INTERVIEW

Jadon Sancho returns to his roots with ever-rising hopes of what is to come

Sancho’s success is a triumph of migration, writes Jack Pitt-Brooke. He returns to London, for Dortmund's Champions League tie with Tottenham, as a shining example of what can be achieved by those youngsters willing to take a leap of faith

Monday 11 February 2019 17:42 GMT
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Jadon Sancho is currently treating the German league like his own personal playground, playing better than any other teenager in the game
Jadon Sancho is currently treating the German league like his own personal playground, playing better than any other teenager in the game

Jadon Sancho is coming home this week, to the country that barely knows him. He is the most talented English footballer for a generation but he left here at 17, has never played in the Premier League and never been on Match of the Day. The only senior football he has played in this country was 17 minutes against Croatia in the Nations League and 90 minutes of the Wayne Rooney Foundation International. He could probably walk down the street without being noticed.

This will not be true for much longer. Sancho is currently treating the German league like his own personal playground, playing better than any other teenager in the game. Every week he is raising the standard, creating new waves of hype and attention, waves that will soon start crashing over the game and anyone who takes an interest in it. And when that happens, this period of pre-Sanchomania will look strangely naïve, like the start of a disaster film before the meteor hits.

To speak to Sancho, as the British newspapers did at Signal Iduna Park on Thursday afternoon, is to meet an 18-year-old who sounds fairly surprised at the fact he is on the brink of stardom. “All this media, this is all new to me,” he says. “This is crazy. I never knew you could be so known from your success. I never knew they would take this much interest.”

But then the overall impression is that Sancho is relaxed and ready for what is about to happen to him. He is honest, thoughtful and chatty. He is hard-nosed about his own decisions but keen to help others. Above all he has the enthusiasm of a teenager who is still discovering everything for the first time. His first Champions League run, his first title race, his first senior international tournament likely this summer.

And, on Wednesday night at Wembley, his first club game in the city where he was born. At the national stadium, where he has already played for England. Against Tottenham Hotspur, who tried to have him thrown into the Kyle Walker deal back in summer 2017, only for City to refuse to let Sancho go to another Premier League team. This game could hardly mean more to Sancho and his family. He has ordered 30 tickets. “It’s a great feeling,” Sancho says. “I’ll be playing in front of my family, which is something I’ve always wanted to do since I was a young boy. Now I’m able to do it and hopefully I can show London people what I’m about.”

***

For all the talk about what Sancho means, there is only one real reason why he has the whole British media hanging on his every word. And that reason is football. Sancho is just astonishingly good at it. Better than anyone hoped when he was at Manchester City. Better than you could reasonably expect any 18-year-old in an unfamiliar country to be. Better, in fact, than any English youngster since Wayne Rooney first showed up at Everton. And better, as he has shown all season, than almost every other player in Germany.

Barely a weekend goes by now without Sancho delivering a new moment of match-winning brilliance for Dortmund. He has eight goals and 10 assists so far this season – all of which are perfect pieces of shareable content, as if he were doing skills for a YouTube channel, rather than trying win the league.

Like Sancho’s late winner of the local derby, away at Schalke, when he cut in from the left, beat two men, played a one-two and beat the keeper. Like his goal against Borussia Monchengladbach just before Christmas, when he ran down the byline, giving himself an impossible angle, only to whip the ball back into the far bottom corner, in off the post. Or last Saturday, two days after this interview, when he scored one belter against Hoffenheim, before producing the best pre-assist you will see this season, a blind backheel to nutmeg a defender, allowing Mario Gotze to set up a goal.

Dortmund knew Sancho could play, of course, but even Michael Zorc admits that he had no idea Sancho would be this good, this consistently, this soon. “I haven’t been surprised by his performances, but with how fast he managed to get to this senior level, because before that he only played on youth teams,” Zorc said. “Also the stability of his performances. He played nearly every game for us last autumn, always at a high level. But he could still play in our Under-19 team. That is unbelievable for me.”

Take all of Sancho’s best moments together and they make up a remarkable body of work from a player who, like a young Rooney, seems to have arrived into adult football fully-formed. He has the impudence and imagination of the street, the technical knack for getting the ball to do whatever he wants, changes of pace and direction no-one can predict or stop, the strength to look after himself, instinctive understanding with his team-mates, a way to find the corner of the goal when no-one else would try. In short, everything you could hope for from a modern winger.

***

Sancho’s success is a triumph of migration, but he is also a proud product of his upbringing in south London. He would not be the player he is now if he had grown up anywhere else. And he knows this better than anyone, which is why he is so keen already to start giving back.

On Saturday Sancho played against Reiss Nelson when Dortmund faced Hoffenheim. It was a special moment because Nelson is his best friend. “We go way, way back,” Sancho says. “We used to play with each other, go the cages and kick a ball with our friends.” Sancho is from Kennington, Nelson from the Aylesbury Estate, and the pair are proof of why the borough of Southwark – a dense slice of unequal inner London – produces the best footballers in the country. Because they grew up playing on the hard basketball courts of their estates, perfecting skills, mastering the ball, hoping to emulate Ronaldinho. When they moved onto more organised games their technical skill was unlike anyone else there. Sancho and Nelson won the London Youth Games for Southwark, at the age of 10.

Jadon Sancho has moved from strength to strength at Borussia Dortmund 

It is no coincidence that the most exciting young English wingers – Sancho, Nelson, Ademola Lookman, Callum Hudson-Odoi – come from the same area, and all play the same way. In this way, as in others, Sancho is leading by example, showing his peers the path. “It’s how we were brought up from the start, it’s street football,” Sancho explains. “From there, everyone just expresses themselves and that’s how people learn their skills. Street football means you don’t fear no one because you have nothing to lose and you are just being yourself. I think that’s very good.”

South London made Sancho, but he had to leave it behind to become the player he is. Sancho has taken a few brave hard-nosed decisions in his career already, none more important than the first, at the age of 12, when he left home to go to Harefield Academy, the boarding school that houses and educates Watford FC’s academy youngsters. This meant that Sancho no longer had to commute across and out of London, but it also meant he was away from the bad influences of the area. Without making that first jump, who knows whether Sancho would now be sat here today?

“I don’t really want to go into detail,” Sancho says, when asked about the temptations and dangers of growing up where he did. “It’s just the wrong people around you, things can escalate very quickly. It wasn’t right, so I had to get out of there, and focus on what I love, which is football. I am lucky enough that I had the opportunity to go to Harefield at the time. I didn’t really want to go to that boarding school. I wanted to stay at home and travel but the people around me told me what was best and I listened to them and I am happy that I am here today, where I am.”

Not every youngster from Kennington can go on to play for Borussia Dortmund, but Sancho wants to show the next generation what they can achieve if they work hard. That is why he is going to go back to his first school, Crampton Primary, to speak to the pupils. To show them that they can achieve.

“My friends in Kennington always ask me, ‘can I have a shirt for my little brother or cousin’, and I always send them shirts. I will never forget where I have come from, because I know what it is like growing up in that area, and it is not nice. Especially when you have people around you doing bad things. For the kids that are in south London, I hope I can give a positive message. Don’t do those bad things. You don’t have to be footballers. You could focus on your school work. Education is most important thing and a lot of kids in south London get distracted from education.

“Hopefully that message does go out. I am trying to go back to my old schools first, and hopefully if things progress I can go to other schools. I am looking to do some interviews in schools where I can help south London kids just me. I was where they are once upon a time, and just give them a good message. I think that would be nice for them to hear.”

***

Sancho has shown striking ambition and ruthlessness to get where he is today. Leaving home for Watford, leaving Watford for City, leaving City for Dortmund. Saying no to Pep Guardiola and a £30,000 per week contract back in 2017, a move that looked risky and stubborn at the time but now looks inspired. When asked how he could make such hard-nosed, sharp-elbowed decisions, Sancho was strikingly matter of fact about it. “I just love football, so I feel what’s right for me should happen,” he shrugs. “That’s it, really.” As simple as that.

Sancho feared he would never play enough at City, so wanted to sign his first professional contract at a club where he would. He had seen the chances given to other teenagers – Ousmane Dembele, Christian Pulisic – and wanted the same for himself. “I felt at the time I needed to try something different,” he says. “It was about the youngsters here getting opportunities. I really felt Dortmund was the right club for me. They spoke to me and said the right things I wanted to hear. Now they’re showing it and I couldn’t thank them more.”

But ambition and ruthlessness are only part of the story. Sancho clearly cares about others, especially those who have been in the same situations as him. He wants to inspire those people to follow his path. To make his own way to the top of the game, but bring others along with him too. It is an awareness of other people, and the importance of helping them, that some players take until their late 20s or their 30s develop, if they ever do.

Sancho has paved the way for England’s upcoming youngsters

There are plenty of other teenagers in English academies in the same position Sancho once was, given everything they could ever want, except for what they need the most: playing time. Now Sancho is happy to encourage them to take the same brave leap that he did. “I feel like young players are looking to go away now, because they’ve seen my success, but it’s not easy,” he says. “People think because I’m doing so well, but everyone’s journey is very different. My journey was just to come out here and work on me. I can’t speak for other young players, but I am sure they’re probably giving it a thought.”

What stands out most when Sancho discusses this is the sense of duty he feels towards other youngsters who have made the same leap as him. He talks about Rabbi Matondo, who left Manchester City for Schalke last month, as if he were a younger brother. As soon as Matondo signed for Schalke, Dortmund’s local rival, for £11m, Sancho sent him a message of encouragement. “I know it’s going to be hard, make sure you just stay focused because it will be tough”, Sancho wrote. “Thank you”, Matondo replied. “We live local, so I’m going to see him very soon and comfort him and make him feel welcome,” Sancho said. “Because he won’t have his normal friends around him. That’s what I had to go through when I first came. It’s nice to welcome someone.”

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