Jadon Sancho may be the poster boy for a generation of English footballers doing things differently, but he is not immune to the sentiment of a homecoming.
‘I’ll be playing in front of my family, which is something I’ve wanted to do since I was a young boy,’ said Sancho as he prepared for Borussia Dortmund’s last-16 Champions League tie against Tottenham at Wembley on Wednesday by trying to source more than 30 tickets for family and friends.
‘I’d love to play in front of my home town. Hopefully I can show London people what I’m about.’
Jadon Sancho is one of Europe’s top prospects playing at Borussia Dortmund in the Bundesliga
Sancho is excited to play in England: ‘Hopefully I can show London people what I’m about’
It will be his first game on these shores in club colours since Manchester City lost to Chelsea in the 2017 FA Youth Cup final.
‘That’s why I can’t wait. It’s a great feeling. Playing at Wembley is another good thing about the draw.’
Sancho was born in Camberwell, south London, when the original Wembley had closed and was earmarked for demolition. He spent his early years in nearby Kennington, supporting Chelsea and developing his technique in the ball cages of the nearby estates.
‘That’s how people learn their skills,’ he said. ‘Street football means you fear nobody because you have nothing to lose and you’re just being yourself.’
At 12, he left home for Watford’s residential halls at Harefield Academy and at 14 moved on to Manchester City. At 17, he joined Dortmund and at 18 he is a fixture in Lucien Favre’s team, capped by England and one of the most exciting and in-demand young footballers in the world.
‘Friends always ask, “Can I have a shirt for my little brother or my cousin”, and I always send them shirts,’ said Sancho. ‘I’ll never forget where I’ve come from. I know what it’s like growing up in that area. It’s not nice, especially when you have people around you doing bad things. For the kids of 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 the most important thing and a lot of kids in south London get distracted from education.
‘I’m lucky 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 and I’m happy that I’m here today.’
Sancho is serious about getting this advice across to inner-city schoolchildren and plans a series of personal visits to the classroom. ‘I had to get out of there and focus on what I love, which is football,’ he said.
‘With the wrong people around you, things can escalate quickly. Doing the wrong things, being out late. Just stay at home. Hopefully I can go into schools and give a good message. That would be nice for them to hear; give out a few footballs, things like that.’
Once he had made up his mind to leave City, Sancho weighed up the pros and cons of several suitors. Factors pushing him towards Dortmund included the heritage and identity of one of Germany’s most successful clubs, passionate fans, the exhilarating din of Westfalenstadion and their reputation for trusting young players.
Another was the fact that they were strong on the FIFA computer game. ‘Dortmund is a very big club to me… on FIFA especially,’ he quipped. ‘When we had tournaments, that team always used to go far.’
So, are the players better than in the game? ‘Yeah, way better. Some of the stats are crazy.’ Who, for example? ‘Me! I’m stronger than it says.’
He does not lack confidence and is probably right. Everything is going so spectacularly well that Sancho is improving at a rapid rate, his flair and invention flourishing under the direction of new boss Favre. A brilliant solo goal in Saturday’s 3-3 draw against Hoffenheim was his eighth of the season and the £8million fee seems destined to go down as one of football’s great steals.
‘This has been a crazy year, I would never have imagined it,’ he said.
‘This is all new and crazy. I just have to keep working hard, keep focused and hopefully I can go further.
‘It hasn’t been easy. I’ve had to work for this. Obviously training and showing what I’m about to coaches. They’ve seen what I can do and I’ve been showing it in games, doing my skills, doing what I do best.
‘I’m combining with my team-mates and just working hard for the team. I’m just happy it’s all working out and everyone is seeing that for themselves.’
He shares an apartment in Dortmund with his father and is slowly picking up the language. ‘I know what the manager is saying in training sessions, which makes it easier,’ said Sancho.
‘I like the city a lot. It’s chilled, nice people. I’m loving it. I think me being comfortable abroad is due to the fact I’ve been away from home since I was young.
‘When I first left home, at Harefield Academy when I was at Watford, it was difficult because I wasn’t used to it. I was always with my mum.
Sancho is serious about helping kids and plans a series of personal visits to the classroom
‘The first couple of years were very tough and then, as I got older, people started to tell me, “It’s either this, or going back home”, and I always loved football, so I chose the hard option.’
Sancho is at the forefront of the trend for British teenagers who are graduating from Premier League academies and stepping overseas, often to Germany, where competitive experience is easier to acquire.
Wales winger Rabbi Matondo left City last month and signed for Schalke in Gelsenkirchen, 15 miles west of Dortmund along the industrial Ruhr Valley.
‘It was about the youngsters here getting opportunities,’ said Sancho. ‘I really felt Dortmund was the right club for me. They spoke to me and said the things I wanted to hear. Now they’re showing it and I couldn’t thank them more.
‘The other day I messaged Rabbi and said, “I know it’s gonna be hard, make sure you just stay focused because it will be tough” and he said, “Thank you”.
‘We live local, so I’m going to see him very soon and make him feel welcome, 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.’
On Saturday, Reiss Nelson, on loan from Arsenal, came off the bench for Hoffenheim in the 3-3 draw. ‘We go way back,’ said Sancho. ‘I first met Reiss when I was playing for Watford. We used to play each other in Southwark youth games.
‘That’s how we got really close. We always used to link up and do little things — go to the cages, kick a ball with our friends.’
Before the second leg with Spurs, there is a trip to Augsburg, where Reece Oxford is on loan from West Ham.
Jadon Sancho has spoken about being one of England’s top prospects with Reiss Nelson
‘I feel young players are looking to go away because they’ve seen my success but it’s not easy,’ added Sancho.
‘People think it’s because I’m doing so well but everyone’s journey is different. A lot of people doubt you. That’s life. It’s how you deal with it. And the team around me have helped me. I’ve made the right choices so far.
‘The area I’ve come from and the friends I have, I could say some of them are bad influences, but my family just kept me away from that, so I’m grateful to them.
‘I’m improving every day and the likes of Marco Reus, Mario Gotze and Axel Witsel are great role models. It’s nice to have them around telling me what to do and what’s not good, helping me solve things I wouldn’t solve by myself, so I’m happy.
‘I love football, so I feel what’s right for me should happen. That’s it, really. At the time I needed to try something different and Dortmund was the club I went to, and I thought, “This will be my new home. I’ll work hard to prove myself and for others around the world to watch what I can do”.’
The world is watching. In England, they are hoping some of these ambitious players who have achieved so much at youth level will prosper in senior football, whether they opt for Germany or stay at home.
Sancho is very much part of Gareth Southgate’s thoughts as attention turns towards the Euro 2020 qualifiers in spring and the final stages of the UEFA Nations League in the summer.
Jadon Sancho has impressed for Borussia Dortmund, and got called up to the England team
He has three England caps, making his debut in Croatia in October and his first start, a month later, in a friendly against the USA at Wembley. Southgate’s assistant Steve Holland dropped in at Dortmund’s training ground recently.
‘He told me what the plan was and said, “You’re working really well, everyone is happy for you back home. Keep it up, be proud of yourself”.’
When he was called up by England, Spurs midfielder Harry Winks helped him settle in. ‘We were both new,’ said Sancho. ‘I was new and he was kind of new. He welcomed me and I’m good friends with Harry now.
‘There were a few conversations after the Champions League draw with me, Dele Alli and Harry, saying “See you soon” and “It’s going to be a good match”. He feels they’re going to win. We feel we’re going to win.’
Spurs took six points from Dortmund when the teams met in the group stage last season but the Germans were in the midst of a disappointing campaign and are since revived, five points clear at the top of the Bundesliga table.
‘Spurs are a good side,’ said Sancho. ‘But we have improved from last season, so it won’t be the same match as last year. It will be more difficult for them, especially as they have big players missing out.’
Progress in the Champions League is just one of the targets taking shape in a brilliant breakthrough season.