Former Darlington boss Craig Liddle believes Jordan Pickford was destined for the top – even when he was failing to win a game in the National League.
Everton goalkeeper Pickford was one of England’s penalty heroes in their first World Cup shoot-out victory over Colombia on Tuesday.
The 24-year-old saved Carlos Bacca’s spot-kick as the Three Lions booked a quarter-final showdown with Sweden, winning 4-3 on penalties following a 1-1 draw.
Liddle, now Middlesbrough’s academy manager, gave Pickford his senior debut as a 17-year-old as Darlington battled relegation from the National League.
He conceded 39 times and failed to win a match during his 17-game loan spell from Sunderland in 2011-12.
“We gave him the platform and the opportunity but he was always destined to get to where he is now,” Liddle told Press Association Sport.
“The thing with all young players is when you have an opportunity you have to take it.
“He took it with both hands and went back to Sunderland, kicked on again and each loan spells tested him that bit more.
“It was evident he had talent and you always hope he’ll fulfil his potential and he has certainly done that.
“Darlington can’t take much credit for where he is now but we handed him the opportunity and he passed it with flying colours.”
Pickford has already been England’s penalty king at the Under-17 World Cup in 2011.
He saved Gaspar Iniguez and Agustin Allione’s efforts in a shoot-out win against Argentina.
Pickford also stopped Sweden’s Linus Wahlqvist from 12 yards in a group-stage game and Yannick Gerhardt in the 4-3 semi-final shoot-out defeat to Germany for England Under-21s at Euro 2017 last summer.
But he endured a rough start to his senior career with the cash-strapped Quakers, who were wound up that summer before reforming in Division One of the Northern League.
He joined Darlington as they were under a transfer embargo and could only sign under-19 players but Liddle was immediately impressed.
“We were in a lot of trouble on and off the pitch and he was doing very well at Sunderland and Jordan was the next best thing,” he said.
“He was very mature for his age, determined and fitted in really well. It was a good learning curve for him.
“There was still an awful long way for him to develop to get to where he is now which is a credit to him.”