The Road Less Travelled

Updated: 25/02/2024

I'm not usually enthused by the prospect of publicly building up young players. Apart from all the immediately apparent media catalysed pitfalls, there's also something uncooked about it. Like pulling bread out of an oven before its properly baked simply because you like the smell. But then came Jadon Sancho.

Sancho's rise bears all the hallmarks of the right direction of travel. For himself, he is gaining attention for his football. He is surviving well in a new country, adapting to the rigours of demands that he was not schooled in from birth. He has (if only for a fleeting moment) reached the sort statistical notoriety that is reserved for people that he may well have regarded as career benchmarks. Sancho's 5 assists to 124 minute ratio at Borussia Dortmund is Messiesque

These excellences are for him. He ought to enjoy the pleasure they bring but more importantly the window they offer him to reflect on the possibility of his own potential if he nourishes it with work and attention to the detail of his profession. And by the way, who wouldn't want to play in front of Dortmund's Sudtribune? This single tier end so large it makes anything English football has to offer seem like a token of nod of appreciation to its greatness.

But as for English football, Sancho's story is rich with example. As the noughties years went on and the national team's relative failures became more intensely felt, the analysis focused consistently away from a key issue. The story revolved around effort, personnel, courage and other intangiables of personality rather than zooming in on a hard fact- where were the Englishmen abroad?

If I was to name the number of Italian players to play for Chelsea alone since the start of the Premier League, I would fancy my chances at having a number pushing a Premier league squad. However, if I was to count the number of English players who've played in, say, Serie A (in its entirety) since I was born then I would not be confident of enough to number a first 11 and substitutes.

It is story repeated across the European continent. We knew off by heart almost all the players that had left our shores to play in the European Union. Paul Gascogne, Gary Lineker, David Platt and company treated almost like Walter Raleigh and Vasco Da Gama for their sense of adventure in playing less than two hours flight away.

The Italia 90 icons were followed in the modern era and (with the same intrigue) by the likes of David Beckham and Michael Owen. And the intrigue was well justified, because so few English players made that excursion. Let alone the coaches. Bobby Robson, and Terry Venables being almost folklore until the modern abridged trips of Steve McClaren and a nod to David Moyes who flew the managerial Saltire at Real Sociedad.

Let me therefore state the obvious. Was it any wonder that we went through such tribulation in our national team game? When other countries were scattering their coaches and players abroad, their players and coaches were learning and sharing new cultures and new techniques to blend with their own.

They were seasoning their national teams. England by contrast was learning through players who were playing alongside already teammates almost entirely assimilated to the English way (with the exception of their technical brilliances at the top clubs). European competition and, especially, the Champions League will always teach you something but a new language and new culture will surely take that schooling up a notch.

Of course, as a selfish supporter, I never wanted Frank Lampard to leave Chelsea even for a top continental European club. However that doesn't stop me wondering whether his generation and those before him might have been even better players if they had done so in greater number.

Jadon Sancho's example might be an early test case for a new generation of English player who can answer this hypothetical. And in doing so, perhaps they might steer England to the sort of unchartered waters of success that have been so foreign to our national team.

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