Since the 1996 European Championships, England squads at international tournaments have included an accumulative three players plying their trade outside of the Premier League – David Beckham, the global superstar who seemed ready-made for Real Madrid’s galacticos; Bayern Munich’s Owen Hargreaves, who had not lived a day of his life in the United Kingdom before his first international cap, instead born in Canada prior to moving to Germany; and Fraser Forster, Roy Hodgson’s third-choice goalkeeper for the 2014 World Cup who failed to get onto the pitch for a single minute of his country’s doomed campaign.
The point of this opening paragraph is to illustrate the rarity of talented English footballers taking the plunge and moving to another country to further their careers. The likes of Michael Mancienne, formerly of Hamburg, and ex-Perugia man Jay Bothroyd, will be known to supporters in England, but both failed to reach their full potential abroad (Bothroyd has enjoyed some success more recently, albeit in Japan).
All of this means, when Jadon Sancho decided he no longer wanted to stay at Manchester City and instead move to Borussia Dortmund in 2017, many were sceptical. The Premier League has long been seen in England as the biggest league in the world, the be-all and end-all of club football. Sancho was already tipped for stardom – he had been named the Player of the Tournament at the 2017 U17 European Championships, for example – but plenty felt he should have stayed at the Etihad Stadium to develop under Pep Guardiola.
From day one, though, Dortmund were convinced of his potential. The Camberwell-born teenager, despite being just 17 years of age, was included in the first-team squad as soon as he arrived and was given the number seven shirt. It took him a while to break into Die Schwarzgelben’s side – he was still a teenager, after all – but when he scored and provided two assists in a 4-0 victory over Bayer Leverkusen towards the end of the 2017/18 campaign, it was clear Dortmund had a budding star on their hands.
Since then, Sancho has passed almost every test with flying colours, breaking records with ease along the way. He has twice been named in the Bundesliga Team of the Season and has amassed a quite ridiculous 50 goals and 64 assists in 137 games in Dortmund. He has not crumbled under the pressure of the big moments, either – he netted twice in this year’s DFB Pokal final in a 4-1 victory over RB Leipzig, bagged against Bayern in the Super Cup final in 2019, and also grabbed a winner in a Revier Derby versus Schalke.
Given the often insular outlook in England previously alluded to, many in Sancho’s homeland do not appear to appreciate quite how good the 21-year-old is. As Gareth Southgate’s Three Lions prepared for the European Championships, there was far more clamour for Jack Grealish who, although a special player, has not performed at the same level as Sancho in recent years, to be included in the starting line-up. When the former Citizen was not named in Southgate’s XI for the first three matches of Euro 2020, pundits and journalists in Germany were shocked – Lothar Matthäus even suggested, in jest, that Die Mannschaft should offer him a German passport if England don’t value him
Sancho was finally named on the team sheet for England’s quarter-final tie with Ukraine. While the youngster was perhaps not at his most explosive and influential, it is perhaps telling that his country’s 4-0 win was their biggest of the tournament.
He had to wait until the final for his next appearance as Southgate brought him on with just two minutes of extra-time remaining with the impending penalty shoot-out in mind. Unfortunately, Sancho’s spot-kick was saved by Italy’s Gianluigi Donnarumma as England succumbed at the final hurdle. Sickeningly if predictable, he was the target of racist abuse following the final whistle along with Marcus Rashford and Bukayo Saka, who also failed to find the back of the net from 12 yards. All three of them deserve better than that.
Manchester United, however, clearly see what all the fuss is about, which is why they have decided to part with £73m to take him to Old Trafford. It is a long-running transfer saga that perhaps should have been resolved 12 months ago, but the Red Devils finally have their man.
His time away has not always been a breeze, of course. He has twice been dropped at Dortmund after returning late from international duty, and was even substituted in the first half of a 4-0 loss to Bayern by Lucien Favre for not being good enough. However, on the whole, he has been an unbridled success.
The impact his decision to leave his comfort zone has had on others will perhaps be his legacy. Before Sancho’s transfer to Dortmund, only seven Englishmen had played in the Bundesliga – since 2017 alone, 13 others have followed his path. At Euro 2020, England have three squad members playing outside the Premier League – you would have to go back to the 1990 World Cup for the last time that happened at a major competition, and even then only Chris Waddle was based outside the United Kingdom. In other big leagues across Europe, it is increasingly common to see English faces performing well – quite frankly, Sancho’s choice has made him a pioneer.
On a personal note, I am reluctant to see him depart. Sancho’s arrival in Germany coincided with my own move to Berlin, allowing me to follow his whole career to date. He has been a joy to watch, especially working in tandem with Erling Haaland over the past 18 months. Seldom have I seen a player with such confidence and the ability on the ball to match it. So thank you, Jadon, for lighting up the Bundesliga. Smash it in England – I’m sure you will.