JORDAN PICKFORD was blameless for Belgium’s two goals on Sunday — but Gareth Southgate’s faith in him continues to divide opinion.
Even England’s goalkeeping coach, Martyn Margetson, is not convinced by Pickford’s abilities.
He was on TV last week pulling apart the Everton keeper’s technique while highlighting the positives in Three Lions rivals Nick Pope and Dean Henderson.
It is all a far cry from two years ago when Pickford was a national hero following his World Cup exploits.
His form has been up and down since then — including being heavily criticised for a season-ending tackle on Virgil van Dijk in last month’s Merseyside derby.
But according to one of the men who understands him best, the 26-year-old’s self-belief never wavered.
Goalkeeping coach Mark Prudhoe says Pickford phoned him minutes after his man-of-the-match display in the 2-0 win over Sweden that took England to the semi-finals in Russia.
And again two hours after Everton lost 2-1 at Newcastle earlier this month — a game for which he was axed.
Prudhoe claims the voice he listened to had the same positive, upbeat tone he heard from Samara during the 2018 summer of love.
SEderland Under-23 coach said: “Jordan was probably more disappointed Everton lost to Newcastle than he was about his own situation.
“It was the first time he’s ever been dropped and though he was back a week later, I’m sure the decision will have pressed one or two wrong buttons for him.
“But his attitude was fine. He’s determined to learn from recent situations and bounce back better than ever.”
The pair — both born in Washington, Tyne and Wear — have known each other since Pickford was eight.
Prudhoe, 57, revealed: “We’ve always kept in touch. Jordan knows he’ll get a straight answer when he asks me how he’s playing.
“I remember those World Cup calls. He was really buzzing be- cause he loves representing Eng- land — but to be honest, he’s like that most of the time.
“Yes, he’s had an up-and-down season and accepts some of the criticism is justified.
“I tell him mistakes can be his best friend because you learn from your mates.
“He’s such a willing learner, never afraid to pick up the phone and ask for help — whether it’s from me, Kevin Wolfe, who’s now at Manchester United, or another goal-keeping coach.
“Jordan has a reputation for being really loud but he’s well grounded, never getting too high or too down in the dumps.“I’d say that strong mentality is one of his best qualities.”
Prudhoe persuaded Sunderland to send his prodigy out on loan when he was still playing academy football — and it was during those spells at Alfreton Town and Darlington that he came of age.
He said: “Those times really toughened him up.
“Funnily enough, when I first knew him, his big rival, a lad called Dave Jones, had more potential.
“While Jordan was thin and straggly, he had big broad shoulders and looked the better bet.
“But Jordan was so focused and came on leaps and bounds, especially after he broke into the England set-up at 14.”
And Prudhoe — whose 18-club playing career included a short loan spell at Liverpool — revealed he was not shocked by Pickford’s two-footed challenge on Van Dijk which should have earned the keeper a red card.
He added: “Jordan’s been doing that since he was a kid.
“He often leads with his feet, always has done, though never maliciously.
“Jordan’s obsessed with keeping the ball out of the net and will do whatever he has to.
“He’s one of those keepers who loves getting hit with the ball, whether it’s smack on the face or in the midriff.
“That’s why he is so different from his peers.
“He’s not particularly pleasing on the eye at times but he has this insatiable energy and desire to protect his goal.”
Prudhoe is adamant Pickford’s inconsistent club form should not shape his international future.
He added: “Of course, Everton is his bread and butter but to me he’s still England’s main man and has never let his country down.
“Thankfully, Gareth Southgate is a big fan of his and knows he has the temperament and confidence to thrive at the highest level.”