England youth teams have enjoyed an unprecedented six months of success. Winning two World Cups and a European Championship at U17, U20, and U19 level respectively, the excitement surrounding the nation’s future is palpable.
Players, managers, philosophies and even St George’s Park have all received their fair share of praise, with some individuals having the spotlight thrust upon them more than others. Phil Foden—the Stockport Iniesta—is the latest to be cast as the hero.
A Golden Ball-winning display in the final against Spain saw the delightful Manchester City midfielder transform into the poster boy of a new generation, the harbinger of success at senior level. His technical ability combined with his size, or rather his lack of it, signals the change in emphasis and the ushering in of a wave of talent that will win World Cups for years to come.
The narrative is hyperbolic, but such exaggeration is understandable. After all, he was magnificent. And yet in all the euphoria surrounding the triumphant U17 squad, one special player has been forgotten.
It took sixteen days in May 2017 for Jadon Sancho to announce himself as one of the brightest talents at U17 level—using the European U17 Championship to showcase his frightening potential. In the first tournament of what will now be remembered as a famous year for the Young Lions, England’s No.11 dominated. With plenty of hair on his head and even more talent in his boots, Sancho left Croatia with 5 goals and 5 assists in just 456 minutes of football.
Rightly named Best Player for his extraordinary output, the fact that England succumbed to an all-too-familiar penalty shootout defeat is probably why his individual feats were not celebrated in a similar fashion to Foden's. Phil Foden represented a triumphant England team whilst Sancho’s efforts were in vain. The European U17 Championship final was the start of England’s dominance, not the crowning moment.
What followed was a period of uncertainty, gossip and surprise. Such brilliant displays merited attention, yet Jadon Sancho began to receive it for all the wrong reasons. In August, reports emerged that he was refusing to train with Manchester City after being left out of the club’s pre-season tour.
An unwillingness to sign a professional contract was touted as the primary reason for such tension and despite the ambiguity that surrounded how these events actually unfolded, there was one certain result. This particular 17-year-old was earning a reputation as a rebel, not as a future world beater.
Links with Premier League rivals surfaced—Arsenal and Spurs were both rumoured to be interested—but it was Bundesliga side Borussia Dortmund that swept in. A reported offer of £8m was enough to secure Jadon Sancho’s future and he was immediately handed the No.7 shirt, made more significant due to its previous owner.
Ousmane Dembélé had completed his €105m deal to Barcelona just days earlier after another breakout season in top-flight football. Just as Dortmund had demonstrated their faith in Dembélé with this number the year before, they were now entrusting it to another bright prospect, a player three-years his junior.
Such trust appeared non-existent at first, however. Sancho had not played a single minute for the Dortmund first team before being called up for the U17 World Cup in India. The fact he had been used exclusively in the UEFA Youth League made the next development even more surprising. The Bundesliga side would only let their new prospect take part in the Group Stages of the competition, whether England qualified or not.
Steve Cooper’s side sliced their first three opponents into ribbons, sailing through to the knockout stages in impressive fashion. Unsurprisingly, as he had done in Croatia, Jadon Sancho starred. Forming a devastating partnership with Phil Foden and Chelsea youngster Callum Hudson-Odoi especially, he finished with three goals and two assists which punctuated a trio of excellent displays.
His subsequent return to Germany was met with disappointment for the most part, but also frustration and anger. Steve Cooper was left baffled by Borussia Dortmund’s decision, especially given Sancho’s lack of game time before the tournament combined with his visible importance to his country.
In typical fashion, the winger would eventually make an appearance for his new side, becoming the first ever English player to represent them in the Bundesliga and the sixth youngest in their history in the process. England meanwhile dismantled the USA 5-1 in the first knockout game, beginning what would be a march to the final in dominant fashion. Without Sancho.
A penalty shootout win vs. Japan and a clinical victory against a heavily-favoured Brazil saw England set up a rematch with the Spain side who triumphed against them in May’s European U17 Championship final. The match that followed was spectacular, the revenge for England sweet.
Coming back from two goals down, Phil Foden scored twice, putting on a clinic in the art of dribbling and incisive passing. His wonderful display was the perfect metaphor for England’s summer: incredible talent finally able to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat rather than surrender it in the usual fashion. Tweets flooded the timeline congratulating England and eulogising Foden: he was the Golden Boy of a World Cup-winning team, Jadon Sancho the Golden Boy of the runners-up.
The last few months for the now Borussia Dortmund winger have been equal parts spectacular and controversial. He has not added to his history-making 16 minutes whilst Phil Foden has played 202; etching his own name in the record books on more than one occasion and collecting BBC Young Sports Personality of the Year as a result.
Players of similar talent and potential have had polar opposite starts to their first taste of senior football.
The truth about Jadon Sancho's exit about Manchester City will remain unclear, and whether he would have experienced the jubilation of winning a World Cup should he have stayed in England is simply speculation.
But, few should be left doubting that Jadon Sancho is one of football's most exciting talents. You'd be foolish to forget that.
Robbed is perhaps too strong a word when describing his absence from England’s World Cup triumph. After all, it was his due to his performances in May that earned him a high-profile move and it would be bizarre to lament them because of what would later happen. But when considering he was very much the protagonist in kick-starting an entire summer of success, it seems cruel for him to be excluded from the culmination and celebration of it.
Whether a victim of his own talent, his own ambition, or even his attitude; the one redeeming truth is that for a player of Jadon Sancho’s talent, the U17 World Cup will certainly not be his only chance to lift a trophy. Not will it be his only chance to dazzle and delight on national television.
But as the praise pours in for Foden, Brewster and St George’s Park, it’s worth remembering how fantastic the forgotten member of this famous generation really is.