Idolising Ronaldinho, almost signing for Arsenal and learning in Watford - Jadon Sancho's rise
Sancho could have signed for Arsenal as a child. Over a decade on, he prepares to face them for the first time at senior level.
Amidst the turbulence of the last fortnight, Jadon Sancho has offered Manchester United a reason for optimism. Little over 48 hours on from Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's painfully drawn-out dismissal as manager was confirmed, his first United goal secured an important Champions League victory away to Villarreal. Days later, he followed up with his first Premier League goal at Stamford Bridge on Sunday afternoon.
It has been a slow start to life at United for Sancho. Having finally clinched his transfer from Borussia Dortmund in the summer, his transition has not been helped by his new team's dismal early-season form, with illness and injury also complicating matters. His two goals, however, have fuelled the sense that Sancho now has lift-off at United. He will hope to continue on this upward trajectory against Arsenal, a side that, had things worked out differently, he might have been playing for - not against - at Old Trafford on Thursday night.
Arsene Wenger (unsurprisingly, given his often-mocked track record for trying to sign a host of top players) has spoken in the past of his failed attempts to lure Sancho to North London prior to his move from Manchester City to Dortmund in 2017. This, however, was not the first time Arsenal were interested in him.
Ose Aibangee had worked as a coach in Arsenal's academy set-up prior to taking the role as Watford's academy director, where he was able to sign up a young Sancho. Having worked for several clubs within the London area over the course of his coaching career, he was well aware of how fiercely competitive the business of signing talented young players was prior to his time with Watford.
"Usually, when Arsenal want a young player, they get him," Aibangee tells JOE. "That's the way it goes."
"I had Bukayo [Saka] with us when he was eight years old at Watford," he remembers. "Arsenal pushed and pushed and eventually, they were able to get him, as usually is the case with players at that age. For that reason, I was surprised we were fortunate enough to get Jadon."
Sancho spent the early years of his life in Kennington, South London. He idolised Ronaldinho, devoting hours to studying YouTube videos of him and putting into action what he had learned at the local parks and playing fields. From a very early age, his talent was turning heads of scouts from across the area.
"He was playing over in South London at the time," Aibangee recalls. "We had scouts all over the place, as all the clubs do in that area. If I remember rightly he was playing in Battersea and one of my scouts who was working out that way identified him quite quickly and told me we needed to act.
"Arsenal were interested, too - very interested. You hear that and you might assume it's a formality. For whatever reason, though, they didn't push as much as they normally would. That was unusual."
Aibangee has remained in contact with Sancho's family, regularly speaking to his father, who has always taken a keen interest in his son's development.
"To be fair, he was very young when he came to us - seven or eight. Jadon's dad was mindful about his progress and wanted to protect him as best he could. He didn't want him going to a bigger club at that time and he's always been good like that. But I'm convinced they would have got him ahead of us if they'd have pushed for it. Perhaps they felt they had players at the time who were the same age and were better than Jadon, but luckily enough for us, we were able to get him."
Sancho remained with Watford until he was 14, tormenting Arsenal on numerous occasions before making the first of his moves to Manchester.
"We had a few games against Arsenal, who are fantastic at that age group," Louis Lancaster, one of Sancho's coaches at Watford, told JOE in 2018. "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."
"The thing was, even with all that talent, he was such a humble kid with it," Aibangee remembers. "He loved football. I know that gets said a lot about young players, but he really did.
"You could see, even then, that he was definitely a talent, but the thing that set him apart was this desire to play. You couldn't get him off the pitch!
"We'd run two sessions in an evening. The first would be between 5 and 6.30, then there'd be another one for the older boys later on. He'd just carry on playing through.
"He was technically very good but my abiding memory was just him wanting to be there as long as possible. He lived for it, and was an absolute pleasure to be around."
And so, over a decade on from Arsenal first passing up the opportunity to sign him as a child, Sancho faces them for the first time at senior level at Old Trafford on Thursday. Should he continue to build on his recent uptick in form, some in North London may find themselves wondering what might have been.