Jordan Pickford relishes the challenge of trying to hold on to the England No1 spot and believes growing competition will push him to another level.
The Everton goalkeeper has repaid Gareth Southgate’s faith since becoming first choice for the World Cup, where his penalty shoot-out heroics againstColombia were complemented by a man-of-the-match display in the quarter-final against Sweden.
Pickford’s ability on the ball was key to his getting the starting role ahead of Jack Butland – a player who was omitted for the forthcoming Euro 2020 qualifiers against Bulgaria and Kosovo following a difficult start to the season with Stoke.
Tom Heaton and Nick Pope got the nod instead this time, but Angus Gunn, Dean Henderson and Aaron Ramsdale are knocking at the door.
“I think it’s great for the GK union that there is that much competition,” Pickford said. “It means people will thrive and become better goalkeepers.
“It means you have to be performing for your club first and training hard, making yourself the best you can be at Everton for me, then England should take care of itself.
“The more competition the better. It will make me better as well. I think it’s six goalkeepers (in the Premier League), which is quality for us.”
Ben Foster takes the number of starting English goalkeepers in the Premier League to seven but is now retired from international duty, while Southgate is keeping tabs on Newcastle’s Freddie Woodman during his loan spell at Swansea.
The England manager’s options are keeping Pickford on his toes, so too the way he is willing to drop big names for the purpose of progress.
“You just look at the quality on the training pitch,” the goalkeeper said. “The quality is throughout the team and we all know what we want to achieve as a team.
“We all strive to be better on the pitch and as a squad it is always evolving.
“We have new lads in this week and everyone is fighting with the competition.
“You have to be playing well to be in the side and, for your club, you’ve got to be playing well.
“That is your first focus, then you have to do well when you come here. That is what everyone seems to do in training, the standard is unbelievable.”
Pickford considers himself among the top performers in the squad and is understandably confident after a promising start to the season with Marco Silva’s Toffees.
“I’m in good form and feel I’ve kicked on,” he said. “I feel strong and have been getting clean sheets.
“The main thing is winning and as long as we win it’s okay to concede now and again.
“We’ve started the season well and I’m making good saves and my distribution has been good as well.”
It is an encouraging start to a campaign that could end in memorable fashion.
Having reached the World Cup semi-finals and finished third in the inaugural Nations League, England are aiming for Euro 2020 success in a tournament that will start and end on home soil.
“It’s still a long way to go and we have to qualify first,” Pickford said. “We’ll be looking to get as many wins (as we can), starting with the two in front of us, but knowing that is on the other side next year is a great ambition for us to make it there.
“I haven’t taken too much thought into it as it is a year away.
“I’ve just got to keep playing well for Everton and then making sure I’m on my A-game if I play for England.
“When we get closer we’ll visualise it more, but at the moment we’re focused on qualifying.”
Chris Mepham wants to fill the Wales leadership void left by the absence of captain Ashley Williams.
The 86-times capped Williams was left out of Friday’s vital Euro 2020 home qualifier against Azerbaijan following his summer departure from Everton.
Williams was unattached until he joined Bristol City at the end of August, prompting manager Ryan Giggs to drop the third most-capped Wales player of all-time.
Bournemouth defender Mepham is still only 21 with six caps to his name, but is ready to take on a more senior role at the back.
“Ash is a big miss, he’s a big voice around the changing room and is a natural leader,” Mepham said.
“It’s important we fill those shoes and I like to think I’ve got that personality who can be vocal. Pull people around and be that natural leader in the back four. I’m only 21 but I don’t think that’s a reason not to be vocal.
“There’s many leaders in the past who have led from a young age. I would like to be that person and that voice at the heart of the back four.”
Mepham has captained the Wales Under-20 and Under-21 sides, playing alongside Joe Rodon.
Rodon, also 21, is set to win his first cap against Azerbaijan and be rewarded for his outstanding form in Swansea’s climb to the top of the Championship.
Mepham also captained his previous club Brentford on one occasion.
“We had a weird system at Brentford where we didn’t have a selected captain,” he said. “Under Dean Smith there was a new person every week who would be captain.
“I got my chance away to Ipswich, it was a nice feeling and we drew 1-1. So I have experienced it before and hopefully I can get the armband again at some point.”
Wales entertain Azerbaijan – Group E’s whipping boys with no points from three games – in Cardiff playing catch-up, with this encounter marking the halfway stage of qualifying.
Giggs’ side trail leaders Hungary by six points, albeit with a game in hand, and are three adrift of Croatia and Slovakia in the race for a top-two spot.
“It’s a massive game now, a must-win,” Mepham said, reflecting on the back-to-back summer losses in Croatia and Hungary.
“We know we’re more than capable of getting a win on Friday. Hopefully we can do that and take that momentum forward.
“But we can’t look at it as a game where we can just turn up and beat them. It’s important we go into the game with the right mindset and get an early goal that will settle the nerves of the fans and the players.”
Gareth Southgate has warned the members of England’s disappointing European Under-21 Championship campaign this summer that they have no guarantee of stepping up into his senior side.
Aidy Boothroyd saw his Young Lions take just one point from three Group C games as they put in their worst tournament performance since 2013.
England suffered defeats to France and Romania before losing the lead three times to draw their final match with Croatia.
Southgate has been keen to promote youngsters into the England team since he took charge, a trend that continued when he announced his 25-man squad on Thursday for the upcoming Euro 2020 qualifiers against Bulgaria and Kosovo.
Kyle Walker was omitted as Aaron Wan-Bissaka was handed his first call-up, with uncapped duo Mason Mount and James Maddison also included.
The trio were all part of the underwhelming Under-21 tournament and will now be looking to retain a place in the senior set-up but Southgate says others should not take progression as a given.
“I don’t think we’ve picked any of the Under-21’s squad purely on the tournament in the summer,” he said.
“They won’t get in just because they’re young. You know, I’ve felt some of the young ones in the summer were kind of: ‘Well, we’re done with the Under-21s now and the next step is the seniors, because that’s what happened last time.’
“That’s not what happens. They’ve got to play well and it’s going to be harder to get it, because you can see the players we’ve had to leave out, between fitness, who’ve got a lot of caps between them, high-level players.
“We know there are some others around the fringes that could be close. And we know that there are some more young ones coming that are going to push that as well.
“So that challenge is there for all of them. And whether they are younger or older don’t assume anything, because I think everyone has to keep performing if we’re to challenge the best teams and that’s how we are going to develop.”
England’s Euro Under-21 tournament began with defeat to Italy before a humbling 4-2 loss to Romania – after which goalkeeper Dean Henderson, who made an error during the game, insisted: “We wanted to come here and win this tournament…Whoever goes on to win the tournament realistically we know we can beat as well.”
Southgate believes such confidence can sometimes be put down to a lack of experience and that humility can often be as important as ability.
“That’s a little bit down to their age. They’ve got to recognise it and learn from it,” he added.
“That’s the age of that group, you’ve got to go through some of those set-back periods. For me, the biggest reminder which was in the seniors was that we must always have humility.
“And we play a country like Romania, I don’t know if we thought we were better but they had some really good players. Some of them have moved already, the boy’s doing really good at Reading, (George) Puscas.
“I thought they were a good team, they had a stadium full of support. I didn’t like the fact that our boys came off that and thought they were still the best team in the tournament. That can’t be the case.”
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