A fortnight ago, I met St George’s Park. England’s training centre is planted on top of no more than a series of luscious country fields. It offers a rather distinct contrast to fast, flashy, pressured life as a top-level professional footballer. And yet this is where Gareth Southgate and his team plotted and planned their way to a World Cup semi-final – serious work in the Staffordshire countryside.
Among the many things I got up to on a truly fascinating whistle-stop tour of St George’s was an interview with England U-19s captain Jonathan Panzo. The young Monaco centre-back has grown both on the pitch and off it during his loan away from Stamford Bridge this season. Have things gone well for him the other side of the ocean? Here’s Talking England with Jonathan Panzo.
How are you getting on at Monaco?
Jonathan Panzo: It’s been good so far. I’ve been with the first team quite a lot. I made my debut this season but at the moment I’m not with them as much as I’d want to be. The change of (Monaco) manager has made it up and down, but I’ve just got to stay positive and look forward.
Has it been hard to adapt to living in France, and how has it impacted your international career?
For me personally, I can speak French. So, it wasn’t a big change. But playing with the English boys and the French boys are a bit different, because I think the French boys are a bit more defensive, whereas when we’re here we’re more open, more free, and we like to look forward and play forward. Because I’m a defender, (if I had to choose) I’d say the French style suits me more.
I’d say I looked up to Didier Drogba, as a kid. I used to be a striker, you see. I do actually see a future back in the Premier League. One of my dreams is to play in the Premier League, so hopefully if I’m doing well in the French league then I can get a move back.
It can be quite difficult at Chelsea – not many young players are playing, so to go abroad was a good idea for me as an individual – especially seeing (Jadon) Sancho and others enjoying themselves abroad.
I think there are more opportunities abroad. It can be a bit difficult in the Premier League so, for me, moving abroad is the one to go for. I saw a newspaper showing stats about it. The Bundesliga was top (for first team opportunities) and then Ligue 1. I think the Premier League was bottom, so even the stats show it. The Monaco opportunity came through my agent. My first thought was actually to go to Germany – but the plan was never to stay in England.
It’s very possible in the age of social media to be bombarded by everything football, so how do you switch off from all that?
Just by playing PlayStation® to be honest! I just play with my mates on FORTNITE® just to keep me away from football sometimes, because it can be hard if it’s just football, football, football. FORTNITE® and FIFA® are the top two. They’re the only two I play to be honest!
When you’re at St George’s Park with all the England teams, can you see a clear pathway to the senior first team?
Obviously with (Gareth) Southgate giving Callum (Hudson-Odoi) and Sancho the opportunities, I know I played with them so I just use it as motivation. He’s willing to give a chance to young players. My aim at club level this season is obviously to get more minutes and when I’m down here with England I’d like to push into the U-21s. Coming to England is a bonus and it’s always an honour to put the shirt on – it’s a reminder you’re doing well at your club.
You come from South London, which has a rich history in producing footballers. How and why did you first turn to football?
To be honest, I wasn’t really into football – it was my cousins that were the footballers. I used to play with them when I had nothing to do! Now I’m here and I’m lucky to be here. I have to thank my cousins for that!
Players react differently to pressure. Would you say you prefer playing with pressure or not?
I’d rather play with pressure, because if you’re playing at Stamford Bridge and places like that there is always going to be pressure. So, it’s better to start when you’re young. It’s good practice.
Who has particularly taken you under their wing at Monaco?
I’ve spoken a lot with (Radamel) Falcao. He’s looked after me a bit so he’s been good. He has been nice and I’ve been out with him a lot. He’s been a good inspiration for me. What I learn from a player like him is just to stay humble. Players like him have got to keep working hard and not get complacent, so that’s what he has shown me. To do your training and recovery properly and things like that.
Most fans would say they prefer one of club or country, but some players feel they have a little more responsibility not to say. What would you say your preference is?
I think it’s the club *giggles*, no it’s country! For me, representing your country is making your family back home proud, so it’s always in my heart. But at your club is where you’re going to be most of the time of course, so it’s a bit of a difficult one of me, that.
What was it like to win the 2017 U17 FIFA World Cup?
It was fantastic. I can’t really describe it, but just knowing you’ve won the World Cup is just…great!
To watch the ease at which Jonathan Panzo chatted was very pleasing. Too often we hear that footballers are afraid of tripping up with the media – Jonathan wasn’t. He was keen to get across how hard he has worked at Monaco and how he relishes the opportunity to test himself at the very highest level. He spoke with passion and pride about representing the Young Lions, and came across as a more-than-shrewd choice as England’s captain at U-19 level.
Jonathan Panzo trotted off to meet John Murray, Stephen Warnock and others for a brief interview with Radio 5 Live. It dawned on me just how many outstanding talents are passing through St George’s Park right now. Youngsters seem less obstructed by the pressure of carrying those three, often very heavy, lions. They’re going abroad or going out on loan. Speaking with their agents, their families, discussing the best ways to forge a career at the highest level. Ah. Land of hope and glory. English football is in a good place.