England may not be leaving with the World Cup win they dreamed of, but goalkeeper Jordan Pickford insists third place is still a prize worth fighting for.
Manager Gareth Southgate has admitted Saturday’s play-off against Belgium is not an assignment he approaches with any joy and he will need to judge who requires rest and who has one last fight in their legs.
Enthusiasm in some quarters is likely to wane and there will probably be few of the beer-soaked mass gatherings back home, but a podium finish would equate to England’s best return since glory in 1966 and the nation’s greatest World Cup performance on foreign soil.
If Southgate is looking for anyone to talk up the relevance of those achievements ahead of a tie some believe should not even be staged, he need look no further than Pickford.
“We came to win this tournament, we can’t do that now but we want to finish third,” he said.
“Even if we can’t finish as the best team in the world, we can still be the third best. Of course it will be hard to get ourselves up for it and that’s where character comes in. It’s another chance to show our togetherness. We want to finish a great tournament on a high.
“If we win we can look back on it with a lot of pleasure and that is what it is all about. Hopefully I will get the nod against Belgium. I’d love to get the goalkeeper of the tournament.”
Asked if he owed Roberto Martinez’s side for their earlier 1-0 in Nizhny Novgorod, Pickford beamed and said: “Aye, definitely.”
The casual allusion to making FIFA’s World Cup XI – ahead of finalists Hugo Lloris and Danijel Subasic and Belgian counterpart Thibaut Courtois – is typical of Pickford’s rock solid self-belief.
He was not shaken by criticism from Courtois, who suggested the Everton number one lacked sufficient height, nor by queries over his ‘top hand’ technique in the group stages.
Instead he went on to become a penalty hero against Colombia and won man-of-the-match for his second-half efforts against Sweden in the quarter-final. He will return to Goodison Park even bolder and more certain in his own ability to reach new heights.
“You get better with every game you play and by gaining experience all the time. This tournament will put me in good stead for the future,” he said.
“I know what I’m good at. I don’t think I have any weaknesses but I know what I can improve on. Your game management can always get better, but I’ve shown in this tournament I am capable of doing it at this level.
“Playing here can only help. The more experiences like this the more you I’m going to improve.”
The 24-year-old had never played a competitive international until England’s opener in Volgograd, but will depart having banked lifelong memories, of his own exploits and of the team’s connection with their fans.
“The penalty save (against Colombia) felt big at the time and it still feels big now. We won a shoot-out,” he said of his favourite moment.
“But above all this World Cup is about a group of lads embracing every moment, enjoying ourselves and doing ourselves justice. My over-riding thoughts right now is that we did ourselves proud. The country believes in us again.”
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