Jonathan Panzo: ‘It was my dream to make it at Chelsea, but it was hard to see a pathway’
Exclusive interview: England U21 defender reflects on leaving his boyhood club and his new life abroad in France and Belgium
For Jonathan Panzo, the rush home was nothing like he’d imagined. The England U21 international had been playing on loan at Cercle Brugge when the coronavirus outbreak deadlocked the sporting world. In the dressing room, teammates started to share pictures of empty shelves but still couldn’t quite grasp the invisible threat rolling over the horizon. “My main worry was just getting back home,” the Monaco defender tells The Independent. “A few days after I got back, we got told the club doctor had tested positive for the virus and we all had to isolate. Then when Callum [Hudson-Odoi] got it, I was a bit scared, when it’s someone close to you, it all feels very real.”
A few weeks later, amid the tragedy that’s now all too familiar, the pandemic brought an “upsetting and frustrating” end to Panzo’s first full season in senior football. Not only did it cut short his time in Bruges, with belongings left behind and goodbyes still to tell, but it also halted a surge of momentum he’d built after an occasionally juddering start to life abroad.
It was the summer of 2018 when Panzo, touted as a future first-team player after FA Youth Cup and U17 World Cup wins, rocked Chelsea’s status quo by forcing a move to Monaco. A popular player within the academy – a ball-playing centre-back to coaches and an infectious personality to teammates – he bucked the fear of stagnation and followed close friend Jadon Sancho by stepping into the unknown. “It was difficult to see a pathway back then,” he says. “It was my dream to make it at Chelsea and it’s a bit of a disappointment. But I thought it was better to go somewhere else, get some experience, and then hopefully come back to the Premier League.”
But while Panzo took the contrast in his stride – between a south London estate and the glittering luxury of Monaco – he acknowledges there was a culture shock in translating his talent onto the pitch. “Obviously, my expectation was to play in the first team [when I joined Monaco], or at least have a better chance than at Chelsea. I knew Monaco produce a lot of players, but I was a bit young,” he says, still just 17 years old at the time. “I trained with the first team and, I’ll be honest, I wasn’t ready.”
The glint of training alongside Cesc Fabregas and Radamel Falcao began to fade, and Panzo found himself fighting for another breakthrough from the academy. “It was hard at the time because you feel like you’ve gone backwards,” he says. “Throughout my youth career, I was always playing up age-groups, so it’s difficult. I thought when I was with the academy I was doing enough to get back into the first team, but obviously I have to be patient and, as I improve, push to get back there.”
There’s an air of mystery and what-ifs surrounding Panzo since Frank Lampard opened the floodgates on Chelsea’s academy, particularly being such a heartbeat within Jody Morris’s quadruple-winning U18 side. Having only turned 19 last October, he understands why some might claim he’s rushed at times, but is adamant that he has “no regrets” over the decision to go abroad. And at Brugge, a baptism of fire in the depths of a relegation battle has seen him gain the consistent playing time he craved, a call-up from Aidy Boothroyd, and allowed him to harness newfound maturity and independence on and off the pitch.
“I’m usually the happy one, the smiley joker,” he says. “Especially when I’m with Callum [Hudson-Odoi], we’re like Dumb and Dumber. Ninety-five per cent of the time, I’ll have that big smile on my face. But there are sensibilities about knowing when to be serious. At Brugge, I’m with lads who are 25 and 30. I’m the youngest in the team and you have to take responsibility on yourself and be strong mentally on and off the pitch. I’d say I’ve matured quite a lot.”
After years of such relentless success at Chelsea, where his rise often felt unstoppable, a trying period has also armed Panzo with an ability to stand firm in the face of adversity – a trait he’s been forced to develop since childhood, moving between estates in Brockley and Crystal Palace before settling in Surrey after joining Chelsea. “Where I grew up, it was a bit hard, not the best of areas,” he says. “Bad things did happen but most places are like that. I wasn’t naughty but I used to get in trouble for silly things, play fighting. I loved WWE – my friends used to call me Booker T – that was actually my thing a lot more than football,” he says, bursting into laughter.
“Back then, I used to think I’d never leave and since then it feels like I’ve moved a hundred times, and now I’m in a different country. If I spoke to a French person now, I don’t think they’d know I was English.”
During the lockdown, the days in London have blurred into weeks of monotony. It’s not quite the homecoming Panzo dreamed of, but an excitable determination bleeds into his voice when speaking about possibilities beyond the pandemic. “Staying positive is key for me,” he says. “Even when it’s hard and you might not be in the team… It’s normal not be happy sometimes but, for me, that’s just my character. If I’m not positive, I don’t play well.
“I’d always want to come back to England. I wanted to get as many minutes as possible and then come back to the Premier League. Everyone’s got their own path and going away from home has been a good experience for me. This pre-season, I’m going to go back [ to Monaco] and show what I can do.”