Sancho's Champions League redemption shows Man United what they are missing

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DORTMUND, Germany -- Jadon Sancho was a man alone during a miserable autumn in Manchester. Ostracised by Manchester United manager Erik ten Hag and forced to train, eat and change away from his teammates, sometimes taking his lunch break in his car, the €85 million signing was left wondering where his once-glittering career was headed. Six months later, he is 90 minutes away from winning the UEFA Champions League with Borussia Dortmund.

Life can come at you pretty fast, and Sancho's story of sporting redemption is already complete, regardless of whether he walks off the Wembley pitch on Saturday with a winners' medal following Dortmund's clash with Real Madrid. Win or lose, Sancho has emerged from the toughest period of his career with his reputation as a talented, game-changing winger restored.

But for four months, Sancho was a nobody at United. His reaction to being dropped by Ten Hag for a Premier League game at Arsenal as a consequence of what the manager deemed to be unsatisfactory performances in training was to post a message on his X account saying the comments were "completely untrue."

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Ten Hag demanded a public apology, which Sancho refused to give, and although he deleted his X post 10 days later, the damage was done, and the two men held firm in their respective positions through Sancho's departure to Dortmund, who he had left for United in an €85m transfer in 2021, on a six-month loan in January.

Dortmund have witnessed Sancho's rebirth. His return of three goals and three assists in 20 Bundesliga and Champions League games does not paint the full picture of his importance to Edin Terzic's team on their path to Saturday's final. Anyone who witnessed his performance in the first leg of the semifinal against Paris Saint-Germain would attest to Sancho's impact.

That night, he completed 11 take-ons (aka "direct runs past a defender"), which was the most recorded in any Champions League game since Lionel Messi for Barcelona against United in 2008. After the game, Dortmund's official X account posted about Sancho, "You all owe him an apology, we were ALWAYS familiar with his game."

But does he have one more stellar performance in his locker this season? Can Sancho use the biggest club game in world football to show United, and Ten Hag, what they are missing?

"He made the decision a couple of years ago to leave us and he thought it would be a step to help him win the Champions League trophy," Dortmund coach Terzic said. "And now he is back and he is as close as possible to win it. We are now on a mission to fulfill our dreams. Jadon wants to fulfill his dream of lifting the Champions League trophy and hopefully, we can give him that support."

Sancho has often been a challenging character for clubs and coaches throughout his career. Ten Hag was not the first coach to encounter Sancho's uncompromising streak, with Pep Guardiola and Gareth Southgate also having to address disciplinary issues over the years. Guardiola sanctioned Sancho's move from Manchester City to Dortmund in 2017 because he "didn't want to take this challenge" of proving himself at the Etihad Stadium, while Sancho's poor time-keeping was one factor in Southgate's decision to omit him from the senior England squad.

A United source has told ESPN that Sancho is a "good kid, but unbelievably stubborn" and it is that stubbornness -- framed as a refusal to compromise if he believes he has been wronged -- that defines Sancho, who attributes much of his personality and mentality to his upbringing and early years playing cage football (on small, wire-fenced pitches) in the tough Kennington district of south London.

"I know I've taken a different route to where I am now from most of the other players, but it's what helped make me," Sancho told the Football Association in 2021. "I never had a club or anything like that, it was just cage football at the start and at weekends there might've been a tournament at a local park.

"I just used to have fun, being free and having no rules. There'd be me and my boys from one estate and we'd play the boys from another estate and there'd be a rivalry.

"There's a lot of people who play street football, but it's the progression as you get older and more rules come into play. I wouldn't say it becomes less fun, but it becomes more strict which might affect people."

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Mark Ogden assesses Jadon Sancho's future at Man United after he reached the Champions League final.

That sense of Sancho being a kid at heart, who loves the fun of the game and struggles to embrace the rigidity and demands of the professional sport, is a real one. Sources have told ESPN that he is "very shy" around non-playing staff, albeit courteous and polite, and that he took time to settle at United after arriving from Dortmund. In late 2022, Sancho spent time away from the club, training in the Netherlands, due to what Ten Hag described as "physical and mental issues," while a source within the England camp have said that Sancho was also deeply affected by the reaction to his penalty shootout miss in England's Euro 2020 final defeat against Italy.

"He was hammered for that and Jadon, like Bukayo Saka and Marcus Rashford, suffered some horrendous racism within the social media abuse," the source told ESPN. "All three of them took time to get over it, but Jadon also had to factor in a big move from Dortmund to United at the same time and the pressure of his transfer fee at just 21 years old. He found it really hard to overcome all of that."

Sources also said that while Sancho is not a troublemaker or negative influence within the group of players, his habit of breaching minor rules can be an issue. Being late for training or team meetings has been a regular occurrence for club and country, while his aversion to fulfilling media duties has also irked teammates and officials. During Euro 2020, he was the only senior member of the England squad to refuse to speak to the media, even when nominated to do a news conference ahead of the second-round game against Germany, despite spending four years in the Bundesliga.

There were also infringements during his first spell at Dortmund, with then-coach Lucien Favre dropping Sancho for a game against Borussia Monchengladbach in 2019 as a "disciplinary measure" for returning late from international duty. But as Dortmund CEO Hans-Joachim Watzke said before his return from United in January, Sancho's shortcomings are the source of frustration rather than anything more serious.

"Jadon has no problem with discipline," Watzke said. "I don't know who thought that up. The lad has a bit of a problem with his internal clock and can be a bit late from time to time."

Ten Hag's disciplinarian approach at United proved to be less forgiving than Dortmund's, however. When the former Ajax coach was hired by United in the summer of 2022, one element of his remit was to impose greater discipline on a squad that had taken advantage of predecessor Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's light touch to management. Cristiano Ronaldo was censured twice by Ten Hag for breaching his disciplinary code before the Portugal forward's contract being cancelled by mutual consent in Nov. 2022, while Alejandro Garnacho and Rashford were dropped by the manager last season for turning up late for team meetings.

"Marcus was 30 seconds late for a meeting at Wolves away," a United source told ESPN. "These are the standards set and all the players agreed and bought into this."

One source said that Sancho's frustration with what he perceived to be unfair treatment by Ten Hag was rooted in a belief that his performances were being judged more harshly than those of some teammates signed during the manager's period in charge. His post on X was a combination of anger at Ten Hag's comments and at others being given more chances in the team despite struggling to justify their selection.

"He basically called the manager a liar and that was the problem," a United source said. "That's why the ball was always back in Jadon's court. He could have solved it easily."

But Sancho would not apologise, and still hasn't. In turn, Ten Hag has remained steadfast in his refusal to restore the player to the squad until he displayed public contrition. So September through January saw Sancho having to train alone or with United's academy players, but it was not as simple as merely training away from Ten Hag and the first-team squad.

Due to safeguarding regulations, as an adult, Sancho was not allowed to change and shower in the Academy facility due to the presence of players under the age of 18. As a result, the fourth-most expensive signing in United's history had to change alone and shower alone. He was also not allowed to eat with the first-team squad, and although he had permission to access the training ground canteen, he would often eat a pre-packed lunch in his car.

Sancho has not spoken about that period, and Dortmund have maintained their policy of not allowing media to ask about his recent experience at United, but a source has told ESPN that Sancho simply dug deep into his stubbornness and endured it, hoping for it to end with a move in January.

"When I walked into the changing room today, it felt like coming home," Sancho said on Jan. 11, when he completed his loan move from United to Dortmund. "I know the club inside out, I've always been very close to the fans here and I've never lost contact with the people in charge. I can't wait to see my teammates again, get out on the pitch, play football with a smile on my face, get assists, score goals and help the club qualify for the Champions League."

All of the above has been mission accomplished -- including the smile being back on Sancho's face. He is now back to full fitness and has rediscovered the form that made him an England international at 18 years old and prompted United to sign him in 2021. Dortmund have rehabilitated Sancho, but not with special treatment; he's simply been treated just like every other member of Terzic's squad.

"I didn't give him [Sancho] advice, but we spoke about his situation and now he feels very comfortable here," Dortmund captain Emre Can told ESPN. "In the end, he feels great and that's what he has showed on the pitch. I have been impressed to be honest because it was not easy for him in Manchester and he didn't play for six months. It's not easy to come back and then to perform like this.

"But I knew before also that Jadon is first-class when you have to trust from the coach, when you have self-confidence, and that is what has showed in the last few months.

"We are very happy to have a player like him and I hope it will be the same on Saturday and he can help us again."

Dortmund is clearly where Sancho feels at home and able to produce his best. It is a working-class city at the centre of Germany's industrial heartland, the football team consistently punches above its weight, from a financial perspective, to challenge domestically and in Europe and Borussia's Hohenbuschei training centre is unpretentious and homely.

There is none of the super-club grandeur of United or City, Sancho's two previous clubs, but an air of humility and of being the underdog. Perhaps all of that is why Sancho can thrive here better than anywhere else.

"We knew that Jadon has the skills to perform," Dortmund sporting director Sebastian Kehl told ESPN. "He has the skills to be a decision player and to bring us on another level, but of course we knew that it would take a little bit of time.

"But on the other hand, he is such a great person, such a great player, and the experience he made in Manchester helped him a lot to perform now. And we are so proud. We are so happy that he's now our team and I can see his smile every day. I can see his performance on the pitch every day.

"So I think he will be very important for us on Saturday. He will show the world that Jadon is really back."

Despite the unresolved stand-off between Sancho and Ten Hag, United have not yet given up on the player. While his Old Trafford future appears non-existent under Ten Hag, the ongoing uncertainty over the manager's position could open up a path for Sancho to return -- if he wants to -- in the event of United firing their FA Cup-winning coach. To underline United's commitment to Sancho, former head of football operations John Murtough and Matt Hargreaves, director of player negotiations, visited him in Dortmund in March to maintain contact and gauge his progress in Germany.

With three years remaining on a £250,000-a-week United contract, striking a deal to re-sign Sancho permanently could be challenging for Dortmund, but if he continues his resurgence and helps the club beat Real Madrid to win the Champions League for a second time, they are likely to push hard to find a way to keep Sancho at Signal Iduna Park.

"Of course, we know him pretty well and Jadon feels at home here, but he's still under contract with United, so nobody knows what's going on there,' Kehl said. "We will have discussions, but after the final. He is full of skills and hopefully he can show it on Saturday that his road isn't over because he's too young. After that, let's see how things are going."

Wembley Stadium is just 10 miles from the cage football pitches of south London where Sancho fell in love with the game and forged his personality, but the road to the Champions League final has been much longer, with plenty of obstacles along the way. The final destination of ultimate glory could now just be 90 minutes away.