Thursday, April 09, 2020
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Jadon Sancho: How single-minded schoolboy made his dream a reality

Jadon Sancho drops his schoolbag and sits down. His white shirt - sleeves rolled up and blazer discarded - hangs from his 14-year-old shoulders. His burgundy-and-gold tie is knotted loosely around his neck. He and his team-mates from Watford's under-15s have been excused from their classrooms and, one by one, called into one of the school's small upstairs offices.

Their coach, Louis Lancaster, is there to meet his players and discuss their ambitions. When asked what he wants from football, Sancho's reply comes without hesitation. "I want to play for England, and I want to play for one of Europe's top clubs," he says. "I want my family to be proud of me."

Aged 19, he has achieved all of those feats and his goal for Borussia Dortmund against Barcelona in the Nou Camp on Wednesday was his latest footballing landmark. Whether he has many more at the club remains to be seen, with reports suggesting he is set to leave in January after a falling-out over "disciplinary issues". He is, it seems, wanted by many of Europe's leading clubs.

Being at the centre of such a high-stakes transfer saga is a world away from the environment in which Sancho gained his earliest footballing education. That came in the cages - the all-weather sports courts - near his home in Kennington, south London. He was childhood friends with Arsenal's Reiss Nelson and Ian Carlo Poveda, who later became a Manchester City team-mate. He was spotted by Watford aged seven and would travel across London three nights a week to train with the Hornets until, at 11, he was old enough to attend the club's partner school, the Harefield Academy in Uxbridge, west London.

The commute from Kennington to Uxbridge was too long to be feasible daily, and so came the first of many sacrifices the young Sancho would make in pursuit of his dream: he left his family home to move in with an aunt in Northolt, and was ferried the 14-mile journey to school by taxi each day. When boarding facilities were opened at Harefield, Sancho left his family to live on the school grounds.

From Monday to Friday, his routine revolved around football. Morning classes were interrupted for training. He'd return to school in the afternoon and, when the other kids went home, he'd have to make up for the lost lesson time before evening training began. Then it was back to the boarding house, rinse and repeat.

Perry Price was a left-back in Watford's academy and a schoolmate of Sancho's. "He's always mentioned big clubs - Real Madrid, Barcelona," Price tells BBC Sport. "It was always part of his plans. He sacrificed his youth for football."

Sancho was not a disruptive student but, during school time, football dominated his focus. "I remember one of his teachers saying: 'Jadon, can you get off YouTube and carry on with your work,'" recalls Lancaster. "I look over at his computer and he's got Ronaldinho on the screen. Down goes the browser. She turns around, I look back - Ronaldinho's back on the screen."

Lancaster admits there was little internal hype over Sancho at Watford, but when he first saw the winger in action as a 13-year-old, he was in no doubt he'd seen a future star. Leading a summer session that included boys as old as 16, the coach ran the players through a drill in which they could lay the ball off simply to either side to earn one point for their team, or dribble around a defender for three points. Not once did Sancho take the safe option.

"I just remember everything being so smooth and elegant for Jadon," says Lancaster, who now coaches the Chinese Taipei national team. "He didn't break sweat. He was effortless. When I drop a shoulder, no-one moves; when he does it, people fall over.

"What I liked about him was his fearlessness. He was always looking to take players on, to try new things and be creative."

Sancho soon joined Lancaster's under-15 side. He was playing a year above his age group but was, by some distance, the team's best player. He lit up one midweek match against Arsenal with a solo goal of jaw-dropping brilliance. On the pristine main pitch at Arsenal's Hale End academy, Sancho collected the ball near the halfway line and burst between two defenders. The Arsenal youngsters were unable even to keep up with the shadows Sancho cast under the floodlights as he unleashed a 35-yard shot that arrowed into the top corner.

On another occasion, against Colchester, he scored into an empty net after replicating one of Brazil great Pele's most famous tricks - rounding the goalkeeper without touching the ball, using only body feints and misdirection. And at 14, he began to feature regularly for Watford's under-18s.

To continue improving, Sancho needed to be challenged, and nobody was more aware of that than the player himself. Lancaster would often set up uneven teams for training games, testing his players in matches of nine against seven or 10 against six. Sancho always wanted to be on the side with fewer players. And when the coach reversed the usual dynamic one time - insisting the winners, rather than the losers, were to do punishment sprints - Sancho was just as determined to be victorious as ever and led his team through the forfeit.

Manchester City had been tracking Sancho's progress since he was 13. In March 2015, the month Sancho turned 15, City swooped. Under the rules which govern all elite academies in England, the teenager was signed for an initial compensation fee of just £66,000.

Opinion of Sancho, strange as it seems with hindsight, was divided among scouts at this stage. Some felt he lacked the athleticism to make it at the highest level; others likened his dribbling style to England legend Paul Gascoigne. "He was able to beat players with body movements, swerve, momentum and intelligence," one scout told BBC Sport. "When you can do that, you don't have to be super-quick. If a bit of pace comes, it's a bonus."

Figures close to the deal insist, despite reports to the contrary, City's interest was not rivalled. For Sancho's part, he was certain going to City was the right next step in his development. He is described as being "very single-minded" in his ambition to move north, and the switch happened quickly.

"He just left," Lancaster remembers. "I didn't even know he'd gone."

Short presentational grey line

The St Andrews floodlights illuminate the dusk of a mid-spring Monday evening as Sancho lines up to face Birmingham City in his Manchester City debut. He wears black boots - as dictated by club policy for all players below under-18 level - and the same button-collar, purple shirt as his team-mates. Yet, starting as a central striker, he instantly stands out. City demolish their hosts 8-3. Sancho zips into dangerous positions, weaves through crowds of defenders and scores five.

A talent-loaded under-16 side coached by former City striker Gareth Taylor went unbeaten throughout Sancho's first full season with the club, and he was instrumental in a run to the FA Youth Cup final as an under-18 in 2017. There was a healthy competitive spirit among this gifted crop. In the under-16s, Sancho played predominantly on the left wing, and would never want to be outshone by Luke Bolton on the opposite flank.

During a pre-season session on one of the outdoor pitches at City's impressive academy facility, Sancho was among 20 players being put through their paces by coach Jason Wilcox. The players - including Brahim Diaz, now at Real Madrid, and Rabbi Matondo, who has since joined Schalke - were completing the bleep test. As the intensity of the 20-metre shuttle runs increased, the group dwindled, dropout by exhausted dropout, until just two remained. Sancho and Phil Foden looked across at each other, still running hard. "Let's stop together," they agreed.

Pep Guardiola and Jadon Sancho in 2016

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