Jesse Lingard: the unlikely rise to stardom of a divisive but persistent talent

Jesse Lingard: the unlikely rise to stardom of a divisive but persistent talent

TO SEE AN academy graduate make the step up from the youth ranks to the first team is always a source of pride for fans. That feeling is sweeter when the player in question is a local lad, born and bred in the city whose colours he now bears. He knows what it means to represent his area, and the fans warm to him instantly as a result of that connection. Unlike youngsters poached from overseas, the DNA of the club can only be represented by those who know its true worth.

At Manchester United, a club known for its steadfast belief in bringing youngsters through, that is often evident. The Class of ’92 remain their most famous graduates, but they were not the first, nor will they be the last to make the step up. In October 2017, it was 80 years since United didn’t play a homegrown player in their first team. While it’s reductionist to label United as the best producers of youths in the country and beyond on the basis of one fact, it is still symbolic.

The current squad has its share of academy graduates, but each of them come with a different back-story. Scott McTominay and Axel Tuanzebe are both learning their trade shadowing the first team to good effect, while Joel Castro Pereira, Portuguese born and poached from Switzerland, is learning from arguably the best goalkeeper in the world. They represent the emerging band.

On the other side of the line lies three players – all graduates – with varying labels. There is the world-class star, Paul Pogba, for whom it might seem churlish to call an academy graduate given he was signed from Le Havre at 16, left United on a free, and then returned from Juventus on a then-record fee; there is one of the nation and club’s biggest hopes in Marcus Rashford.; and then there is a highly functional grafter in Jesse Lingard, who might not be a star, but completes the trifecta like few others could.

At 18 years of age, Rashford burst onto the scene due to a blend of good fortune and consequence. He took his chance with both hands, sustained the hype placed on him from day one, and has emerged into one of the league’s best young players. He was seen as a star in the making. But few academy graduates emerge with such abandon, and even fewer are touted as the next big hope from the start.

The majority are all hard workers, solid yet dependable, and yet at a big club that rarely sees them transition into a first-team regular. The chequebook is ever-present to splash on a better overseas player. For Jesse Lingard, the Theatre of Dreams has remained exactly that. Watching Lingard succeed after years of hard work and perseverance is a real victory for the academy.

Born in Warrington, Cheshire, he attended the William Beaumont Community High School, where his brother still studies. Lingard himself turns up at his sibling’s games from time to time, to roaring attention from students and teacher, which he’s humble enough to acknowledge. His childhood was spent in a working-class family, and there were two constants in his early life.

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The first was his grandfather, Ken, who shepherded him to football at United. Discovered whilst playing for a local junior team, Penketh United, by a United scout, he joined the academy at the age of seven. He steadily made his way through the age-groups under the club’s development programme, headed by René Meulensteen. Focusing on skills was a Cruyffian approach in an English world, but it slowly paid dividends.

If there was one barrier to his chances of a career at his boyhood club, it was the other constant: his diminutive size. In the rough and tumble of the Premier League, physicality goes a long way, even for attackers, and it was something Lingard just didn’t have. He would be knocked down time and again, but what was key was his mental fortitude. Bouncing back repeatedly is a mentality few possess, and while Lingard could have called it quits, he never did. It is a testament to the thought that sport, and by extension life, is determined by one’s attitude rather than ability.

For every self-doubt in his development, he was still part of a highly-rated youth side that won the 2010/11 FA Youth Cup, which also boasted Paul Pogba and Ravel Morrison. Morrison, unlike Lingard, was highly rated from the start, with Sir Alex Ferguson stating he was as good as any talent he had ever seen. But in his failure to maintain that, largely due to his attitude, sets him apart from Lingard. While Morrison is traipsing the world, ironically landing up at Atlas in Mexico, Lingard is at the top. Lingard improved those around him, seeing them fly high – perhaps prematurely – while he lingered below.

It was no smooth smash-and-grab transition to the first team. Meulensteen and Mike Phelan knew he had to be patient and endure the rough-and-tumble of the loan system. He first landed at Leicester City with teammate Michael Keane, where he played five times and learnt an important life lesson. While United banned non-first-team players from wearing a hat and scarf, Lingard sauntered into Leicester with exactly the same, leading Leicester to question United’s development. He returned ahead of time and spent the rest of the season in the background, learning quietly.

Under David Moyes, Lingard demonstrated his talent on the pre-season tour of Asia, scoring four in five, but while he hoped to skip past the loan cycle at this stage, the beleaguered Scotsman preferred the younger Adnan Januzaj. That was the story of his life up until that point, but there was plenty of interest in him.

Lee Clark, Birmingham’s manager, pursued Lingard, who vindicated that belief with four goals on debut in a 4-1 win over Sheffield Wednesday. It was an excellent start, but he was only to spend half the season there, scoring six in 13 appearances. Recalled in the winter, Moyes’ struggles meant he would not get a look-in, so he was promptly dispatched to Brighton. He helped them to the Championship playoffs with four goals in 17 appearances.