Sancho and Rice: What makes them so special?

(Image courtesy of Marc Atkins/Getty Images)

The London lads with big futures for club and country

As Gareth Southgate named his squad for the first round of Euro 2020 qualifiers this week, two names stood out. Jadon Sancho and Declan Rice are the youngest members of this squad and the names that seem to be echoing through their hometown of London and beyond, as the future of the English national team begins to take shape. Having played against both along their respective journeys of youth development, I have a unique insight on their promise. Both young men were talented then, but in a few short years they have become the two main breakthrough stars of the future of English football. One thing is for certain: the hype is real.

I played against Jadon Sancho a number of times over a succession of years, before Manchester City prized him away from Watford in 2015. At the time he was just 14, but the talent was there for all to see, and had been for some time. Sancho – slight yet technically superb and sharp with and without the ball – was a raw talent possessing gifted ability.

The upbringing he had in South London (with its culture of fast-paced street football ideal for honing technical skills) was evident. Sancho’s quality lies in his pace, his vision and his raw, natural skill. This was apparent at a young age, has developed and is likely to do so further. He would try outrageous skills to beat his opponents at this time – because he could, and because he was better than them. On one occasion, he took the ball from kick off at the start of the game, before effortlessly weaving in and out of my teammates and chipping the ball into the top corner. From the edge of the box. With no touch from his opposition.

Now, as his 19th birthday fast approaches (Monday), Sancho is already a global phenomenon. Having moved up to Manchester in an attempt to further his career, Sancho took yet another brave step in relocating countries altogether and joining Borussia Dortmund in August 2017. This season, he is blazing a trail in the Bundesliga, just as he did for years as the jewel in the crowd of Watford’s academy. Last weekend he got his 12th league assist of the season, in his 19th game, a tally which nobody in Europe can better. In fact, the only player level on this score is the legendary Lionel Messi, who reached the mark in four more games than the young English star.

Back at home, and just over a year Sancho’s senior, Declan Rice has been making his own name. Around five years ago, I came in direct competition with Rice on one occasion as I played against the West Ham under 15 side he was captaining. Even at this stage, it was clear the type of player he could potentially become.

In this game in particular, Rice played as a centre-back, despite the fact he has primarily been called up by Southgate as a holding defensive midfielder. It is this quality – his adaptability and ability to perform well in a variety of positions – that has given him his chance to breakthrough, firstly into the West Ham senior setup and now with England.

With increased introduction to game time for West Ham last season, Rice began to develop as a combative, flexible, defensive-minded player. Come the start of the 2018-2019 season, Rice was a starter for the Hammers. However, Rice’s progress has not come without difficulty. In fact, last week on England’s FATV on Youtube, Rice revealed why the opening game of this season was a turning point for his career, similar to the like of which Sancho faced in switching Manchester for Dortmund.

After the 2018-19 curtain-raiser – a 4-0 defeat at Anfield in which he was hauled off at half time – he considered going on loan as soon as on the flight home back to East London. He recalled the Liverpool game:

“I got dragged at half time. I was thinking on the plane on the way home I’m not cut out for this level – I was thinking about going on loan.”

With a wry chuckle as he looked back at how things have panned out since, Rice added:

“Then we had the Everton game – I’ve played every minute since and haven’t looked back.”

Indeed, he has only looked forward. As Rice’s consistent performances were at the heart of West Ham’s upturn in form, murmurs of a potential England call-up became increasingly loud, but there was one issue. In order to become eligible, Rice had to transfer allegiances from Ireland to England, as his dual-nationality meant he had previously played in the Irish youth setup and a further three times for the senior side. In making his decision with much thought and clarity, Rice demonstrated a maturity above his years which is also prevalent in his accomplished positional sense and flexibility indicating his potential to be a valuable leader of the English team he is now a part of.

Although Rice’s decision to remain at West Ham and force his way in was different to Sancho’s, the result is strikingly similar. Both were proven right in their decisiveness and both have shone with their performances, ultimately earning themselves places in the England squad, earning the trust of a manager in Gareth Southgate who is eager to promote players from the depths of the English talent pool available to him. Things have come full circle for the pair, and if all goes well, they will be teammates and central to the new-look England for the foreseeable future.

Both young men have had meteoric rises, culminating in this season in which they have both risen to prominence in the minds of English football fans. On Friday, they both had big impacts at Wembley in the 5-0 win against the Czech Republic. Jadon Sancho assisted the opening goal for Raheem Sterling, while Declan Rice was solid during his 30-minute cameo on debut. He will likely feature more heavily in Montenegro, as Eric Dier got injured and has already been ruled out of Monday’s game.

From an early age, the signs were there for both. Although they are slightly different players and have developed different qualities, they can be equally valuable to the England management for years to come, should they continue fulfilling the potential I saw when I played against them in the past. The signs were good then, and they look even better now. I have been familiar with the names of Jadon Sancho and Declan Rice for some time, but now is the moment for football fans nationwide to take notice. These two are the future of the English game, and they’re here to stay.

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