Jadon Sancho is ready to take the next step in international football. The 19-year-old pushed himself up the England pecking order with a sparkling two-goal performance in the 5-3 victory over Kosovo in September and is likely to play a leading role in tonight’s European Championships group A qualifying match against Montenegro.
The Borussia Dortmund winger has not been quite at his best in the Germany over the past few weeks – he was substituted after 36 minutes in his team’s 4-0 away defeat by Bayern Munich on Saturday – but the move from Manchester City to Germany has proved successful. Sancho is utilising his Bundesliga experience to good effect for Gareth Southgate’s side. Did the south Londoner have any doubts before he moved to the continent?
“Yes,” he tells The Independent, “It was very difficult but if you love what you do and make such a big decision then you have to stick to it. I stuck to it and I was happy to adapt and learn the culture.”
Many teenagers would be overawed by the prospect of moving to such a different environment but Sancho sees such challenges as an integral part of a modern footballer’s career. “It’s not unusual,” he said. “Every foreign player who comes to England has to learn English. Spanish players find it different to home. I felt like I’d enjoy adapting and learning a different language.”
Sancho has adapted beautifully. He credits his team-mates for making things easy. “The players at Dortmund give me loads of advice because they’re so experienced,” he said. “Marco Reus is a great player and he keeps telling me that I need to keep working hard in training because someone can take your place at any time.
“I really listen to that because I believe what he says. There’s always someone below you who wants to take your position. If you work hard week-in and week-out it makes it hard for them to get picked instead of you. Football’s very competitive and you can’t afford to slacken off.”
Although Sancho has made a success of life abroad, he is aware that such a move might not suit everyone. It is too simplistic to say that young players who are not getting game time in England should leave for foreign climes. “It’s different for individuals and it depends on their personality,” he said. “My situation is that I’ve always been away from home since I was 11. It’s about how you handle situations by yourself. There’ll be many days when it’s difficult. It’s not for everyone. But it’s a good option. You’ve just got to make sure you get the decisions right if you do make the move.”
Football has taken the winger on a journey from an early age. His first experiences of the game came in the caged pitches of south London, where his talent and technique made him stand out. The flamboyance he learnt on the backstreets of the capital is still a trademark part of his style. Stepovers, flicks and dragbacks are vital components of his armoury. “It was all about learning skills and expressing myself,” he said. “I like adapting that to a real game. It makes defending harder because opponents don’t think you have those sort of skills. It gives you an advantage against some players and luckily enough it’s been working out for me.”
It is no surprise that the player Sancho tried to emulate was a Brazilian. “Ronaldinho was the main guy I used to watch on YouTube,” he said. “But I liked Frank Lampard quite a lot and Didier Drogba when they were playing for Chelsea. They were the three players I looked up to.”
He also admired his south London contemporaries, two of whom are also carving out impressive professional careers. Sancho was in the same Southwark under-11 team as Arsenal’s Reiss Nelson and City’s Ian Carlo Poveda and the bonds between the trio remain strong. “They were really good and I was always trying to compete with them,” Sancho said. “We were close friends. It was nice to have other people going in the same direction as me.”
Despite widespread interest, Sancho chose Watford for the next phase of his education, moving to Hertfordshire and away from the family. “I was comfortable at Watford,” he said. “I didn’t really see it like I should be going anywhere else. I just liked Watford and I still have close friends from there. It was the right place for me to develop.”
The next move was to City, but Sancho was a young man in a hurry and wanted his chance sooner rather than later, so made the decision to leave England for Germany.
Sancho’s willingness to adapt and learn has been an important part of making the transition to life in Dortmund. His language skills are improving all the time. “I’ve picked up the training terms really well,” he said. “When everyone’s speaking German in sessions I understand what they’re saying. Obviously, speaking it fluently is a bit difficult at the moment but I’m picking it up slowly but surely.”
That is about the only thing going slowly in the winger’s life. His career is on an upward trajectory. Yet Sancho is under no illusions that he can afford to take it easy. That’s clear in the advice he offers to any youngsters hoping to emulate his exploits. “All you can do is work hard every day and hopefully you’ll get a chance,” he said. “When you do get the chance, grab it.”
The way Sancho is embracing his opportunities there can only be better times ahead.
Head & Shoulders, Official Hair Care Partner of the England Team and the UK’s #1 anti dandruff shampoo brand, met with Jadon Sancho before England’s game v Montenegro