Moscow • Jordan Pickford’s journey to Luzhniki Stadium for England’s World Cup semifinal against Croatia on Wednesday passed through Haig Avenue, a century-old stadium in seaside Southport, England, with seating capacity for 1,600 and standing room for twice as many.
It stopped at a venue called The Lamb Ground, on a plot in Tamworth once used for a pig farm. In Braintree, he performed in front of 409 souls.
Four years ago, Harry Maguire and Dele Alli were playing in England’s third-tier League One. Long before finding his way to the Premier League, Jamie Vardy toiled in the fifth division, one step above Pickford.
Contrasting the program’s glamorous past, this history-making English national team was built on the shoulders of several regulars who took slower paths to success.
There is no one on the 23-man roster even close to the superstardom of David Beckham and Wayne Rooney, Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard. Harry Kane, the standout striker, is the most well-known chap, but he too needed to climb the league ladder before landing on the elite pro circuit.
This squad contrasts with those high-end teams in another big way: It’s winning.
For the first time since 1990, England is among the last four teams at soccer’s quadrennial spectacle. With a victory Wednesday, the Three Lions would end a 52-year gap between appearances in the championship game.
True, everyone played last season in the prestigious Premier League and most are aligned with major clubs. They are on social media and their WAGs (wives and girlfriends) keep the paparazzi busy. But this isn’t the England of old, with oversize egos, sense of entitlement and off-field drama.
“We’ve had the chance to make a difference,” said coach Gareth Southgate, a former defender who used to guide the under-21 national squad. “Our supporters, our country, have had a long time of suffering in terms of football. The enthusiasm they have for these players, because of the way they’ve not only have played but the way they’ve conducted themselves ... they’ve been brilliant ambassadors for our country.”
To wear the shirt, several players followed winding career paths, not instant stardom like those predecessors who transitioned from youth academies to senior teams at young ages.
Pickford, the 24-year-old goalkeeper, was loaned by Sunderland six times to gain experience, sending him to small clubs, such as Darlington and Alfreton Town in the sixth-tier National League. He later joined Burton Albion in fourth-flight League Two, then took a step up to Carlisle United and Bradford City.
Reflecting on what those hardscrabble days did for his career, Pickford said: “I got a lot of games under my belt in the lower leagues, and I don’t feel the Premier League or [national team] is that much different. In some way, nonleague and League Two was the hard challenge.”
Pickford remembers one particular visit with Alfreton to Southport in April 2013.
“One old bloke shouts, ‘Hey, you lad. Your granddad is under that grass.’ I just turned around, gave him the thumbs-up and said, ‘Nae problem.’ “
After a season with Preston North End in the second-division Championship, he spent one full campaign with Sunderland in the Premier League. Last summer, seeing Pickford’s long-term potential, Everton bought him for $33 million.
Southgate, the manager, also saw his potential, awarding him with a national team debut in the fall. Pickford arrived in Russia with three international appearances. In the World Cup, however, he has given sterling performances against Colombia in the round of 16 and Sweden in the quarterfinals. With a 2-0 victory over the Swedes, he became the youngest English goalkeeper to record a World Cup shutout.
Pickford is not the only one to defy expectations and draw rave reviews. Right back Kieran Trippier, 27, made it to the Premier League with Burnley four years ago and was sold to Tottenham Hotspur a year later. His crossing ability has brought comparisons to Beckham’s.
The 6-foot-4 Maguire, 25, is four years removed from playing in League One and is now with Leicester City. He made his national team debut last fall after arriving at training camp with his gear in a black trash bag instead of fancy luggage. Injuries limited his central defensive partner, John Stones, to 16 starts with Manchester City last season.
Southgate has set a humble tone and ingratiated the team to the public.
“Everybody can see they are proud to wear the shirt,” he said. “Our country has been through some difficult moments recently in terms of unity, and sport has the power to do that, and football in particular has the power to do that.”
Reflecting on the success here, Southgate said: “We were never quite sure how far this team could go. The age of the players, the improvement in the players, the hunger in the players has been apparent for everybody to see. ... It’s been a really enjoyable journey and we want to keep it going.”