South London has produced a plethora of stars, but perhaps none bigger than Jadon Sancho. This is the story of his roots in the sport and the city.
London’s utopian mirage is painted by shimmering skyscrapers. Million-pound lavish mansions. Terraced houses with elaborate facades and towering urbanised flats.
But in the alcoves, hidden behind the gentrified areas of the city, there are the estates.
The dilapidated buildings with weathered down brick walls and worn-out interiors resemble no signs of the wealth accumulated by those who live on the utopian side.
Areas like South London are culturally diverse, stricken by poverty and often underfunded by the local councils. It is here where the divide between London’s rich and poor are most stark.
Yet amidst the poverty, South London is also a hotbed for talent. Bright artists, sportsmen and young minds have emerged into the echelons of Britain’s cultural sphere in recent years.
And perhaps no industry has benefitted as greatly from the newfound talent as the game of football.
The little over ten mile stretch of South London regularly provides more than 10% of the players playing in the Premier League via the Guardian.
Players like Joe Gomez, Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Eberechi Eze and Tammy Abraham are only a few names who are currently excelling in England’s top flight from the region.
In the local boroughs of the South, street football thrives. Kids play in cages, parking lots and parks until sundown.
There are very rarely rules, the concentration is on flair and the freedom of expression.
In tight corners and with little space, the emphasis is on fast movement, quick skills and sudden burst of genius.
It’s also often physical. Players have to grow up and are forced to mature quicker in street football. There can be huge age gaps. 8 year olds playing against teenagers and so on.
Here the street rules. Competition is fierce and you have to adapt quick.
It is an exemplary preparation for the equally tough environment of professional football.
The adventure playground
Undoubtedly one of the biggest stars to have emerged from the region in the past decade is Jadon Sancho.
Sancho hails from Kennington. A culturally diverse area with strong community values.
‘It’s a bit of rough place, but everyone knows each other. It’s very close-knit,’ A social worker and football coach from the area, Norman Dawkins, recalls to First Time Finish.
Jadon’s parents came from Trinidad. Both hardworking people who worked tirelessly to provide for Jadon. It was his mother who first brought a young Sancho to Norman and the Frederick’s Adventure Playground .
‘The adventure playground is for children who need somewhere to play and feel safe,’ Norman explains. ‘We used to take them camping, we even took them to Paris three or for times.’
‘Jadon loved where we were because we had a five aside pitch so he used to play there and try out all these tricks with his friends.’
Norman’s community project has been around for decades dating back to the 90s. He has worked with players like Rio Ferdinand and Ademola Lookman prior to Sancho so he knows how to spot talent.
‘I’ve known Rio since he was 8 years old, he used to come to the adventure playground. We used to have tournaments there between other South London regions all the time.’
The playground served as a pivotal hub for the children in the community.
‘It was important for them to get to know each other, and we made them feel safe. If there were any problems they could talk to us. With school work or things like that. Parents brought their children to us because they knew we would look after them.’
During Norman’s 30 years of work he developed the sobriquet of uncle. Around the region that is how is he referred to nowadays and he keeps strong ties with his former proteges.
The adventure playground was important to cloister the children from the outside world and potentially harmful influences.
However, it was also an environment where Jadon and others could grow and learn.
Norman is an astute coach. He was instantly impressed by the young Jadon Sancho.
‘The way he played football, he was ahead of a lot of people in his age group. Jadon looked like he had played football forever. He could take on older boys and men. He did things that were crazy with the ball.’
Of course Jadon was still young and there was a lot to learn too.
‘One thing I kept stressing to the boys is the importance of tracking back when they lose the ball and communicating with one another. But mainly I just told them to enjoy the game.’
In addition to that Norman also instilled a winning mentality in his players.
‘Jadon never liked losing. He still doesn’t. That’s partly my fault I think,’ Norman admits with a chuckle. ‘I used to drill this mentality into them that when we went to tournaments we were there to win not participate.’
‘I put together a team to represent the borough for the Suffolk Youth Games and we wont it. Jadon and Reis Nelson (Arsenal) scored about 24 goals between them in 10 games.’
Love for the game
‘Jadon always had a football in his hand or in between his feet. We made sure we had enough balls for the boys to play with,’ Normal recalls proudly.
‘He had this huge belief in himself that he was good enough when he played. And all his friends believed in him too. They followed him everywhere.’
When Jaden Sancho wasn’t playing his mind was still occupied by the game.
‘He was always learning and watching ex-footballers’ skills and tricks on the internet,’ Norman remembers.
That dedication and devotion to his profession shone through on the pitch.
‘The opposition teams used to put two or three players on him, but they still couldn’t get the ball off him. He was that good. He was so quick with the ball.’
‘The great thing about him was that he was happy when he scored, but he was equally happy when he got an assist.’
It’s certainly a theme which has followed Jadon in his professional career too.
As has his mentality.
‘When he lost he always picked himself up and wanted to get better,’ Norman recalls.
The hallmark of Jadon Sancho’s career has been his decision to move abroad.
Sancho’s move from Manchester City to Borussia Dortmund created many furrowed eyebrows. But with the benefit of hindsight it is fair to say it was a turning point in Britain’s modern football history and made Jadon Sancho a pioneer.
‘I was a bit worried for him but I think it’s the best decision he ever made,’ Norman admits.
Many young English footballers have now attempted to emulate his footsteps by moving abroad. Notably many of Norman’s previous South London boys from the adventure playground.
Players like Reis Nelson, who grew up alongside Sancho under the stewardship of Norman, went onto play for Hoffenheim in Germany.
Ademola Lookman, who was also spotted by Norman and a frequent visitor of the adventure playground, excelled for RB Leipzig.
To see the achievements of his boys fills Norman with immense pride. He still keeps in touch with them regularly, especially during their time off when they come back to visit the community.
He hopes to see Jadon Sancho make a return to England next summer like Nelson and Lookman to play in the Premier League.
‘I’m hoping maybe he can become another Maradona, maybe at Man Utd or Chelsea,’ Norman says. ‘He needs to come back to the Premiership.’
Of course before that, Jadon Sancho will have the opportunity to represent England on home soil and his home city at the European Championships this summer.
People from Kennington will be watching with gleeful eyes.
With the emergence of Eberechi Eze this season, another product of South London’s football production line, the hope is that many will follow in Sancho’s footsteps.
Sadly, the Frederik’s Adventure Playground which provided Sancho’s formative experiences of the sport and almost thirty years of footballing legacy, no longer exists.
‘The adventure playground is gone now,’ Norman concludes. ‘The government decided they wanted to put their money somewhere else. The truth is they want to knock the place down and build property.’
Despite the challenges, Norman continues his work in other facilities around the borough.
But the adventure playground’s demise is a stark reminder of the persistent gentrification of London. And the increasing obstacles standing in the way of those in poverty and social work.
With its demolition who knows how many Sanchos, Lookmans, Nelsons and Ferdinands will be lost?