How much is Jadon Sancho worth? Fifty million? A hundred million? As the speculation mounts, the numbers keep growing. Jadon is the star player for Borussia Dortmund, one of Germany’s leading soccer teams. He’s already won his first England cap — and he’s still only 18.
If you know anything about soccer, you already know about Jadon. If you don’t know anything about soccer, you’ll know about him soon enough. He’s the kind of player who comes along only once in a decade — a Glenn Hoddle, a Paul Gascoigne, a Ryan Giggs, a Gareth Bale. He’s the most gifted British footballer of his generation. And from when he was eight until he was 14, I used to watch him virtually every week.
I can still remember the first time I saw him play, 10 years ago, on an astroturf pitch in Harefield, on the north-west edge of London, where Watford FC’s youngsters used to train. My son had been asked up there for a few weeks. In the end he stayed for eight years but it was never easy. These boys were the stars of their school teams, their local teams — the best young players for miles around. Playing against each other, they often canceled each other out. Not Jadon. Right from the start, he stood out a mile.
What made him special? It was his audacity more than anything. He played with supreme confidence, but he had the skills to back it up. He did things with the ball that I’d never seen in a boy his age. He was fast and strong, with just the right amount of aggression. He had it all.
Where did it come from? Who knows? His dad was a good park player, but so were lots of dads. He’d played a lot of street football, but so had a lot of these boys. He worked hard, but so did the rest of them. He was blessed, and they all knew it. As Arthur Conan Doyle observed, talent instantly recognizes genius. Only mediocrity knows nothing greater than itself.
Sometimes, it takes real expertise to spot a promising young player: the defender who makes the goals dry up; the midfielder who holds the team together. Anyone could see Jadon was special. He scored goals, he made goals — he turned defenders inside out. Spotting it was easy. How to channel it? That was the question. Here, Watford did a brilliant job. They supported and encouraged him, but they also set him challenges. Soon he was being moved up to the team a year older than him, then two years older. He lit up everything around him.
Off the field, my son and I spent quite a bit of time with Jadon and his dad, a gentle giant called Sean. Sean did some security work, but was also a podiatrist. I can’t drive and Sean didn’t have a car so the four of us were often on the same bus back into town after training. When Sean got a car he gave us lifts. I used to give him petrol money but he never asked for it. He never had much but he always shared it. He was a decent bloke.
One night, after training, as we were driving out of Harefield, some lads started throwing things at us — probably conkers, possibly stones. Either way, it was pretty dangerous. Sean stopped the car and called the police. He said it was important to be public-spirited. We had to put a stop to it, even if it delayed our journey. If they’d done it to us, they might well do it to someone else. We went and bought some fish and chips while we waited for the police. When they arrived they asked me what the matter was. I told them it was Sean who’d rung. They’d assumed a white man, not a black man, had called the police.
The thing I remember about Jadon off the field was how quiet he was. In the car, he often used to sleep. He hardly ever said a word. Sometimes, the best players are tempted to slack off — they can afford to take it easy — but Jadon always pushed himself. You could tell he was never content.
My son and Jadon ended up at the same school, the Harefield Academy. For Sean and me, this was a big relief. The training ground was right next door, so we no longer had to race across London after school to get the boys to training. The club laid on minibuses to take them in each morning, and home again after training, but Jadon lived too far away so he went into the school’s boarding block. It must have been hard, an inner-city boy living so far from home on the outer edge of London, but I reckon it was the making of him. It toughened him up and kept him out of trouble.
After a few years, his game started to run away with him, as he moved from being a cut above to being on a completely different level. He used to be one of the smaller kids, but then he grew bigger and taller, like his dad. Once he began playing a year or two up, he was conspicuous by his absence from my son’s team.
Funnily enough, the team often played better without him. He’d always known when to be selfless and when to be selfish, when to lay it off and when to take a player on, but now it all became too easy. I remember that he once dribbled past a bunch of players and stopped on the goal line. A defender tried to clear the ball and collided with the post. It was cruel, but talent is often cruel. It’s about making the difficult stuff look simple. What could be crueler than that?
We knew he’d soon be on his way, and it was no surprise when he went to Manchester City. He could have had his pick of London clubs but this seemed the best move. It took him far away from the temptations of the Big Smoke. City’s facilities are superb. The youth team have their own stadium. The club even put him through private school.
Some of his old Watford teammates are playing professionally, including my son. None of them are anything like Jadon, but then again they never were. The ones who come from nowhere are the real rarities. The ones who start with everything and come to nothing are more common, by far.
The last time I saw Jadon play for Watford was in an under-16s game. He was playing two years up, a huge step, especially at that age. Another Watford player was taking a throw-in and he had no one to throw it to. Jadon was hemmed in, with no way out. ‘Trust me,’ he told his teammate, so his teammate threw the ball to him. Somehow, he worked the ball free and dribbled it away upfield. That’s the moment I think about when I see him on TV. Jadon trusted his talent, but never took it for granted. Good luck to him. I’m pleased for him. And I’m pleased my son played alongside him, in the same team, for a while.
This article was originally published in The Spectator magazine.