Ged McNamee has admitted a huge sense of pride at seeing two young players he helped to develop starring on the biggest stage of all during England’s World Cup adventure.
Pools’ First Team Coach spent more than twenty years nurturing talent at Sunderland’s much-heralded Academy, where he played his part in the bringing through Three Lions heroes Jordan Henderson and Jordan Pickford.
Pickford pulled off some astonishing penalty shootout heroics against Colombia on Tuesday night to see England progress to the quarter-finals in dramatic fashion – and do Henderson a massive favour after the midfielder had earlier seen his spot-kick saved.
The duo are now among the first names on the teamsheet for England boss Gareth Southgate – and McNamee says it’s little surprise to see that both have risen to the very top of the game.
“It’s great to see them both playing in the England team together,” he told us.
“When it got to the penalty stage on Tuesday and I saw Jordan Henderson going up I was worried for him. It was like my worst nightmare to see him miss because I felt like he’d had another good game.
“He’s the sort of player who does the nasty bit of the game, breaking things up and he never gives the ball away and never stops running – he’s great for the team.
“When his kick was saved I just thought ‘Oh my God’ because I was gutted for him and I could only imagine the criticism that would come his way on the back of it.
“I was sitting with my wife watching and I turned to her and said ‘Pickford has a penalty save in him’. He always has had, even back in his Academy days coming through the ranks. In training or in games he was always likely to save a penalty so I thought he could get near one – and fortunately he did!
“He’s such a good goalkeeper and after the game in his interviews you can see how self-confident he is – he really believes in himself which is fantastic for a young keeper. He seems to be improving with maturity.
“One of the things we used to worry about with Jordan was his concentration but that’s improved, you can see that from his save right at the death. He hadn’t really been tested all night and then pulled off that top drawer save.
“I’m buzzing for him and dropped him a text after the game just saying how well he’d done and telling him he was the man! I’m sure he’s had quite a few along the same sort of lines!”
Henderson and Pickford were both on the books at Sunderland from a young age but even in their early days McNamee reckons they looked destined for great things.
One thing that sets them apart from other players is their work ethic and focus according to the Pools coach and that’s why he’s so proud to see them prospering in England colours.
“They were both in the Academy from about eight-years-old.
“Pickford always showed fantastic potential even from a very young age. He went through the stages of being a bit hard to handle, which all young players do, but he got through what I called his ‘puppy fat years’ and when he got to scholarship age he was flying.
"He isn’t the biggest but his agility and the way he gets around his goal is brilliant and his feet are unbelievable. The way England want to play he has to be their goalkeeper because he’s so confident playing out and his touch is so secure.
“He’s naturally left-sided but I can remember loads of occasions when he was in the Under-23s and I would see him out on the training pitch on his own working on his right foot. He knew his right wasn’t as good so he worked and worked to make it better.
“I listen to people on the radio and television and I think they forget that for a goalkeeper he’s still so very young – I think I might be right in saying that he’s actually the youngest keeper at the World Cup. There so much more to come from him, he’s still got development in him.
“He likes a laugh and a joke and at times you had to control that but he’ll no doubt be very popular in the group as he always was at Sunderland.
“He’s maturing now and I think, like the rest of the lads, he will just be concentrating on the next game. There are enough senior players with more experience and I am sure they will be keeping on top of the younger players and keeping them focused.
“Henderson was there from really young too but when he reached Under-15s and Under-16s they were tough years for him.
“He went through growth problems and lost a bit of confidence on the back of it so it was a bit of a struggle for him for a little while and there were questions asked about whether he would make the next step in to full-time football.
“Fortunately, we all sat round a table with sports scientists and discussed him and they told us that he would develop, grow and get stronger with time – and the rest is history. He came in as a scholar and just took off.
“He had great belief in himself and I think that was shown when he left Sunderland and signed for Liverpool. He got a bit of stick and people were saying he wasn’t good enough to play for them but he’s the sort of player to just puff his chest out and say ‘give me the shirt because I know I’m a good player’.
“He was so focused and driven in the sense of knowing what he wanted to do and what he wanted to achieve.
“I’m a massive fan of him. People talk about other players standing out but, for me, he’s a fantastic team player and in the game today there’s a lack of players who are willing to do the dirty side. I think he does that so well and a lot of it goes unnoticed. I think he’s had a really good World Cup.”
And so to the question on everyone’s lips – can England go all the way to World Cup glory?
“Why not? They’re all playing with a lot confidence.
“It was a tough game on Tuesday; Colombia were using the dark arts and some of their tackling and intimidation tactics were shocking but England just stuck to their gameplan.
“I don’t think we’ve anything to fear in facing Sweden as long as we can keep our major players fit and healthy.
“We’ve got to start to believe they can do it – they have played as well as anybody within the World Cup so why can’t they get to the Final. Then it will be a completely different ball game.”