Even now Jadon Sancho is recognised as one of the most exciting players in the world, those who have known him a long time say much the same thing. “He’s mad humble,” says David Sesay, a former teammate of Sancho’s at Watford’s academy who played for Crawley last season.
“Jadon’s always been like that. We still sometimes play on the PlayStation and talk like normal old friends. He’s never been cocky at all. His dad always told him to stay humble and remember where he came from.”
It is nine years since Sesay met Sancho when Sancho was moved up an age group to play for Watford’s under-13s having recently started boarding at the club’s partner school, Harefield Academy. The boy who will become the second-most expensive English player when he signs for Manchester United was living on the other side of London to his family in Kennington and was a regular guest at Sesay’shome in Harrow on weeknights.
“He used to stay at my house quite a bit because he found it a bit more fun than the boarding house,” Sesay says. “Then we used to go to school in the morning. My mum used to cook dinner for him and clean his clothes – she and my sister always say how proud they are of him.”
Sancho joined Watford at the age of seven having two years earlier convinced his headteacher at Crampton primary school in Kennington that he was destined to be a star. Louis Lancaster, who coached Sancho at Watford, was immediately impressed by the young winger’s single-mindedness.
“I remember sitting down with him and from day one it was clear I was working with a player who had huge ambitions and a lot of courage,” he says. “Then I asked him the question: ‘What do you want to do?’ And at 13 years of age he looked me dead in the eye and said: ‘I want to represent England and make my family proud of me and I want to play for one of Europe’s top clubs.’”
Growing up playing in the caged pitches near his home on the Guinness Trust Buildings estate did more than equip Sancho with the dazzling skills that have persuaded United to sign him. “The environment the kids create on the streets is far more ruthless than the academies produce,” Lancaster says.
“Jadon was telling me a story when they were in a cage one day and they had too many players. If you misplaced the pass the spare players or subs were waiting to come on if you made a mistake on the pitch. That is pressure.”
Sancho excelled for Watford’s under-14 and under-15 sides under Lancaster despite being at least a year younger than most opponents, scoring from halfway against Reading and nutmegging several Southend players on his way to another memorable goal.
“He always had this confidence which I think has made him thrive,” says Sesay. “You could just tell he was destined for something.”
Sancho’s father, Sean, would often take Watford players to watch England’s youth sides at St George’s Park and was on hand to provide extra coaching when they stayed in south London.
“He would always try to give us confidence,” says Sesay, a full-back called up by Kenya after impressing for Crawley in League Two. “If we did something good in training then he would say: ‘Make sure you do that same thing in a game.’ He’s always been motivating us. His dad used to come to every game and even when we were on tour in different countries he would come to watch.”
Lancaster, previously the assistant coach at the Utah Royals in the NWSL having also coached Taiwan, says: “His dad is an incredible man who has been a great mentor to Jadon. Sean is very calm and he keeps him grounded. He was always there and he has always made the right decisions.”
Sancho left Watford at 14 to sign for Manchester City and surprised most people just over two years later, in August 2017, by rejecting a £30,000-a-week contract and the chance to play under Pep Guardiola and joining Borussia Dortmund. Sancho had been left out of City’s pre-season tour to the United States and Sesay recalls discussing the dilemma with his friend.
“We FaceTimed each other and I asked him: ‘What’s going on? Are you leaving?’ And he said: ‘Yeah, looks like it.’ I remember saying: ‘Go where you are going to play.’ We mentioned a few clubs that had a good record of bringing through young players including Dortmund and a couple of weeks later, he signed for them.”
Since then, 13 English players have followed Sancho’s example and played in the Bundesliga – a trend Lancaster believes Sancho deserves plenty of credit for. “Jadon kind of said: ‘Well, this pathway is not for me so I’ll just create my own.’”
In Dortmund, Sancho shared an apartment with his father round the corner from the Westfalenstadion. It is a sign of his immediate importance to the club that they had arranged to bring him home from the Under-17 World Cup in October 2017 to take part in their Bundesliga campaign.
Sancho had scored three times for England during the group stages in a team that included his former City teammate Phil Foden and Chelsea’s Callum Hudson-Odoi. He missed the knockout phase, which culminated in a 5-2 victory over Spain in the final.
Sancho more than made up for that disappointment with 37 goals and 45 assists over the past three Bundesliga seasons, breaking a number of longstanding records in the process, but Lancaster has been most impressed by the other side of his game.
“What is most amazing for me is the way he defends because we never worked on that. He gets into positions, he tackles, he works hard for the team. Strengths get you in the team, hiding your weaknesses keeps you there and he’s probably had to learn that from the street – ‘I’ve got to survive here’.”
He adds: “Jadon’s always had that personality where he has to break records. He’s one of those people who if you tell him no one has scored 20 goals in a season in this league he will say: ‘Right that’s my target.’ Because of the ambition and talent that Jadon has, I genuinely believe he has set himself another target and we could be looking at a potential future Ballon d’Or winner.”
As for Sesay, he has no doubt that even with such a hefty price tag, his friend will still be the same old Jadon. “He’s done exactly what he planned to do – he always said that he wants to play for one of the best teams in the world. I knew once he got a chance that his confidence was going to take him and push him even further. Now he’s just doing what he was doing for us in the under-15s but at a much higher level.”