Jadon Sancho went to Germany to prove himself – will others follow?

Jadon Sancho is fielding questions live on German television. The backdrop is in the idyllically blue Mediterranean and some glorious winter sunshine in which Borussia Dortmund have been conducting their mid-winter training camp in Marbella. 

At the luxury Gran Melia Hotel where they are staying, there is a small clamour over the English teenager.

‘How do you feel now you’re a star?’ comes the question for the 18-year-old from Kennington, south London. ‘Ha!’ He exclaims and laughs at the absurdity of it all. ‘I’m not a star! I’m just getting started.’ 

He is half right, or course. At 18 he would be unwise to take anything for granted and seems to realise that, if his work ethic ever drops, then this exponential rise will soon level off.

However Sancho is a genuine young star in Germany. He only became an adult in March but, by the end of 2018, he has the second most assists in the Bundesliga this season, he has scored seven goals for Dortmund, has three England caps and is established in a side six points clear at the top of the league.

To put this in context, his career is probably on par with Wayne Rooney at a similar age. Granted, Rooney started at 16, though he was physically more mature. 

Sancho is achieving similar stats to Rooney at 18, but doing so at a club challenging for the league title and the Champions League. (Rooney did join Manchester United at 18, but only two months before his 19th birthday.)

There is one more thing. Sancho is doing all of this in a different country and far outside his comfort zone. There have been British exports to Germany before but Kevin Keegan, Tony Woodcock and Paul Lambert were established professionals when they made the transition. 

Owen Hargreaves did do what Sancho is doing, moving from Canada to Bayern Munich at 16 and winning four Bundesliga titles, but for a player raised in England and in our football system, the success Sancho is having is unprecedented.

For years, it has been argued that young British footballers should avail themselves of the opportunities that freedom of movement in Europe brings. Now, just as that freedom is about to be curtailed, Sancho has done just that. He says he is an accidental trailblazer.

‘Going abroad wasn’t really a thing, as from young I’ve always been away from home, so I was comfortable,’ he says later, when the televised press conference has finished. ‘So I thought, “Why not Germany?” I did go, and look what’s happened now!’

It takes tenacity to face down Pep Guardiola at the age of 17. The Manchester City manager refused to take him on a pre-season tour at the start of last season, when Sancho said he wanted to leave. 

He accused the teenager of going back on his word, but Guardiola would not be the first to underestimate the resolve of Sancho.

Scouted by Watford as a seven-year-old, he would initially join in their satellite training sessions at Battersea Park, near his south London home.

Yet at the age of 11 and with the need to train in Watford, he had to move to Harefield Academy, the state school with boarding facilities on the edge of north-west London, where the club house their scholars. 

Although it is only 20 miles away from Kennington, set amidst fields and countryside of the green belt, it is a world away from inner-city south London.

‘It was difficult at the time as being in Kennington, I only knew my friends,’ he says. ‘I didn’t know how to socialise with other people. I went to Harefield and it was strange at first but then I realised I was only here for one thing and that was the football. That was one of the many things that kept me grounded and kept me going.’

At 14, he took the decision to switch to Manchester City, with another change of school and location. Knowing all of that, it is perhaps not surprising he had the belief in himself to make a go of it in the Bundesliga. 

‘There was some people who said they weren’t really sure because it’s a big step moving away from home and everyone I’m close to,’ he says. ‘But it has worked out really well.’

He makes it all sound rather simple and it might seem that way under the benign gaze of the Marbella sunshine. It is far from that of course. 

Sancho simply believed that he would have more chance of developing at a club such as Borussia Dortmund, which has a track record in these affairs, than a superpower such as Manchester City, seemingly always with more money to spend.

When he sees his England Under-17 captain, Phil Foden, getting his 32 minutes against Burton, coming on when the score is 5-0, it is hard to conclude he was wrong. 

Another of that England U17 World Cup winning team, Callum Hudson-Odoi, has come to the same conclusion at Chelsea and wants to join Bayern Munich. Sancho laughs as German reporters ask him whether he can persuade Hudson-Odoi to join him at Dortmund. 

‘I’m not sure!’ he says. ‘I could try to speak to him! Everyone has different pathways. Me and Callum are close friends. I know what he’s all about.

‘He’s the next one I would say. He’s very good and talented, fast, good dribbling skills. And I’ve told him the Bundesliga is a nice league. I just told him to do whatever is best for him.’

Some of his other England team-mates are keen to hear about his experiences too. ‘I’ve told them that this is a league that is keen to express the youth.’

The country, the Premier League academies and the FA should be proud. Much of the informed talk in European football right now is about how good this generation of English players are.

‘Every young player in England wants to do well and just wants to help their families, be someone that their family can be remembered for,’ says Sancho. 

‘The World Cup showed everyone in England that young players are coming through and working hard to try to get a chance. My chance was to come out to Germany.’

There is a warning, however. ‘Coming to Germany is not easy,’ he says. ‘People might think it’s easy because I’m doing so well, but it’s not at all. 

‘You have to have a strong mentality and just focus and sacrifice a lot of things like family and that’s not an easy thing to do.’

He laughs about his German, aspiring to do an interview in the language by the summer. ‘It’s not the best,’ he says. 

But this is a young man pushing back boundaries, no little Englander. ‘Of course I’m learning,’ he says. ‘I have to learn.’

He admitted the language barrier ‘worried me quite a lot’ before he came but he has been eased into his surroundings with team-mates Christian Pulisic and Sweden’s Alexander Isak. 

‘Me, Alex and Chris, we play Fortnite together and [centre half] Danny [Axel-Zagadou] as well sometimes. But Danny is French, so it’s bit hard to talk to him! All the young players stay together.’

He lives in an apartment in the city with his father, Sean, spending most of his time resting and recovering. He has a chef to cook his food.

It is not quite around the corner, but he does have a friend from his youth in Southwark, some 200 miles down the road. 

Reiss Nelson, on loan from Arsenal at Hoffenheim, is also making his name in the Bundesliga, with six goals this season. They have been close since primary school, playing on the same Southwark borough teams.

‘I’m really happy for him,’ says Sancho. ‘When he came over, I was just telling him to be positive because he’s away from home and it’s the first time he has been away from London. I try to visit him sometimes and he has had a great first half of season.’

Amid all this, though, while Sancho’s contemporaries sit on the bench at elite Premier League clubs, Sancho is a key player in a side trying to wrest the Bundesliga title from Bayern Munich for the first time in seven years. 

It would be their first league title since the days of Jurgen Klopp’s Borussia Dortmund and their challenge comes after having finished 29 points behind Bayern last season.

‘We know that Bayern are right behind us,’ says Sancho. ‘Only six points. We’ve just got to keep working hard. Last season wasn’t the best season for us. It was a big downfall for the club. We knew that this season we had to prove a point to our fans.’

He suspects the second half of the season, which starts next week at RB Leipzig, will be tougher. They also have a Champions League last-16 game against Tottenham and a return to his native city.

Even though he has played three times for England, there is still an element of the unknown about Sancho for domestic audiences. He aims to put that right.

‘It’s a big game for me because it’s in England and some of the English fans don’t know what I’m about. Hopefully I’m going to show them. 

‘And it’s easier for my family to come and watch me. Not a lot of people can come out to Germany as they have work, so it will be nice.’

Not even Dortmund were quite expecting this from Sancho. They were concerned that he might feel slighted last season when he joined and they asked him to start in their U23 development team. He simply buckled down and got on with it.

‘It was just to get to know how they play football and their style of play, which is a lot different to the English style of play,’ he says. 

‘I feel like German football is a lot more aggressive and faster. I’ve never played in the Premier League, so I couldn’t say what it was like. But going from youth football, I would say it’s a lot faster and lot more physical.’

He began to get first-team games at the end of last season and the club hoped he might keep making an impact from the bench this season. So when he came on in the clash against Bayer Leverkusen in September, Dortmund were 2-1 down. 

Within a minute, Sancho had led the charge on the counter attack, sprinting almost the entire length of the pitch, exchanging passes with Marco Reus before setting up the Dortmund captain to equalise. Dortmund won 4-2.

Soon there was no keeping him out of the side. By the time Bayern Munich came in November, Sancho was a guaranteed starter. He played the pass for Reus that set up the penalty for 1-1 and was involved in the winner.

The 3-2 win, in which Dortmund twice came from behind is, so far, his highlight of the season. He feels that in the last six months has matured immeasurably under the coaching of Lucien Favre, claiming he is now a long way from being that street footballer of his roots.

‘In my youth, my dad always told me, “End product”. I was always just about showing my skills, but I learned a lot: thinking of others. Before, I just wanted to show everyone what I had. 

‘On the training pitch I analyse Marco, Paco [Alcacer], Mario [Gotze], just on where they want the ball. I see it on the training pitch, what they like and don’t like.

‘I feel like I know when to release the ball now. And when I made my debut in the stadium I was very nervous. Now I’m not nervous at all. I’m just all calm and relaxed.’

That stadium is, of course, world famous. The Yellow Wall, the south stand of the Westfalenstadion, houses 25,000 fans. An average home crowd of 80,000 is the highest in Europe. 

It meant that making his first England start against the USA or coming on against Croatia at Wembley did not phase him.

‘That [experience] was crucial when I came on at Wembley,’ he says. ‘I was relaxed. I didn’t feel like anyone was there when I was playing. 

‘That’s one of the biggest things I will never forget in football. I never knew the England debut would come so quick. I have to thank Dortmund for that. If they didn’t give me the opportunity, I wouldn’t have made it.’

There is inspiration all around him. Reus is the 29-year-old locally born captain, star of the team and one-club man, Gotze, scorer of the winner in the 2014 World Cup final, is another local-born player, who had a hiatus at Bayern Munich and has fought back from a debilitating illness, Axel Witsel, 29, who joined last season, has 101 caps for Belgium.

‘Axel is a big role model,’ says Sancho. ‘He has had 100 caps for his country. I wish I could do that one day, hopefully if I carry on my progress. 

‘He’s just a big inspiration to all of us youngsters and everyone looks up to him because he’s such a great player. 

‘He just keeps the ball moving and adds something to the team. All the players give me tips but Mario and Marco and Axel, those three boost me a lot.’

The Premier League’s loss is the Bundesliga’s gain. Sancho is taking up a challenge so many English footballers previously declined. 

He will surely be mentally, culturally and tactically richer for embracing a different route. Right now, a Premier League return seems far from his thoughts. 

‘No, I’m doing what I love,’ he says. ‘I just want to keep on working hard and get many more chances to prove to myself and to the world what I can do.’

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