunity, I will take it. And it will be great for the Club that Everton will get represented at the World Cup.
“It will be a boost for myself, too, and then I can bring that back here and hopefully kick us on next season.
“Hopefully I can get better and better now. I know I will do because the more games I play the better I will become.”
The evidence to date suggests he’s not mistaken.
A version of this interview first appeared in May's Everton magazine. June's edition, featuring new boss Marco Silva is out now. For more information or to buy, click here.