Back in the summer of 2017, Jadon Sancho had a decision to make. He had one year left on his scholarship deal at Manchester City, who were desperate to keep him. They offered him a professional contract on £30,000 per week, the biggest deal ever offered to a 17-year-old player. City told him that if he signed he would be on the tour of the United States that summer, part of the main group, with a pathway into the first team.
But Sancho did not believe them. He had seen how no other youngsters had broken through into the City first team over the years, and how Pep Guardiola spoke of the low level of the Under-23 competition in England. So he decided to leave.
Sancho’s first choice was to stay in England, and Arsenal and Tottenham both wanted him. Spurs even tried to get him as part of a deal for Kyle Walker. But City would only let him go abroad, so he ended up at Borussia Dortmund for £8million. The way they had turned Christian Pulisic from a talented teenager into a big star was part of the attraction.
14 months on, Sancho is already following the Pulisic route, already starring for the Dortmund first team, still just 18 years old. This week he has already got a Champions League assist against Monaco and then signed a new contract lasting up until 2022. Dortmund supremo Michael Zorc hailed him as “without doubt one of the most exciting players in Europe”, and it was difficult to disagree.
It is impossible to look at Sancho’s remarkable rise into Gareth Southgate’s England squad as anything other than a vindication for his decision to leave City last year. If he had signed that deal then he would be better off, but likely still on the frustrating fringes of the first team, along with Brahim Diaz and Phil Foden. And surely not in this England squad.
But Southgate is keen to reward players who have taken the brave decision to go in search of minutes, or who have the career experience of playing in testing senior football environments from an early age.
James Maddison has had a very different career path to Sancho, but his inclusion today is also a testament to his own career decisions, and to the football that he has played. His route to the top has been more like Dele Alli, tested initially in the hard world of League One, competing as a skinny talented teenager against grown men. But Maddison was given his Coventry City debut at 17 by Steven Pressley and got comfortable very quickly.
Even at Coventry, Maddison attracted the attention of City, Liverpool and Spurs but turned down big moves because he did not want to be just another teenager playing development football. He eventually moved to Norwich City for £3m and was loaned back to Coventry. When he still struggled to get into the Norwich team he made the far-sighted move to go to Scotland on loan at Aberdeen. He was kicked all over the place but he toughened up and got to play at Celtic Park and Hampden Park. “That spell definitely improved me as a player,” Maddison told The Independent earlier this year. “At the age of 19 or 20, you have to be playing games. The only way you’re going to improve is playing games and learning, being a regular week on week.”
That set Maddison to break into the Norwich team under Daniel Farke, which he did, impressing as the best No 10 in the Championship, with his free-kicks, long-range shooting and ability to glide past opponents. That in turn set up his £20m move to Leicester City this summer, another move to a club where he would play, rather than one where he would not. And so when he made his Premier League debut at the age of 21 this August, he looked perfectly ready for it, steeled by years of hard work in the lower leagues and in Scotland.
There is even a similar story about Mason Mount, the star of the Chelsea academy who has shone at Vitesse Arnhem and Derby County on loan, rather than staying around to be the best player in Chelsea’s Under-23s.
The point here is that there is no one perfect route from being a talented teenager into the England squad, but that they all involve playing games, men’s football, and making brave moves at the right time. Sancho, Maddison, Mount at the rest must be an example to the players even younger than them of what they will have to do to make England squads of the future.
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