Saidy Janko: From Old Trafford to Gambia and the Africa Cup of Nations

Janko made stints at Manchester United, Celtic, St Etienne and Porto before joining Valladolid in October 2020

Swiss Real Valladolid defender Saidy Janko said Gambia’s qualification for the Africa Cup of Nations had a significant impact on their decision to represent the Scorpions.

The marauding full-back made his international debut in September in a friendly against Sierra Leone, after joining his new team-mates for the first time that month.

“I’m not going to lie, [Afcon] made it a lot easier – but the coach has spoken to me for the past two years, “the former Manchester United youngster told BBC Sport Africa.

“I was already bent over coming even before the last order, but now it was definitely, ‘I have to do this.’

“I had to do it for my dad, as well as for my dad’s family, myself and the team. If I can help achieve anything at the tournament, that would be great.”

Choose Gambia after the Swiss wait

Scorpions coach Tom Saintfiet has been busy looking for players of Gambian descent to add to his squad ahead of the country’s very first Nations Cup appearance.

West Africans have been drawn in Group F alongside 2004 champions Tunisia, Mali and Mauritania for the tournament, which kicks off in Cameroon on January 9.

“I’m 26, so this is an incredible opportunity,” said Janko. “After all these years qualifying, for such a small country, is exceptional.”

Janko, born in Switzerland to a Gambian father and Italian mother, has only been to Gambia once before – in 2000.

“My father has his family there and he always said, ‘It’s your decision whether you play for Switzerland or Gambia.’

“Now is a good time to choose The Gambia. I am very close to my father and I have told him about my decision, and he supports me.”

Saidy Janko (left) in action for Switzerland's Under-19 against England
Here in action for Switzerland’s Under-19, Janko has represented his country of birth up to the Under-21 level.

He represented Switzerland at the junior level but was unable to achieve his goal of becoming a full international.

“I grew up in Switzerland so it was my goal to play for the senior team,” he explained.

“After several years and competing with the best, I was never called up. It was a disappointment for me and my family but it was their decision.

“It was maybe the best for me so I can represent Gambia.”

Ronaldo’s Real Valladolid mainstay

Janko has struggled to win at his previous clubs, including Celtic and St Etienne, but has been a mainstay at Valladolid since his transfer from FC Porto in January 2020.

He made 19 La Liga appearances last season, which ended in relegation to the Spanish second division.

“I had a very good year after my injury, when I joined Valladolid for the first time, I played almost every game and played really well,” he recalls.

“Unfortunately, we fell and it was huge for me mentally and for the whole team, because with [former Brazil striker] Ronaldo as president, we had high hopes.

“Maybe we wanted to get closer to European places. But now we have to face the second level and do our best to get promoted and play in La Liga again.”

MK Dons forward Dean Bowditch and Manchester United full-back Saidy Janko fight for the ball
Janko (right) in his only Manchester United appearance – a 4-0 loss to third tier MK Dons in a 2014 League Cup draw

Brazilian legend Ronaldo, which bought a majority stake in Valladolid in 2018, played “a big role” in the transfer of Janko from Porto.

“After he spotted me, he knew someone on the Porto board and said, ‘Can you do it?’,” Janko said.

“For a legend like Ronaldo wanting me at his club is incredible. Every time he’s at the training ground or at the stadium it gives all the players a boost.”

After the disappointment of relegation from La Liga, Janko remained with the club despite interest elsewhere.

“At this point I don’t want to rush into another transfer just because we’re in the second division,” he said. “The opposite – I want to challenge myself with something different, play to go up. It’s also the first time for me and I’m happy with my decision.”

A gesture that changes life

Janko signed for Manchester United in 2013 from FC Zurich after being spotted by the Premier League giants in a youth tournament.

He was named a United reserve team player in 2014 and made his debut against MK Dons under Louis van Gaal in August.

“It was a life changing decision, but if Manchester United call you don’t think twice,” Janko said.

“I was sad to leave home, but I was delighted to play for one of the biggest clubs in the world, so the transition went pretty well. I started working from day one and this was really a great experience.

“At a club like United it’s always difficult as a young player – especially if you’re 17 – to have a lot of playing time because they have a lot of superstars who have to play.

“At that time it was the first year after Sir Alex Ferguson left, so there was a lot of pressure on David Moyes and I can understand that he couldn’t really give the youngsters a lot of chances.

“I think if the results were a little better I would have had more playing time.

Saidy Janko in action for Real Valladolid
Janko says he’s inspired to have former Brazilian star Ronaldo as club president

“Then there was a regime change. Van Gaal came along, it was kind of the same situation; he needed the points and couldn’t afford to play with young players.

“It’s no excuse because he gave me my debut and I’m forever grateful to him – but it’s really hard to get a chance on the team.”

After 45 minutes of his senior debut, Janko never appeared for United again. After a championship loan to Bolton, he left Old Trafford in 2015, switch to Celtic.

“At that point, I felt it was the right time because I felt I didn’t have enough opportunities,” he said.

“I wasn’t complaining. I see players like [Angel] Di Maria and [Wayne] Rooney and of course they have to play, so I get it. For me, it was time to move on. I need some playing time, so that’s the main reason I left. “

About Mitchel McMillan

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