When Jadon Sancho turned down a £30,000 per week contract at Manchester City last season he was taking a big gamble.
But armed with supreme confidence in his own ability, the then 17-year-old winger upped sticks amid plenty of acrimony to join Borussia Dortmund for £10m and challenge himself.
Fast-forward 14 months and Sancho could hardly have dreamed of a better outcome. Having won the player of the tournament at the European Under-17 Championship for England he was highly-rated, but well down the pecking order at City. By jumping out of his comfort zone Sancho has accelerated his own development.
Described by Dortmund sports director Michael Zorc as “one of the greatest talents in European football” upon signing last August, Sancho has begun to make good on that statement.
The result is that a day after he provided the breakthrough assist – his eighth of the season – with a nutmeg for Dortmund’s opening goal in their 3-0 Champions League win over Monaco, Sancho received a maiden call-up for England’s first team.
Two days earlier the 18-year-old had signed a new contract at Dortmund, extending his stay until 2022. The opening sentence of his following tweet summed up nicely his mentality: “Preparation + Opportunity = Success.”
The insinuation was clear. He felt City had been holding him back.
Sancho deserves plenty of credit for following through with his convictions and moving abroad to further his career. He can look back at former City team mate Phil Foden, who has played just 31 minutes in the Premier League this season, and reflect on vindication of his decision.
And while the player himself is obviously the biggest factor in his rise to prominence, England manager Gareth Southgate is also central to it.
The former Under-21s boss has earned a reputation for promoting youth and his approach to the upcoming Nations League games against Spain and Croatia on 12 and 15 October is admirable.
With midfielders Dele Alli, Jesse Lingard and Fabian Delph injured, Southgate has chosen the progressive route of picking youth, rather than selecting more tried-and-tested alternatives.
Sancho is joined in the 23-man squad by Leicester City’s James Maddison (21), Derby County’s Chelsea loanee Mason Mount (19) and Tottenham’s once-capped Harry Winks (22).
“We think there are some exciting young players that we’ve been tracking, either through their clubs or our junior teams,” Southgate explained yesterday. “This is a great opportunity for us to look at them.”
All have different stories and have taken different paths, but Southgate has clearly been impressed by each player’s will to push themselves in what is a difficult environment to stand out in.
“Jadon’s is an unusual story for a young English player,” he said. “[It’s] been a really brave decision from him to go and seek his opportunity.”
Maddison is another who has hit his stride following a well-thought-out move. The attacking midfielder swapped Championship side Norwich for Leicester in a £20m transfer this summer and has immediately benefited from the step up.
The 21-year-old has featured in all of the Foxes’ seven Premier League games this season, scoring three goals and registering two assists, with more goalscoring chances created than any other English player so far.
Maddison has certainly earned his stripes. The former England Under-21 international come through at Coventry before joining Norwich and also spent time on loan at Aberdeen maturing.
While Mount’s story differs, it does contain similar strands. Not content to sit in Chelsea’s Under-23s after an impressive season on loan at Dutch side Vitesse Arnhem, the midfielder insisted on joining Derby County this summer where his cause would be furthered by Frank Lampard.
Once with the Rams his path converges with his fellow call-ups. Mount has emerged as the creative fulcrum of Lampard’s side, with five goals and one assist in 14 games in league and cup so far.
His selection is proof Southgate meant what he said in considering those in the second tier.
“They’re both still at formative stages,” he said of Maddison and Mount. “But we think they can have an impact with the group and we’d have no hesitation in playing them in the games.”
Some may see the promotion of youth as an indication of a lack of depth, especially in midfield, in England’s talent pool.
But viewed with the glass half-full perspective which should still be present after the confidence-boosting run to the World Cup semi-finals, Southgate’s decision should instead show a refreshing change of attitude. As former Manchester United manager Sir Matt Busby put it: if they’re good enough, they’re old enough.