One Friday afternoon last season at Charlton Athletic’s training ground, first-team manager Anthony Hayes bumped into Jesurun Rak-Sakyi.
Most of his teammates had already left after the session, but Rak-Sakyi, on loan from League One club Crystal Palace, had something important to deal with before heading home.
“He was on the phone and I asked him what he was doing there,” Hayes tells The Athletic. “I was doing a French lesson, learning on the phone. It’s a class that takes place once a week at a certain time.”
When Hayes asked why, the 20-year-old said that when he eventually goes to play in Ghana, he wants to be able to speak French with his teammates. “Jes has ambitions to play in the Premier League and represent Ghana, play in world cups,” says Hayes, “he wants to be on that stage, and why not aspire and aspire to that?
“It’s a real insight into a child’s mindset, what they want to achieve and achieve, and put in the time and effort to do it.”
Under normal circumstances, Rak-Sakyi could hope to leave Palace on loan again this summer before the transfer window closes on September 1. But that is unlikely after Michael Olise picked up a hamstring injury playing for France at the European Under-21 Championship in June, which is expected to keep him out until the opening months of the new Premier League season.
Crystal Palace’s player of the season: Michael Olise
Olise’s absence leaves Rak-Sakyi, who was born in London to Ghanaian parents and has played for England Under-20s, only behind Jordan Ayew among Palace manager Roy Hodgson’s right-wing options.
Malcolm Ebiowei could be considered in that category, but the 19-year-old struggled on loan at Hull City in the Championship towards the end of last season. Rak-Sakyi, on the other hand, thrived at Charlton, albeit a division below the English football ladder. There were 15 goals and 10 assists in 49 appearances in all competitions as he won two Player of the Year awards for the south-east London club.
🏆 Player of the year
🏆 Player of the year
🗣️ A word from your double winner! 🤩
🔴⚪️ #cafc pic.twitter.com/KZgGydkaHc
— Charlton Athletic FC (@CAFCofficial) May 2, 2023
Even with the local rivalry, despite protestations to the contrary, clearly still somehow alive, Charlton supporters quickly latched onto the young Selhurst Park loanee. There was even a song: “Jes Rak-Sakyi is a red, he hates the palace.”
Charlton manager Dean Holden is effusive in his praise for the way Rak-Sakyi is playing, but the attitude and application noted by Hayes seems to have stood out as much as anything else.
“Jes was so dedicated to being the best he could be, the fans bought into it,” says Holden. “As soon as they heard he had gone through a brick wall for Charlton, that was enough for the fans.
“He is a fantastic young player; First of all, a guy who loves to play football, he lives for it, not for what can be expected from some modern young players. He loves the idea of playing, rather than (the idea of) being a footballer. You can never take him out of training camp, he loves to keep improving. He is very humble, calm and composed, and comfortable in his own skin.
“He’s confident enough to show his skills on the pitch, but if you saw him on the street you wouldn’t know he’s a footballer. He is very down to earth, lives the right way, very professional and diligent. For all those reasons, that’s why he has a real chance of reaching the top level.”
Rak-Sakyi playing for Charlton against Manchester United in the Carabao Cup last season (Photo: Naomi Baker via Getty Images)
Rak-Sakyi made such an impact after joining Charlton in the second week of August that he was on the cover of the matchday program in September, but the words ‘quiet’ and ‘unassuming’, used by his then coach Ben Garner, are repeated by many who know him. Being the center of attention is not his style.
Except, that is, on the pitch, where his talents were honed and his improvement was rapid in the third tier, leaving a big impression for someone experiencing his first significant taste of senior football.
There had been two Premier League appearances: 13 minutes off the bench in the opening weekend of 2021-22 in a 3-0 defeat by Chelsea (the club who released him at 17) and a start in the last game of that campaign. , a 1-0 home win over Manchester United, and 18 goals in 25 appearances as he finished as Premier League 2’s top scorer that season, but this was the first time he was put to the test regularly at senior level.
Rak-Sakyi playing against Chelsea in August 2021 (Photo: Eddie Keogh via Getty Images)
“I’ve worked with some really exciting young players,” says Hayes, who previously coached youth teams. “Right away with Jes, what draws attention is his skill with the ball, being able to go beyond the players on both sides, the balance and the healthy arrogance he has. He doesn’t do it to demoralize defenders, he does it for the purpose of creating a chance or a goal.
“The initial quality you marvel at is his ability in one-on-one positions. It’s a shot that was a bit of a dying art in this country but has had a resurgence in recent years, particularly down south from London”.
Holden compares Rak-Sakyi’s balance to that of a “slalom skier” and praises his vision for opportunities in games: “Sometimes you see younger players four or five steps for that, but Jes doesn’t play like that. He’s very effective, sees space and gets it out as quickly as possible, whether it’s dribbling or passing. Sometimes he sees the game in slow motion.”
Jesurun Rak-Sakyi – Palace’s young ‘back’ thriving at local rivals Charlton
There was a letter from Mark Bright, the former Palace striker who is now their loan manager, thanking Charlton for the way they looked after Rak-Sakyi. That apparently includes making sure the relative success he’s had thus far doesn’t go to his head. Although the chances of that would appear to be slim in any case, according to Hayes.
“We’re in an industry where young players get a lot of money early on and sometimes that shows in the clothes they wear or the cars they drive. Jes shows up in a Nissan Micra,” Hayes says. “It’s a real insight into how grounded he is and the support network he has. He has his feet firmly on the ground and is looking to reach the top of the mountain.”
Now, with Olise’s injury, there is a chance to claim a place in the Palau first team.
His journey to the top is just beginning, but he has a chance to turbocharge it.
(Top photo: Glyn Kirk/AFP via Getty Images)