From Austria to Southampton via Milton Keynes and Germany, it's been a unique journey to St Mary's for Saints' newest recruit.
When Kevin Danso spoke of his dream move to the Premier League, upon joining Southampton on a season-long loan from German club Augsburg, there was more behind the statement than first meets the eye.
The truth is, whether you’ve come through a top-flight Academy, worked your way up from the lower leagues or moved from abroad, for a host of players the Premier League represents utopia, such is its global appeal and mass exposure worldwide.
But for Danso, it took time to wake up to that dream. Born in Austria to Ghanaian parents, he spent his early years actively trying to avoid the competition he now can’t wait to be part of.
“I know I didn’t really used to like football,” he reveals. “My brothers always wanted to play football and watch football on the TV. At that age, I thought it was pretty boring.
“I wanted to do something like karate, or be an actor in an action film. I used to look up to Jean-Claude Van Damme, Chuck Norris… people like that. But I was never a fighter myself.”
This was in his early years, in Austria, before his family emigrated to England when he was six – just old enough for Danso, who has two brothers, to remember life before the move.
“I remember where I used to live quite well,” he says. “There was a park that, if I was to go there today, I’d still know where all the hiding places are!
“I was born in a small town called Voitsberg, near Graz, and then we moved to the city, which is my earliest memory.
“I’m the youngest of three. But I’m the tallest. And the best looking!” He pauses. “I’m joking,” he adds, grinning.
“They’ve been a very big influence in my life – my biggest influence – and helped me in every situation.
“I always go to them, and without them I wouldn’t be where I am today.”
It was only after the move to England that football eventually became impossible to escape for Danso, who signed up to his first team, Central Milton Keynes, or CMK, as he refers to them, at seven years old.
“I always used to play football, kicking a ball around, but it was only because my older brothers used to play, and it was never really of interest to me,” he says.
“But my oldest brother, who had moved to America, then came to England with us.
“I don’t know if I told him I wanted to join a football team, or he told me to join, but from that moment on, I couldn’t live my life without football. There was no turning back.
“I started off as a striker, but I’ve played every position through the middle. I came through the MK Dons Academy with Dan Micciche, whose philosophy was for every player to play in every position so they become complete footballers.
“I’m very grateful to him for all of those lessons, because football is an unpredictable game and you never know where you’ll end up.
“Playing in every position gives you different traits, so he was a very important coach.”
Admittedly, Danso being seven years old was a mere 13 years ago, but his vivid memories of his amateur football days still make for great anecdotes.
“I had a very good Sunday League season in the Under-8s, going undefeated,” he declares, proudly, before a frown takes over his expression for the first time.
“Actually we lost in the County Cup semi-final – that was my only defeat when I was younger and I took it pretty badly,” he confesses, smiling ruefully.
“I remember our goalkeeper sitting down and crying, and I went and sat next to him. It was tough, because we didn’t know what it was like to lose.
“There’s a YouTube video where you can see some of the goals we scored. We were a really good team back then, and all of us joined Academies.”
Danso speaks with such authority that it’s easy to forget how young he is.
It takes the unprompted references to YouTube and his favourite football streaming sites, which allowed him to keep tabs on Match of the Day and Super Sunday from Germany, to remind you Saints’ newest recruit was only a year old at the turn of the millennium.
kevin dansowe lost in the county cup semi-final - that was my only defeat when i was younger and i took it pretty badly.
on playing junior football
As for his football career, Danso, now 20, would have to take a step back to move forward.
“I moved to Reading, but it was too far, and halfway through the Under-9s we made the decision to leave and just focus on school, because that’s a very important aspect – not just for me, but my family also,” he reveals.
This commitment to education goes a long way to explaining a philosophical outlook way beyond his years, aided by his experience of living in three different countries.
“We all had to go to school, and I made sure I finished my A Levels,” he says.
“Just before the start of the Under-10s season, I went on trial (with MK Dons) for a week or two, and they signed me. From there I progressed.
“Dele Alli was two or three age groups above me. I was training with Brendan Galloway (England Under-21 international), George Williams (Wales international), Sheyi Ojo (now at Rangers on loan from Liverpool) and a few other quality players who are playing in the lower leagues.
“You could tell the quality was there. Dele’s age group and Sheyi’s age group were the benchmark for the rest of us.
“Sheyi moved to Liverpool at 14 for £2.5million, and we started getting a lot of publicity from the good work the Academy was doing.
“I don’t think many Academies or other clubs had the attitude of solely developing each player individually, and giving them as much experience as possible in different positions.
“I felt really comfortable and enjoyed my time there. I felt I really progressed as a player under Dan Micciche, who then moved on to England.”
In 2014, around the time of his 16th birthday, Danso felt he had a decision to make if he was going to forge a successful professional career.
“My brothers and I looked out for where young players are given the opportunity to break through,” he reasoned, as if it was the obvious thing to do, even if so few of his peers thought the same way.
They settled on Augsburg, a city in southern Germany, an hour north west of Munich, whose football team had progressed through the divisions and were improving year on year in the Bundesliga.
“Obviously I’m Austrian and the culture is similar, so we moved to Germany to see what would happen,” Danso continued.
“It had to be the right club who would believe in me one hundred per cent, and believe in the process, with a private school – an English-speaking school – where I could finish my A Levels.
“FC Augsburg offered that, and it was just the perfect fit. It was very beneficial, because I made my debut there and became a Bundesliga professional. I think it was the right decision at the right time.”
kevin dansoyou could tell the quality was there. dele's age group and sheyi's age group were the benchmark for the rest of us.
on his mk dons upbringing
In March 2017, at 18 years and 165 days old, Danso became the youngest player ever to make a league appearance for the club. Two years later, he was a senior Austrian international.
One of the things he liked most about his new surroundings was that this wasn’t massive news.
“That’s another reason we chose Germany. Young kids have more time left alone – not too much pressure is placed on them, not too much media attention. In England, I think it’s the other way around,” he observed.
“You could focus on your football and make sure you become a steady professional player before anything else.
“It’s been two and a half seasons now, and it definitely has improved me. It’s not so much what you can do, it’s also about your mental capacity – staying strong and being clever in certain situations.
“Everyone has quality at that level, so any edge you can have mentally or tactically is always important. The German game is a very tactical game, and I’ve become used to that.
“I think there are a lot of situations where certain young players would act in a naïve way, but now I don’t think I do that anymore.
“You just learn that; it becomes second nature to you. That’s a big difference at professional level – the mental side of the game.”
This mental refinement is what Danso believes will ease his transition to the English game, along with his upbringing here, which should lessen the element of surprise.
At 6ft 3in tall, the lean defender cuts an imposing figure, and trusts in his physicality to cope with Premier League centre-forwards.
The two heroes he picks out from his childhood, Yaya Touré and Michael Essien, the latter also with Ghanaian roots, possessed remarkable athleticism that made them perfectly suited to the high-tempo, end to end nature of football in England.
“I’m just looking to get used to the intensity, because I think it’s the hardest challenge for any player moving here,” Danso recognises.
“I’m ready for that challenge and I’m ready to give one hundred per cent for the badge. I’m young and I’m excited.
“Growing up in England, I was watching Match of the Day every weekend. You see the young players every now and then, breaking through and making their Premier League debut, and it just motivates you. I always wanted that to be me.”