For young men growing up in the town of Washington in the North East of England, your future is very often laid out early.
You go to school, you pass your exams, and maybe you get a job at the local Nissan factory. For 7000 employees in the region, it’s a symbolic pathway for working class men that echoes that of their forefathers working down the mines or getting a job at the shipyard.
Washington is a proud town, in a proud city with a proud history. Since England’s World Cup campaign began, that history has only been enhanced, as one of its proudest sons, with a prerogative to take the road less travelled, continues to put the town on the map.
Washington couldn’t feel any further away from Moscow and the bright lights of a World Cup, but the two collided spectacularly last Tuesday night.
A penalty save against Colombia to send England to a World Cup quarter-final with Sweden was then backed up on Saturday with two fantastic reaction saves in the last-eight clash.
It earned the boy from Washington a man of the match performance, and his nation a place in the World Cup semi-finals for the first time in 28 years.
Jordan Pickford is the name and his story begins in 1990s Sunderland.
Signed by his boyhood club as an eight-year-old, Pickford’s route to World Cup stardom has been anything but a straightforward one.
His rise to prominence began at the club under the tutelage of Kevin Ball, a man England team mate Jordan Henderson credits for his own development from Sunderland youngster to Liverpool and England captain.
Pickford was given his first taste of professional football as an 18-year-old by cash-strapped non-league Darlington. His loan spell ended in relegation, giving Pickford a taste of the harsh realities of football, and what might lay ahead if he was not prepared for a life of hard work and determination.
With further loans to Alfreton, Burton, Carlisle, Bradford and finally Preston, Pickford was building an understanding of the commitment required to make it to the top, whilst also making a name for himself.
At the start of the 2016-17 season, Pickford was back at boyhood club Sunderland and back into the firing line. He made his Premier League debut for 19th placed Sunderland in an embarrassing 4-0 defeat to Harry Kane’s Tottenham.
Yet despite conceding four goals, Pickford, only 21, was immaculate, making a string of smart saves. Unlike many young goalkeepers who would never recover from such a baptism of fire, Pickford thrived.
Another relegation followed, but Pickford’s spectacular form earned him a £25 million move to Everton.
The hefty price tag hardly fazed him, and he was named Everton’s Player of the Season in a campaign that saw him make his England debut. He may not show it in his laid back, cheeky nature, but underneath the outgoing personality, there lies a steely determination to succeed.
It is that attitude that got him the nod as England’s No 1 at the World Cup, despite never having played a competitive game for his country before taking to the field against Tunisia.
If fans doubted the wisdom of Gareth Southgate’s decision then, they certainly don’t any more. His performances have been outstanding, and he’s now a leading candidate to be included in the FIFA team of the tournament.
It’s not just his footballing brilliance that has shot him into the limelight; his raw and honest interview style, whilst also coming across as a fantastically likeable person, has endeared him to England supporters longing for a team to be proud of again.
Then there’s his famed affection for hardcode rave. Type “MC TAZO B2B MC ACE” into YouTube search, and you’ll get a glimpse into Pickford’s world.
If you’re first thought is to shout “what on earth is this?”, then don’t worry, you are not alone.
His personality is endearing, his laughter infectious and confidence unshakeable. In interviews he comes across humble but determined. He shrugged off criticism from Belgium counterpart Thibaut Courtois, who consciously backtracked after the Everton stopper’s brilliant saves in the round of 16 clash with Columbia.
The 24- year-old’s comments reflect his mind-set: “Telling myself I would do it, what a way to come on to the World Cup stage, make a save and help us get a win”.
How some of his more famous predecessors from England’s Golden Generation could have done with such self-assurance.
In many ways, Pickford personifies this new, likeable, England.
The youthful squad may still be made up of young multi-millionaires destined to become Premier League idols, yet, to a man, all seem approachable, genuine, humble, and, above all, to be having fun. And looking beyond the pay cheques, even the trophies and rivalries, isn’t fun the pure essence of football?
England might not win the World Cup in 2018, but regardless of the outcome of Wednesday’s semi-final against Croatia, and a potential final beyond that, Pickford has become an icon of English football almost overnight.
That is, if you can call a lifetime of relentless graft an overnight success.
Pickford is a trail-blazer for his town. He’s shown a new way, a better way. A way that says no matter where you are from and what hardships await you, with the right attitude and determination your path doesn’t have to be determined by what’s gone before. Today, Washington has a new hero.
And should England pull of a miracle and lift the World Cup, you can be certain one Jordan Pickford won’t forget his Washington roots either.