A touch, a turn and a searing explosion of pace. That is all it took for Greg Walsh to realise that Manchester City had something very special on their hands.
“Jadon Sancho was unbelievable. Unbelievable. This kid came over to tackle him and his touch… it was like the defender wasn’t even there,” Walsh, a former scout for the Premier League champions, tells HITC.
While most 15-year-olds are sampling their first sip of cheap supermarket cider and confronting the terror of trigonometry, Jadon Sancho was ripping apart full-backs two, even three years older than him at Manchester City’s space-age Etihad Campus.
“What an absolute talent. Explosive, direct, that variety of skills; he had it all. He always played above his age group and he must have only been about 15 when I saw him,” says Walsh, unmistakeable awe in his voice as he reminisces about the first time witnessed arguably the most coveted teenager in the game today.
If Diego Simeone played with a knife clenched between his teeth, this Camberwell-born teenager with his goofy grin and ombre tips seemed to stroll through games with a cigar in his mouth.
“You could see him light a match off a defender’s back,” Walsh quips about a player who, even before his 16th birthday, was demonstrating the kind of ruthless efficiency that separates good players from great ones.
“It was effortless. Jadon would draw a player in and then go past him. His decision making in the final third, his work rate; just a joy to watch. An absolute joy.
“He’s full of confidence in his own ability. If I was going to write a scouting report on him, that would be the conclusion.”
Though even Walsh could be forgiven for being taken aback by how quickly City’s one-that-got-away has exploded onto the scene. As is typical for Sancho, everything has happened at breakneck speed.
These days, he is one of the first names on the team-sheet for England and Borussia Dortmund, with records tumbling like Jenga blocks on a bouncy castle.
In September, he became the youngest player ever to reach 15 Bundesliga goals at the age of just 19.
And, just last week, Sancho finished second behind Atletico Madrid’s £113 million sensation Joao Felix in the prestigious Golden Boy awards, keeping Matthijs de Ligt, Erling Braut Haaland and former City team-mate Phil Foden off the podium.
Just 24 hours after that, he was celebrating a stunning goal away at Barcelona in the Champions League.
Pep Guardiola may boast the most fearsome arsenal of attacking weapons in the game right now but even he must look back rue the day Sancho decided to swap sky blue for yellow and black in 2017. According to The Telegraph, City would welcome their prodigal son back with open arms – though they will have to pay over £100 million for the privilege with Liverpool, Barcelona and Manchester United circling too.
The grass isn’t always greener
Sancho isn’t the only former City speedster pulling up trees on the banks of the Ruhr. Rabbi Matondo joined Dortmund’s blue collar, coal-digging neighbours Schalke in an £11 million deal ten months ago and he too has gone from strength to strength under David Wagner at the Veltins Arena.
But for every Sancho and Matondo, there is a cautionary tale of a young player perhaps demanding too much too soon. Brahim Diaz, for example.
Almost a year after swapping Manchester for Madrid in an eye-watering £22 million deal, Diaz must be wondering whether he was right to give into wanderlust and follow the footsteps of Sancho rather than Foden and .
With Gareth Bale and Eden Hazard, plus Samba starlets Rodrygo and Vinicius, for competition at the Santiago Bernabau, the 20-year-old has played just 18 minutes of La Liga football all season. Speculation suggests he could be loaned out in the New Year.
Looking back, Walsh admits that Diaz never quite blew him away during his formative years at City, even if the Spaniard did eventually go on to make 15-first-team appearances under Pep Guardiola to Sancho’s none.
“I found Brahim really frustrating at the time. He used to do too much,” says Walsh, who has also unearthed rough gems for Watford, Birmingham City and Crewe amongst others.
“He’s one of those small, technical players, great balance, change of pace, but he just never seemed to release it and seemed to fall over the ball in critical areas.”
For Diaz and Sancho, it was their decision making which set them apart.
Nevertheless, the Spaniard’s drawn-out departure was still a major blow for the Premier League champions, especially with Sancho and Matondo slipping through the net too.
It’s no wonder that City are desperate to tie the grandson of club legends Mike Doyle and Glyn Pardoe down to a new long-term contract as soon as possible (TEAMtalk).
A tenacious throwback of a midfielder who has been thundering into tackles at City’s academy since the age of 8, Tommy Doyle has greatness flowing through his veins.
But if the now-18-year-old was feeling the pressure of living up to two of the club’s greatest ever players, he didn’t show it during a classy and composed debut in October’s EFL Cup win against Southampton. In fact, he looked at home alongside Sergio Aguero, Riyad Mahrez, Bernando Silva and Gabriel Jesus, walzing through the game with such poise that he could have been wearing slippers rather than studs.
Like Sancho, Doyle’s natural talent shone through well before his first-team breakthrough. Though the former, Walsh points out, is more likely to execute a perfectly timed sliding tackle than a textbook rabona.
“Tommy is a completely different player to Jadon Sancho,” Walsh says of a fair-haired enforcer who was running the show for City’s U16s at just 14 years old.
“He’s a real old school central midfielder. Even when he was 15, you wouldn’t have wanted to play against him. He was physical and he'd have no problem playing against grown men at senior level."
It is Doyle’s technical ability, however, that caught the eye of arguably the most influential coach of the modern era. Guardiola had ‘no doubts’ about throwing him in from the start against an experienced Southampton side – and Doyle barely put a foot wrong on the night.
“He’s one of the best of his age in Europe. He’s phenomenal,” Walsh says.
If Doyle goes on to have even half the career his legendary grandfathers enjoyed in sky blue, Manchester City’s academy can toast a job well done.
You win some and you lose some after all and, while Sancho, Matondo and Diaz felt they had to leave in order to fulfil their potential, the future of City’s midfield is just waiting to be unleashed.
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