Cats Eye View: Sam Allardyce's big dilemma over who should be Sunderland's number one next season
Jordan Pickford is yet to keep a clean sheet in his short career in the Sunderland first team '“ but it is certainly not for the want of trying.
The England Under-21 international was one of nine changes made by Sam Allardyce for the season finale at Vicarage Road and again impressed.
Pickford may have picked the ball out of the net nine times in his three games for the first team but he has impressed in every one, with little he could do about the Watford goals.
Indeed, Sunderland had him to thank for keeping them in the game, the young stopper twice denying Nathan Ake.
Each time Pickford has pulled on the Sunderland jersey he has starred; an excellent shot-stopper, vocal, athletic, his distribution superb and he dominates his area.
The Washington-born 22-year-old has it all.
And it leads to an intriguing dilemma for Sam Allardyce heading into the 2016-17 campaign – who will be his number one next season?
Having enjoyed a very successful half-season on loan at Championship side Preston North End, Pickford caught Allardyce’s eye early on.
Having watched him in action, Big Sam liked what he saw and moved quickly to bring him back to the Stadium of Light in January.
With three goalkeepers vying for two matchday positions, something had to give.
And it was Costel Pantilimon who made way, moving to Watford on a three-and-a-half-year-deal, leaving Mannone and Pickford battling it out on Wearside.
There was much hype and clamour around Pickford, with a sizeable portion of fans calling for him to be installed as first choice.
Pantilimon had been unconvincing in the first half of the season, with Allardyce later admitting he felt he made too many mistakes.
Allardyce, though, felt Mannone was more reliable than Pantilimon, made less mistakes and was a more than able number one for the relegation run-in.
He was proved right.
The former Arsenal stopper – a former player of the year – was given his chance away at Manchester City, when Sunderland found themselves 3-0 down within 22 minutes.
Despite that rusty performances he kept his place for the games against Liverpool and Aston Villa.
Washington-born Pickford was given his chance against Arsenal away in the third round of the FA Cup and away at Tottenham Hotspur in the Premier League.
Despite shipping seven goals in two matches, Pickford impressed. His shot-stopping catching the eye along with his pin-point distribution. And he isn’t shy either, quite happy to give the Sunderland defenders in front of him a good rocket.
Allardyce was adamant Mannone was his number one though and he has been in goal since the middle of January, keeping four clean sheets since the start of April as the club sealed safety.
Pickford – along with the likes of Duncan Watmore – is the future of Sunderland.
But Mannone is very much the present. Aged 28, his best years are still ahead of him.
But, with just a year left on his contract, do Sunderland look to cash in on him this summer or reward him for his performances with a new deal?
If the stopper – who will this week spend time with Italy ahead of Euro 2016 – does stay, then Allardyce has a decision to make before the players reconvene for the 2016-17 campaign.
Pickford or Mannone? It is one of several big decisions facing Big Sam.
Had Sunderland gone down, the likelihood is Mannone would have been sold and Pickford installed as the number one for life in the Championship.
But Mannone’s performances in recent weeks – including the game against Chelsea when he kept Sunderland in the game – have been outstanding.
Mannone has commanded his area with great authority, making important saves and playing his part in keeping the club up.
One for Allardyce to ponder as he reflects on the season gone and the fresh challenges facing the club.
One thing’s for sure, after the success of the January transfer window and the success of top-flight survival, fans can certainly trust Allardyce’s judgement.