Homegrown keeper Jordan Pickford will rise to the challenge of the number one gloves at Sunderland, says veteran stopper Steve Harper.
Promising England Under-21 keeper Pickford looks set for a lengthy run in the side after first-choice Vito Mannone injured his elbow in training last month.
With ex-Arsenal goalkeeper Mannone out for three months with ligament damage, Sunderland swooped to sign Portugese keeper Mika on a two-year deal from Boavista to provide competition to Pickford.
Washington-born Pickford will start against Everton tonight at the Stadium of Light (kick-off 8pm).
The youngster had a chequered start to his first top-flight game this season – a 1-1 draw at Southampton – in which he failed to hold a shot for Saints’ late equaliser, but he had previously kept his team in the game.
And 41-year-old Harper, who was at Sunderland for the first six months of 2016 under former boss Sam Allardyce, reckons the 22-year-old can shine as the Black Cats bid to put a challenging start to the season behind them.
He said: “Jordan has a fantastic attitude to go with his undoubted talent.
“He’s a very driven young man, a very talented goalkeeper bursting with ambition and I think he will approach this situation as being a fantastic opportunity for him.
“He’s ready for it – in fact, he was even a little bit frustrated in the time I was there earlier this year because he’s hungry for first-team football.”
Pickford made his first start of the season for Sunderland in the 1-0 EFL Cup victory over Shrewsbury Town before helping his side to a point on the south coast in their last league outing.
And Harper – who was Shay Given’s understudy at Newcastle United for more than a decade – believes it is clear Pickford is ready to step up to the number one spot.
“Jordan’s had good experience on loan at a lot of clubs over the years and especially at Preston last season,” he said.
“And with him being in the England set-up since his mid-teens, that obviously given a boost to him as well.
“He’s champing at the bit for first-team football and this is a perfect opportunity for him.”
Harper’s only really concern for Pickford is the fact that he will be coming into a side clearly in flux under David Moyes.
Injuries, departures and new signings mean Pickford will be faced with a defence in front of him subject to change and experimentation in the weeks ahead.
“It’s unfortunate that the back four is a very new back four,” admitted Harper. “It means Jordan might be a little bit busier from the start than he’d expected to be.
“If he‘d had a settled back four it would have made his job a little bit easier, but Jordan is good enough now to improve the side and he can only benefit from being in the first-team week in, week out.”
* Steve Harper was speaking to the Echo at Martin Scott’s Improtech Elite Soccer Summer Residential Camp at Slaley Hall