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Saturday, June 22, 2024

How Sancho got his swagger back: From United outcast to Dortmund hero

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The Sancho Smile. They talk a lot about that at Borussia Dortmund and how it holds the key to unlocking a player who, when at his free-flowing best, is synonymous in these parts with flair and adventure.‘Jadon is a player who needs to smile,’ Dortmund boss Edin Terzic said after Sancho’s match-winning display to knock out PSV Eindhoven during his team’s fairytale run to the Champions League final.‘If he’s smiling then he’s going to shine on the pitch and it’s really important for us that he can perform like this.’ The importance of that smile, something that was non-existent in his final days at Manchester United — where he was banished from the first team building, made to eat lunch out of a black plastic container and trained with just a coach for company — is not lost on Sancho either.‘I am happy to be playing football again with a smile,’ he said this week with the air of a man who has found a reciprocal love in the game again. ‘I’m just happy to help the team and they’ve helped me, so it’s a win-win. Jadon Sancho’s smile is seen as the key to unlocking his best form at Borussia Dortmund   ‘I am happy to be playing football again with a smile,’ he said this week ahead of the Champions League final Dortmund face Real Madrid at Wembley on Saturday after beating PSG in the semi-finals ‘I feel pretty amazing. It hasn’t really hit me yet that I’m in the final, but I’m sure it will. I’m just delighted.’It has taken time to get that smile back, given what Sancho went through at United.Left out by manager Erik ten Hag for the defeat by Arsenal in September, it was put down to poor training, something Sancho would not accept. He went on the offensive. ‘Please don’t believe everything you read! I will not allow people saying things that are completely untrue, I have conducted myself in training very well this week,’ he said in an explosive statement seen by millions.‘I believe there are other reasons for this matter that I won’t go into, I’ve been a scapegoat for a long time, which isn’t fair!’Again, the smile was a point of reference.‘All I want to do is play football with a smile on my face and contribute to my team,’ he said. ‘I respect all decisions that are made by the coaching staff, I play with fantastic players and am grateful to do so, which I know every week is a challenge. I will continue to fight for this badge no matter what!’Accusing his manager of lying saw him cast aside. He was given the chance to say sorry privately, but no apology came — Sancho felt he had trained well — and soon Ten Hag would shut down any mention of the player at press conferences. For him, Sancho had disrespected his authority and was no longer his concern.It became a thorny issue for United, the player having no game-time forthcoming and his value decreasing at an alarming rate. Sancho stood up for himself — as Raphael Varane, Casemiro and others did this season — only the blowback was an existence in isolation at Carrington. Sancho trained with Adam Lawrence’s Under 18s and sources described him as a ‘delight’ to work with. It may not have been the trademark smile the £73million man is known for but he was, as one source put it, a ‘top professional’. A public spat with Erik ten Hag led to Sancho being ostracised from Man United training  Some believe casting aside Sancho was foolish while £86m Antony has flattered to deceiveMany United fans have sided with Ten Hag, pointing to the time Sancho hit the headlines for a 3am gaming session with a supporter.But his run to the Champions League final, all while £86m Antony has flattered to deceive at Old Trafford, means that some consider casting Sancho aside over-zealous and foolish.Dortmund watched with interest and they were not alone. But Terzic and sporting director Sebastian Kehl went a step further with texts and FaceTime calls. Terzic, in particular, has been described by one source in Dortmund as a real ‘mentor’ for a player in need of a steady hand at the tiller.Their pitch to him was simple — bring the ‘SanShow’, as it has been dubbed by German newspapers, back to town. The poster boy slot was open for business.‘For the fans, Sancho still epitomises the deep longing for special players,’ Christian Goop, of the Westdeutsche Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper, told Mail Sport. ‘They really appreciate that Sancho identifies strongly with Dortmund and they cheer when he makes another brilliant move on the pitch. For the fans, Sancho is a hero.’Sancho could not get back to Dortmund quickly enough. United had recruitment guru Matt Hargreaves lead the negotiations and a loan fee, including a salary contribution, was agreed at £3m, a figure that will rise to over £4m after reaching the Champions League final.Dortmund saw a return on that investment before a ball had even been kicked.Fans flocked to the stadium megastore to get a ‘Sancho 10’ shirt — 5,000 in the first week to be precise. Sancho fever brought in almost £500,000 in seven days. Dortmund manager Edin Terzic has been described as a mentor during Sancho’s loan The club recouped £500,000 in the first week as his return as fans flocked to buy his shirt  If he was in any doubt about his hero status, here was a timely reminder. Sancho, aside from resuming his role as dressing room DJ, is a star others are eager to follow.‘He is special. We all see it in the dressing room,’ goalkeeper Gregor Kobel said after the 2-0 win over PSV in March. ‘He has a lot of talents. I am really, really happy for him that he scored again and I hope he can build momentum.‘I am really, really happy that he is here and really grateful for the talents he brings.’There has been a shift too. While the Sancho ‘magic’ has not revealed itself as often as it did first time round — he has just three goals and three assists since returning — he is different now, choosing to go in for training on his days off rather than take a private jet back to England, as he once used to.Even this week, in a rare video on Instagram to his 10million followers, there was Sancho, alone in the gym putting in extra work. Sources in Dortmund have been ‘blown away’ by his professionalism. The reputation of being a troublemaker or a difficult player to work with is, they say, a shoe that does not fit.At their Strobelallee Training Centre it has become habit for Sancho, usually one of the last to emerge, to fist bump every media member, executive and club photographer. It is a little thing, but one of the examples sources routinely point to with regards to his humility and courteousness.Sancho is now out of the four-star L’Arrivee hotel that was his home when he returned.The 70-room, £170-a-night hotel was facilitated for Sancho by Dortmund’s integration officer, Joel Kanz, one of the key figures helping him adapt back into life in the Ruhr region. Sancho has become the dressing room DJ, goes in on his days off, and has ‘blown away’ coaches with his professionalism  He has moved out of his hotel and is in an apartment, able to look towards a future in GermanyNow in an apartment, Sancho is able to look towards a future in Germany.Marco Reus and Terzic are the keys, though, as much as Kanz. When Sancho put pen to paper on his six-month loan deal, it was Reus he wanted to be sat next to in the dressing room. Only joining mid-season, it is not so easy to re-organise a set-up already in full flow. Now he sits in the back right corner between substitute goalkeeper Alexander Meyer and Ramy Bensebaini.With Terzic, the calls were loud to drop Sancho when the going got tough and the goals and assists were not forthcoming. But Terzic knew keeping the faith and facilitating that smile was key.‘Terzic is the most important figure for him at the club,’ Goop said. ‘He has been very patient with him, letting him play from the start even in bad moments. Sancho has taken on this fight and I think that was very important to build up his confidence.’His goal against PSV in the last 16 was his first Champions League goal in 840 days and his first for Dortmund since May 2021. From there it was a dazzling performance in the first leg of their Champions League semi-final against Paris Saint-Germain that really set tongues wagging.Sancho finished that match, which Dortmund won 1-0, with 12 successful dribbles, the most completed in a Champions League match this season.It was also the most by a player in a Champions League semi-final since Lionel Messi in 2008 against United (16) and the most in the competition’s history by an Englishman.Sancho had his swagger back. And when he climbed on to the dressing room table in the Parc des Princes to blast out ‘Someone Like You’ by Adele, his smile was as grand as the Champs Elysees. Sancho wanted to sit next to Marco Reus in the dressing room on his return to Dortmund  With two years left on his £250,000-per-week United deal, the future is complex to figure out ‘We knew Jadon had the skills to perform, to be decisive and to bring us to another level,’ Kehl said. ‘He is such a great person, a great player, and the experience he had in Manchester helped him to perform now. He will be very important for us on Saturday. He will show the world that Jadon Sancho is really back.’What the future holds for Sancho in Dortmund and in Manchester remains up in the air. Talks have been parked until after Saturday’s Wembley final and with two years left to run on his £250,000-a-week contract, it will not be easy to find a solution. United sources say no decision has been made, even if it is clear that there is no way back if Ten Hag remains in place.Dortmund have other needs too, namely a striker, centre back and a full back. Money will only stretch so far and they cannot spend it all on Sancho.But a way out from his United exile seemed unlikely, as did a run to the Champions League final with Dortmund after they were drawn in a Group of Death with AC Milan, Newcastle and PSG.With the Sancho Smile as currency, don’t bet against Dortmund pulling another ace from the pack to bring him back for good.

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