Jadon Sancho’s redemption arc leads to shot at glory under Wembley arch

<span><a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:Jadon Sancho;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">Jadon Sancho</a> has returned to <a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:Borussia Dortmund;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">Borussia Dortmund</a>, the perfect place to nurse the winger back to his best.</span><span>Photograph: Friedemann Vogel/EPA</span>

Borussia Dortmund’s legends team made a trip to Glasgow last Sunday to play their Celtic counterparts, raising funds for the Scottish champions’ foundation. Maybe Dortmund fans do not need any prodding towards nostalgic sentiments at the moment, as their team prepare to return to Wembley for a Champions League final 11 years on from their last one. Same stage, same place.

Nevertheless, there was plenty to comfort those wanting to relive the Jürgen Klopp glory years. Six of the players involved at Wembley in 2013 – Roman Weidenfeller, Lukasz Piszczek, Jakub Blaszczykowski, Marcel Schmelzer, Kevin Grosskreutz, and Oliver Kirch – played at Celtic Park, a welcome chime of past glories before the push to create a new landmark against Real Madrid, going one better than back then.

The way these names trip off the tongue and the images they conjure (along with Marco Reus, playing his last game for the club in this final) is a stark reminder of where this BVB generation is, though.

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They do not feel like a particularly historic Dortmund vintage. It has been a season of largely uneven performances, scruffy tactics and serial underachievement as they struggled to get over the last-day heartbreak of relinquishing the Bundesliga title to Bayern Munich last year.

There are names – Emre Can, Marcel Sabitzer, Julian Brandt and more – and a coach in Edin Terzic who represents Dortmund through and through, heart and soul. But even if BVB triumph on Saturday this will not go down as one of the club’s all-time great teams. More of a Liverpool 2005, full of curios and surprises, rather than Ottmar Hitzfeld’s personality-heavy Dortmund of 1997, a collection of born winners.

Perhaps the most telling sign of Dortmund’s state of flux is that one of those most likely to recommend himself for future legend status besides Reus and Mats Hummels is a loan player. Jadon Sancho’s return to Signal Iduna Park in January was a clear product of the club’s bind, as well as the player’s. After a clear lack of transfer strategy over years rather than months, Sancho’s temporary return from Manchester United was not so much a precise plan, but two parties badly in need of a boost and a feeling of we were great together before, so why not again?

Even if the sporting fit was questionable, the will for it to work on both sides has always been clear, from the just-before-midnight fitness check the club staged for him before the re-signing in early January (“this must be the latest medical ever,” Sancho said to the club staff, apologetically) to Terzic’s booming greeting for him from a first-floor window on his first morning in at the Brackel training ground.

If ever there was a place to nurse the winger back to his best, this was it. Sancho is home, as he puts it. He is not like other loan players. Children on matchdays wear shirts with his new No 10 on the back and the FanWelt sells scarves including an image of his face.

The response of the club’s X account to England’s Euro 2024 squad announcement was typical, his omission met with the bulging eyes emoji coupled with a photo of Sancho. He would not receive this warmth or loyalty at any other club and it seems it is reciprocal.

The 24-year-old has been everything back in Dortmund Erik ten Hag appeared to suggest he wasn’t: humble, hard-working and engaged. Not that this version of Sancho is unfamiliar in Germany. Not only was he incredibly productive in his first spell but he knew when to knuckle down, arguably because the club always employed a fine balance between carrot and stick.

When he returned, the BVB management decided they would deal with him with kid gloves rather than an iron fist. Whether it was for six months or eventually for longer, the affection for Sancho at the club has been evident in the patience they have shown him with Terzic, his biggest champion, taking the reins.

He and the club knew that piecing a player and a person in a fragile state back together would take time. For him, forgetting the details of contracts, burned bridges or the context of permanent or temporary was important. Finding his happy self in his happy place was all that mattered.

There has been reward of sorts. What Dortmund and Sancho could be together was clear in the first leg of the Champions League semi-final against Paris Saint-Germain, by some distance his best performance since coming back.

Everyone wants to believe in the redemption arc and on that night at Signal Iduna Park he was sensational, underlining his elite incision, sense of mischief and that he is more than capable of putting up a good level of defensive effort for the team when required. To see Sancho dare to play like Sancho was pure joy.

Those watching from a distance took it as clear evidence that Sancho Is Back, the player of three years ago. The truth is a little more nuanced. He has been many things since he has been back: motivated, flawed, applied, vulnerable. What he has not been is consistent. The numbers of that first spell speak for themselves: 137 games, 50 goals, 64 assists; phenomenal statistics that would have been hard to match even had he not returned lacking confidence and match sharpness, shortcomings evident in his second Dortmund spell.

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He is more than aware of that, confessing after scoring against PSV Eindhoven in the last 16 in March: “I can understand that the fans expect a lot of me. I do as well.”

A few days before Sancho reminded the world of his ability against the French champions, Terzic talked of Sancho needing time to get back to the level he reached before. His display in the return at the Parc des Princes was more indicative of his output back at Dortmund: willing, committed, with plenty of moments of promise and slivers of his immense talent, but still a distance from his best.

But this is Wembley and Sancho is a big-time player who shows up at big-time moments, as that night against PSG reminded us. Twelve miles east of where he made his first big step into the game when moving from south London to board at Harefield in Watford’s academy at the age of 11, he gets to take a shot at glory that seemed beyond improbable at Christmas and to play himself into Dortmund immortality.

As we know, Sancho does improbable very well. As for the future? That, as throughout his second spell at Dortmund, can wait for now.