It took well over a year, but Manchester United finally landed their priority signing Jadon Sancho.
The South Londoner, 21, who grew up in the Guinness Trust Building tenement block on the tough Kennington estate and came to Old Trafford via youth football at Watford and Manchester City before 137 games for Borussia Dortmund, was the one United coveted.
Sancho fills a gap in the squad and though versatile, he is expected to primarily play on the right of the attack. United did consider other options and spoke to representatives of players including Bayern Munich’s Kingsley Coman, but Sancho was the one United thought was worth waiting for, the player who had honed his skills in what he and his friends called Blue Park, a court-cum-cage pitch with bright blue basketball hoops.
Sancho and his mates would be there every night after school, playing five v five and practising tricks. They prized nutmegging opponents rather than scoring goals, these street footballers from South London’s football factory. Sancho was playing with kids twice his age when he was five and two of the others, Reiss Nelson and Ian Carlo Poveda, who also went to Manchester City, progressed through a team run in Kennington Park by Poveda’s Spanish father called Latin FC. Their coach encouraged them to play with both feet and was serious about ball control.
Sancho lost his baby brother when he was five and, when he was old enough, had the words to a poem he had written after his death tattooed on to his arm. They read: “You and me will stay together, you made us happy, you brought us joy, you were a special baby boy. I couldn’t wait til you grew up, teach you football and win the cup. But you are gone, what can I do? Baby brother we love you.”
Sancho wanted to do his brother proud. He did. He stood out in games and was on Watford’s books from the age of seven having been spotted in a development centre in Battersea Park. He went to board at Watford’s partner school, Harefield Academy, and while it took him away from some of the negative influences in Kennington, he hated it. He was at Watford until 14 when City signed him and now he is back in Manchester.
Stung by overpaying in either wages or transfer fees from Angel di Maria to Alexis Sanchez, United were never going to pay the €120 million demanded by Dortmund a year ago. But they bided their time and in February were informed that Dortmund would be willing to go considerably lower for a player who would be out of contract in 2022. All along, Sancho continued to improve and gain Champions League and international experience. He has scored 50 goals and made an astonishing 64 assists in those 137 games for Dortmund.
From United’s perspective, the club are delighted to be signing one of Europe’s top attacking talents for a deal completed in time to allow Sancho to settle in during the pre-season ahead of their Premier League start against Leeds on August 14.
He fits their strategy of recruiting the best young talent with their peak years ahead of them, complemented by more experienced players, and a core of homegrown Academy graduates. And he should fit into the fast, fluid, attacking football which has made Old Trafford a great stage for so many exciting wingers through the decades. That hasn’t always been apparent in the post Ferguson years but Ole Gunnar Solskjaer will push for more of it when he’s confident he has the right players to do so.
“Jadon epitomises the type of player I want to bring to the club, he is a forward player in the best traditions of Manchester United,” said Solskjaer after the signing was confirmed on Friday.
“He will form an integral part of my squad for years to come and we look forward to seeing him blossom. His goals and assists records speak for themselves and he will also bring tremendous pace, flair and creativity to the team. Old Trafford will give him the platform he needs to release his untapped talent and perform at the highest level. For a player of his age, Jadon has already achieved a great deal and showed the courage to go and prove himself abroad. We all look forward to welcoming Jadon to the squad as we prepare for the new campaign.”
United now have Edinson Cavani, Anthony Martial, Mason Greenwood, Bruno Fernandes and Sancho in attack. With Sancho signing, United feel they have remained disciplined and not breached budgets and while the €85m fee is well down on what was asked a year ago, it is one of the largest inbound transfers in the history of the club and the Premier League, and by far the largest deal in Europe so far this summer.
United feel their ability to make a signing of this size after 16 months without matchday revenue demonstrates the resilience of their business model and that Sancho’s arrival takes the club’s net investment in players over the past three summers to €295m, more than any other major European club over the same period.
Fans are seldom satisfied with one signing in a close season and manager Solskjaer wants to strengthen his defence. United want to bring in Real Madrid’s Rafael Varane and have long understood that the French international wants to join them. But personal terms have not been agreed, nor any fee with Real Madrid, for someone who is out of contract in a year. Madrid have also offered Varane a contract extension.
For now, it’s Sancho that fans can look forward to.
“I’ll always be grateful to Dortmund for giving me the opportunity to play first team football, although I always knew that I would return to England one day,” said Sancho, who made his Dortmund debut at 17.
“The chance to join Manchester United is a dream come true and I just cannot wait to perform in the Premier League. This is a young and exciting squad and I know, together, we can develop into something special to bring the success that the fans deserve. I am looking forward to working with the Manager and his coaching team to further develop my game.”