Jordan Pickford is England's undisputed No 1 in a goalkeeping union driving each other on

In the euphoric scenes that followed Trent Alexander-Arnold’s winning penalty in their Euro 2024 quarter-final against Switzerland, England’s three goalkeepers briefly got away from their team-mates and enjoyed a moment together.

Jordan Pickford was in the middle of it, as he usually is. He was embraced from behind by Aaron Ramsdale and from the front by Dean Henderson, congratulating him on the save that helped England reach the semi-final. Pickford looked delirious, Ramsdale overjoyed. Henderson, buzzing with excitement, yelled something in Pickford’s face.

The three of them lost each other as the celebrations spilt over, but Henderson soon went over and hugged Pickford again. Ramsdale walked over and held up his index finger, to which Pickford responded in kind before they blurted out, “What’s up, brother?”, a catchphrase they have taken from American streamer Kylie Cox (aka Sketch).

England’s goalkeepers are a tight group: rivals, but close friends. Ramsdale and Henderson have previously voiced their desire to usurp Pickford and become England’s No 1, but the dynamic changes at a tournament once the hierarchy is clear. Ramsdale and Henderson are there to cover for Pickford, but also to drive him on and support him, something both have done enthusiastically.


Henderson, second from right, was quick to celebrate with Pickford and Ramsdale after the shootout win (Oliver Hardt – UEFA/UEFA via Getty Images)

“Jordan has had the shirt and we’ve all been trying desperately hard for the past five years to get it off him and he’s done incredibly well,” Arsenal goalkeeper Ramsdale told reporters before Euro 2024 began. “And if he gets the nod, then I hope he does incredibly well again because if he wins the tournament — even if I don’t play a minute — it will be the happiest day of my life.”

It’s easy to say such things in the likelihood you won’t play a minute at the tournament unless some misfortune befalls the player in front of you.

But Ramsdale means it. He is passionate about the “good tourist” role. Beyond that, he, like everyone else in the squad, holds Pickford in the very highest regard.

In the build-up to Euro 2024, the legendary former AC Milan and Real Madrid coach Fabio Capello was doing interviews when conversation turned — as it invariably does — to England, whose national team he led to the 2010 World Cup.

“I like England,” he said. “It’s really strong in every part of the team. Their midfielders and forwards are the best: (Jude) Bellingham, (Harry) Kane, (Bukayo) Saka. Midfield is good, forwards are really good, right and left defenders are good. But I have some doubts about the two centre-backs and some doubts about the goalkeeper.”

What specific doubts about Pickford? “Sometimes he’s really good,” Capello said. “And sometimes… it’s the problem.”

It has been a common view of Pickford since he established himself as England’s No 1 in the build-up to the 2018 World Cup. He was seen as a capable goalkeeper but too inconsistent, perhaps a little too hyperactive, to belong at elite level. Many saw him as a stopgap for England while waiting for a challenger to emerge: perhaps Ramsdale, Henderson, Nick Pope, Sam Johnstone, Alex McCarthy, a rejuvenated Jack Butland or a young James Trafford.

Appreciation has been a long time in coming, but alongside his consistency at Everton — the club’s player of the year for the past three seasons — Pickford has excelled for England. This is his fourth major international tournament as first-choice and, quite apart from his record of 11 clean sheets in 24 appearances, his heroics have helped England win penalty shootouts against Colombia at the 2018 World Cup and now Switzerland at Euro 2024 (not to mention the Nations League finals in 2019, where he converted a penalty as well as saving one as England beat Switzerland in the third-place play-off).


Ramsdale and Pickford are ‘close’ (Joe Prior/Visionhaus via Getty Images)

Within the squad, Pickford’s status is long-established. Not just as No 1, or as a quirky character who comes to life during penalty shootouts, but as one of the standout players in this England squad and one who has come to thrive on the pressure of tournament football.

“I’ve watched him sometimes and I’ve wanted to pull my hair out and I just want to say, ‘Calm down! You’re so theatrical!’,” former England international Ben Foster said this week on his YouTube channel, The Cycling Goalkeeper. “But when it comes to a penalty shootout, I don’t think I would have anyone else. Other than Emi Martinez, I wouldn’t want to have anyone else but Jordan Pickford.

“I reckon at that moment in time when you get a penalty shootout, he’s genuinely thinking, ‘It’s showtime, baby’. If you could take a blood reading or a sample of how much adrenaline is coursing through his body at that moment, I reckon it would be right at the top, right at the limit. It’s like he’s had six double espressos.”

For a long time, that hyper-energetic approach to goalkeeping was considered by many as a flaw in his make-up. In an age when the best in the business have often been regarded as serene figures — the Edwin van der Sar model, the Gianluigi Buffon, the Thibaut Courtois, the Alisson Becker — Pickford has often seemed like a throwback to the days of “You don’t have to be crazy to be a goalkeeper, but…”.

As he has matured and learned to channel his intensity and pent-up energy in a different way, though, Pickford has come to be recognised as a top-level goalkeeper.

The German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung described him this week not just as a “character actor” and a “spectacle” — “who keeps giving orders and whose facial expressions and gestures reflect the story of the entire game” — but as the best English goalkeeper in decades. Every word was true.

Speak to those in the England camp and they talk not just about Pickford’s excellence but about the strength of the goalkeeping department: about the way he, Ramsdale and Henderson drive each other on day after day under the eye of goalkeeping coach Martyn Margetson.

The outfield players regard the goalkeepers’ training regime with a certain awe: first onto the training pitch every day, last off it. Kyle Walker and John Stones like to heckle from the sidelines — Walker is not shy of asking them whether, like him, they have kept a clean sheet at San Siro in the Champions League — but beneath the banter about the goalkeepers’ traits and off-pitch eccentricities, there is a deep respect for Pickford and his understudies.

Margetson describes the goalkeepers’ daily training regime as a “crawl, walk, run” approach. The crawl is a 40-minute pre-activation session in the gym (a warm-up, in old money) where each ’keeper has his own bespoke routine. The walk is a 40-minute shot-stopping session purely for the ’keepers. The run is when the ’keepers join the rest of the squad for the remainder of the session.


Henderson, Ramsdale, Margetson, Pickford and Heaton in training (Eddie Keogh – The FA/The FA via Getty Images)

Those shot-stopping sessions are brutal. They take it in turns to face a run of 50 shots fired in from a variety of angles, sometimes with the ball struck fiercely from a raised position, on a cone, in order to generate more power. When Pickford had a scare with an injured finger in the warm-up before the game against Slovakia, it was shrugged off as an occupational hazard of training under Margetson.

The challenge is to stop every shot and to record “a Mayweather” (a reference to boxer Floyd Mayweather, who won 50 fights out of 50) or, failing that, “a San Francisco” (as in 49ers). Spillages are recorded, too, so a ’keeper might end up with “48 and two on the grass” — and that is considered not good enough.

Some goalkeeping coaches these days work as much on distribution as shot-stopping. Margetson’s approach is weighted heavily on the shot-stopping. Two of those 50-shot sessions add up to 100 shots per day. Depending on how many days they train, he challenges goalkeepers to make 500 to 700 saves per week. “Repetition, repetition, repetition” is a mantra.

Henderson spoke about it on the Lions’ Den YouTube channel last week. “We’re all pushing in the right direction and it’s really good,” the Crystal Palace goalkeeper said. “We work as a unit, so hopefully we’re all helping Jordan in goal. With the sessions Marge (Margetson) puts on, I would be surprised if another country’s goalkeepers are working at a better level every day. We aim for 700 saves a week. That’s the aim and then we’re prepared for every outcome.”

The role of backup goalkeeper is a strange one. Barring something unforeseen and unwelcome, Ramsdale nor Henderson will kick or catch a ball at Euro 2024. Seventy-two goalkeepers were called up for the tournament and only 29 have had playing time. Some of the understudies got a run-out in the final group game, with the senior goalkeepers rested, but the only one to make an appearance from the bench is the Czech Republic’s Matej Kovar after Jindrich Stanek was injured in the second half of their final group game against Turkey.

For a coach such as Gareth Southgate, who obsesses about the chemistry within his squad, the personality and attitude of his backup goalkeepers is important. Ambition is encouraged, but long faces and scowls are not. At the start of each get-together, a hierarchy is made clear and must be respected. Part of their job is to support the No 1.

From the start of his England journey in the under-18s, Ramsdale was perceived to “get it”, a much-loved team-mate as well as a talented goalkeeper. He is one of the most popular characters in the squad, a larger-than-life character with a great sense of humour and a bucket hat. That has been important at Arsenal this season since losing his first-team place to David Raya; Ramsdale wants to be a No 1 again, but his support for Raya has earned him huge credit in the eyes of Mikel Arteta.

Raya Ramsdale Arsenal goalkeepers

Raya took Ramsdale’s place in the Arsenal starting XI (Michael Regan/Getty Images)

Both he and Pickford, in their contrasting way, conform to the idea of goalkeepers as being wired differently to their team-mates. Both are extroverts, loud and passionate: Pickford a little wilder, Ramsdale more touchy-feely. When Alexander-Arnold scored the decisive penalty against Switzerland, Ramsdale was the first player off the bench to join the celebrations.

“Our main goal when we’re not in the team is to get him (Pickford) in the best position to play the games,” Ramsdale said last season. “If I’m having a bad day and my service isn’t good, then Jordan isn’t getting the best out of the session and I’ve not just ruined my day but others’.”

Henderson was first called up by Southgate in October 2019 and made his debut in November 2020, but he is yet to make a second appearance. He had been out of the squad for nearly two years before his call-up for this tournament; a difficult season on loan at Nottingham Forest was one factor, but Southgate was said to be unsure whether Henderson’s personality — opinionated, headstrong, notably outspoken about successive Manchester United managers’ preference for David De Gea — was right for the role of a backup in this squad.

Sources within the camp, speaking anonymously because they are not authorised to do so publicly, say Henderson has embraced his role at Euro 2024: equipped to pose a challenge to Pickford in the future but totally committed, like Ramsdale, to supporting him and driving him on.

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Henderson and Ramsdale are proving good ‘tourists’ (Eddie Keogh – The FA/The FA via Getty Images)

There is a fourth member of the England goalkeepers’ union: Tom Heaton, who, at 38, seven years after his third and last England cap, was amazed to get a call from Southgate in May asking whether he would fancy joining the squad in an unofficial capacity, not registered as a player but joining in every training session. Heaton, who has just signed a new deal to stay at Manchester United in a backup role, jumped at the opportunity.

It was an unusual move, but there was a logic behind it. Southgate and Margetson felt that at previous tournaments, the goalkeepers’ training regime had been disturbed by Pickford’s need for a recovery session the day after a match and by occasional demands to join the outfield players’ drills. Calling up Heaton was seen as something worth trying — “What’s the worst that could happen?” — but it has come to be regarded as a masterstroke.

At their final training session in Erfurt on Tuesday lunchtime, before they set off for Dortmund for Wednesday night’s semi-final against the Netherlands, the goalkeepers will be first out as ever: going through their paces, all of them under pressure to record a “Mayweather” or a “San Francisco”.

The session will be intense, as it always is, and then Pickford and the other goalkeepers will go through a video session with Margetson and the FA’s analysis team, studying Cody Gakpo, Memphis Depay and the rest of the Netherlands team, looking at the way they shoot and the way they cross.

There will be a separate analysis session with the rest of the squad, looking at set-piece situations and how best to play out from the back against Ronald Koeman’s team, when to go short and when to go long. Of course, there will be penalty-taking analysis, too.

Southgate, Margetson and the rest of the staff pride themselves on the amount of information they gather and share with their players and on the “process”, where they put their findings into action. If it goes to penalties again, nobody will be surprised if Pickford comes into his element and proves to be the hero once more. And if that happens, you can bet the backup goalkeepers will be first on the scene to congratulate him.

(Top photo: Heaton, Pickford, Margetson, Ramsdale and Henderson. Eddie Keogh – The FA/The FA via Getty Images)

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