From tackling the Premier League at the very top of his game to taking up his position between the sticks for England in a major tournament, none of that fazed Jordan Pickford as much as the prospect of heading out to Sky Bet League Two.
The Everton stopper’s biggest challenge came in the early throes of his career. Almost a decade ago, he took the decision to depart his boyhood team, Sunderland, on loanto embark on a new adventure - one that would pave the way to where he is today.
“For me, it was the best thing I could ever do, going out on loan at a young age and develop,” he emphasised. “You learn about yourself so much as a person and you’ve got to get stuck in early doors as a player. To have that mentality at such a young age, you learn early.
“The EFL is a great environment for a young player because it helps you massively. All those Clubs were great loan spells to get me to where I am today and that’s definitely helped me in my career. Those Clubs were amazing for me.”
Rewind nine years ago when, ahead of the 2013/14 season, League Two side Burton Albion expressed their interest in securing the loan service of the young Sunderland stopper.
“When I got told that I was going to go to Burton on loan, I was with the Sunderland reserves playing Borussia Mönchengladbach Under-21s at the time,” he recalled. “I got the call with the opportunity to go and play on loan at Burton.
“My time at Burton was great but it was cut short through an injury to one of the other keepers at Sunderland at the time because I was supposed to stay there for the full season. My hardest experience was the Burton Albion, moving away from home for a time. I did go home but living away from home for a spell was definitely tough.”
The now-28-year-old didn’t have to wait long, handed his debut for the Brewers on the opening day of the season when Burton travelled to Cheltenham Town.
“The result was 2-2 so it was a good game,” he added. “Getting told I was going to make my debut, I was a bit nervous, but I was going to enjoy the experience and grab it with both hands. I remember Rory Delap on long throw-ins for us as well, so it was a good experience. It was a great start to my EFL career.”
An injury to Keiren Westwood saw Pickford return to the North East before heading back out to Carlisle United on a temporary basis for the second half of the term, opting for a slightly shorter commute.
The following year, he got his first full season under his belt with Sky Bet League One outfit Bradford City, linking up with the West Yorkshire side for the duration of 2014/15.
He continued: “Going to Bradford was great, playing in a big stadium at such a young age. I had good goalkeeping coaches who I learned from."
His biggest test came when he joined Preston North End for 2015/16 campaign. Pickford managed 12 shutouts in 24 appearances, equalling a Lilywhites Club record as he kept six consecutive clean sheets between October and November 2015.
And the England keeper was later rewarded with his Sunderland debut when the Black Cats recalled him in January.
“Going to Preston was the final bridge I needed to cross in the Championship,” he said. “That was my best loan move as a 21-year-old, going and playing and keeping loads of clean sheets. That got me ready for the Premier League.
“One of my best spells was when I was at Preston. I kept a record number of clean sheets for Preston. I was on a seven clean sheet spell. Alan Kelly, my goalkeeping coach at Preston, is now my goalkeeping coach at Everton.”
Pickford followed a path of natural progression, rising through the divisions, but his early spells pushed him the most.
“In terms of the transition between the leagues, I always felt that League Two was the hardest for me because that was my first real step up from non-league from the likes of Alfreton Town and Darlington. That was a big step up for me and I learnt a lot about myself.
“Going into League One with Carlisle, I felt that was an easy transition and I knew the league when I went to Bradford the next year. The Preston one was the move where I knew I was ready. I was playing really good football and I had a really good time there.”
In the summer of 2017, the Three Lions ace became Britain’s most expensive goalkeeper when Pickford, plucked from the non-league scene by Sunderland aged eight, completed a switch to Everton, bidding a fond farewell to the Black Cats.
“To be a part of the Sunderland Academy was a dream really,” he stated. “Being a Sunderland lad growing up and being a fan, to live your dream as a young lad, going to play football every week for the team you support was amazing.
“Coming through Sunderland’s Academy, I went on loan because I wanted to get better as a goalkeeper when I was younger, and I wanted to challenge myself at a higher level. Going out on loan helped me to benefit to become number one for Sunderland then my move to Everton, and also playing for England which is another dream.”
Pulling on the number one jersey for England has ticked another box for Pickford, who helped his country reach the 2018 World Cup Semi-Final and the 2020 European Championship Final. And later this month, he'll be heading for another major tournament.
“To go and play for Sunderland, Everton and England is my dream come true,” he affirmed. “It’s an amazing feeling, but I wouldn’t have been able to do it if I hadn’t gone to the EFL on loan to these Clubs.
“The support I received along the way was amazing. The support from the fans at every loan Club I went to, I interacted well with the fans and my performances, by giving 100% on a matchday and trying my best for them, I think they bought into that and they were very supportive of me.
“I want to say thanks to my former Clubs for giving me the opportunity to develop as an up-and-coming goalkeeper and make my dream come true of playing for England and in the Premier League. I appreciate the time they took.”