But the 23-year-old rose to the occasion – and it should not have come as a surprise. Pickford was years in the making.
Prior to his Premier League debut at Tottenham Hotspur in January 2016, he had made 116 league appearances in loan spells at six different clubs, from non-league through to the Championship with Preston North End.
His first steps in senior football came at Darlington. Pickford failed to win any of his 17 matches for the club and tasted relegation before he tasted three points.
“He was coming into a difficult situation,” recalls Darlington midfielder Adam Rundle. "He was probably getting 25 to 30 shots to save. It did him the world of good though.
“I definitely thought he had potential and being in that situation probably helped him. He was thrown in at the deep end as a 17-year-old but that's how you get your experience.”
Even as a teenager, however, the defeats will have stung Pickford.
"He hated losing more than anyone I knew even in training," remembers fellow Sunderland Academy team-mate Billy Knott. "You could see he had ability even at that age.”
Knott's biggest memory of their days together on the training pitch was Pickford's distribution skills.
It has become something of a trademark for him, having created more chances than any other Premier League goalkeeper last season.
“You wouldn't mind if he was on your team in five-a-side, whereas some 'keepers, you wouldn't want them anywhere near your team,” says Knott.
“He will be England's next 'keeper. I think he's good enough and the Sunderland experience will have helped him in a way.
“If he had been in a better team then maybe he would not have made as many big saves and people would not have realised how good he is."
Rundle adds: "He has not got to play in many teams where you are winning every week. But these experiences help you grow and toughen you up mentally.
"Getting that Darlington situation under his belt at a young age and having to deal with the Sunderland relegation, let's face it, from now on it will all feel like plain sailing."