Louis Lancaster, Sancho's former youth coach at Watford, speaks to JOE

When Jadon Sancho made his England debut against Croatia last October, he had to wait ten minutes for his first touch.

Replacing Raheem Sterling late in the game, he was on the pitch in Rijeka for only 15 minutes. And yet, as a tight contest ended 0-0, his brief cameo proved to be one of the highlights of an otherwise dull match.

Sancho eventually took possession after a short burst of pace down the right saw him latch on to what had seemed an ambitious pass from Jordan Henderson. From there, he effortlessly skipped past left-back Josip Pivarić before attempting a cross which was blocked. 

Soon after, Sancho was involved down the right again. The weary Pivarić, already unnerved by his initial encounter with the teenager, was bamboozled by a blend of speed and trickery for a second time. On this occasion, Sancho’s lofted cross floated into the box and, were it not for a desperate fingertip intervention from Dominik Livaković in the Croatian goal, the teenager's delivery would have almost certainly been nodded home at the back post for an England winner.

For plenty of English football fans, this was their first glimpse of Sancho in action. Though it was a continuation of the impressive early season form he had shown with Borussia Dortmund, the ease with which he took to this new stage might have come as a surprise to many. To those who have worked with him in years gone by, however, Sancho's impressive cameo was to be expected.

“He’s always been completely focused on being direct and trying get forward,” says Louis Lancaster, who worked with Sancho during his time in Watford’s academy.

“You can play the game of football or you can contribute to it. There’s a difference. 

“I’ve seen lots of youth players get the ball and make 100 simple passes in a game and end up with a 95% success rate. All they’re looking at is those stats. They’ve just played a game of football; they haven’t actually contributed to it with an important pass or by doing anything decisive.

“It’s better to have a player with an 80% pass success rate because they’ve played it forward and created chances. Jadon was like that. He’d always look to make something happen: to score, to beat a man, to create.”

Sancho spent the early years of his life in London, growing up on an estate in Kennington. Hours would go by playing football on the local park, or studying YouTube videos of his idol, Ronaldinho. Despite interest from Arsenal, he joined Watford’s academy as an eight-year-old.

Though he would later form part of Lancaster’s Under-15 side, his former coach first witnessed Sancho’s exceptional technical ability during the summer of 2013. School holidays meant that some Watford academy players were unable to attend training sessions. With numbers dwindling, the kids who were available trained together instead of in their respective age groups.

“Jadon would have been 13,” Lancaster recalls. “Physically, though, he looked younger. I remember observing and the things he was doing on the ball seemed so natural to him. 

“Everything he did was very comfortable and easy. The thing was, he was up against 16-year-olds but was still the best player.

“I couldn’t wait to work with him in my team.”

Sancho’s ability to shine while alongside older, more physically developed players saw him move up an age group, joining Lancaster’s Under-15s a year ahead of schedule. He thrived with the step up, showing on numerous occasions that he was capable of moments of outstanding individual brilliance.

“We had a few games against Arsenal, who are fantastic at that age group,” Lancaster adds. “One of those games I remember particularly well, as it was 1-1 with a few minutes left to play. 

“Jadon picked up the ball, went in and out of two players and put it in the top corner. This was a big game and the kind of moment that convinced me he was something really special.”

Though Sancho’s qualities with a ball at his feet were already clear at this point, Lancaster stresses that his personality has been equally important in his rise to stardom.

“He was a humble kid and fantastic to work with,” he explains. “But he always believed in his ability and wanted to learn more.

“Being moved up an age group might be intimidating for a lot of young players. Some prefer to be the big fish in the small pond but Jadon wasn’t fazed. He saw it as an opportunity. He wanted that challenge all the time and it had to be there.

“Sometimes there would be 16 kids at training so we’d split for games of 8v8. To make it more difficult I might alter it to make it 10v6. While a lot of players didn’t want to be on the team of six because the challenge was too much, Jadon didn’t care. He relished it.”

Despite his tender years, Sancho was firmly focused on his own development and highly ambitious. In one of his first meetings with Lancaster, he explained how he planned to play for one of Europe’s top clubs and the England national team 'to make his family proud'.

“I’ll never forget the way he said it. He looked me dead in the eye and meant every word. He was right, too.”

Sancho’s ambition and need to better himself saw him leave Watford in 2015 to join Manchester City’s academy. Having helped them reach the final of the FA Youth Cup in 2017, the winger - along with Phil Foden and Brahim Díaz - was tipped to break into City’s senior side by the club’s chairman, Khaldoon al-Mubarak.

Despite this, Sancho, still just 17 at the time, had grown frustrated at a lack of realistic first team opportunities. Although Pep Guardiola wanted him to stay at City, he rejected a professional contract at The Etihad, signing for Dortmund in August 2017.

“Leaving City and the chance to work with one of the best managers in the world in Guardiola would not have been an easy decision to make for him at 17 years of age. It would’ve been easier to stay, but Jadon doesn’t think like that," says Lancaster.

“Again, it comes back to his character. He didn’t really care if other people didn’t believe in him - those opinions didn’t matter. He always believed in himself. 

“That’s what’s got him where he is now. He knows he’s good enough, and that’s what counts.”

So far, Sancho has been vindicated in his decision to leave Manchester. Having broken into the Dortmund first team at the beginning of the season, the 18-year-old has scored seven times - most memorably the winning goal in the Revierderby against Schalke - and is among the leading assist makers in the Bundesliga. He is undoubtedly contributing, not just playing.

Lancaster, who has recently been appointed as the head coach of the Taiwan national team and has also worked in China since leaving Watford, has fond memories of his time working with the young Sancho. His extraordinary ability and need for constant challenge, he says, made him improve as a coach.

“Honestly, I’ve got to say thank you to him. He made me a far better coach. You’ve only got to look what’s happened to my career since working with Jadon. How many English coaches get their Pro Licence at 33 or get the chance to go abroad at such a young age? He helped me enormously.”

Lancaster was able to interview Sancho, then at City, as part of gaining his Pro Licence. He remains in contact with the player and his father, who he says has played an important role in guiding his son through the early years of his career.

Sancho is now rightly regarded as one of the most exciting young forwards in European football and well worthy of his place in Gareth Southgate’s England team. Just like his hero Ronaldinho, he is even the subject of a few YouTube compilations himself these days.

His talent can help him reach the elite level, but there is more to Sancho’s incredible journey than what he can do with a football. Beyond the flicks, feints and fleet-footedness, there is a steely determination and unshakable belief in himself. And given what he has already achieved in such a short space of time, who knows where this might take him in the years to come?

Louis Lancaster's E-Book, You Can Run But You Can’t Hide is available now. It features 50 beautifully designed 1v1 and 2v2 practices which football coaches can use at all. For more information, click here.