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. It was an excellent return across two clubs in a highly-competitive league.
He was now ready for a chance with the first-team, and he was helped by the presence of Louis van Gaal, the Dutchman with pedigree for blooding youngsters. Van Gaal saw the promise Lingard represented and gave him his debut against Swansea on the opening weekend of the season. He made a bright start to the game but was curtailed by an Ashley Williams tackle in the 24th minute, badly injuring his knee in the process. United lost the game 2-1 – and Lingard lost his opportunity to stake a claim in the squad.
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He was fortunate to have avoided the humbling 4-0 defeat to MK Dons that saw several fringe players cleared out, and he quietly recuperated on the sidelines, quickly enough to seal a loan move to Derby in the winter. Almost 700 minutes in 14 games didn’t represent regular game time, but he was at least playing. Little did he know, but it would be his last loan move.
The following season started slowly for him, with no minutes me until the ninth league game. Juan Mata was hooked at half-time and Lingard put up an industrious display as a substitute, helping his side to a 3-0 win. The rest of 2015 was promising, with a maiden goal against West Brom, but after the turn of the year he played a part in 18 consecutive league games.
This was his breakthrough year, at long last, capped off by a 110th-minute winner in the FA Cup final against Crystal Palace. Breaking the tedium with a rasping, opportunistic volley, it summed up his season perfectly. Taking his chances with both hands, as he wheeled away with his shirt in his hands, it was poignant that an academy product won his club their first FA Cup since 2004.
No one can deny Lingard’s sense of the occasion, with the sight of the hallowed Wembley turf only spurring him on to make an impact. During the following season, he opened the scoring in the 2-1 victory over Leicester in the Community Shield, then followed that up in January 2017 with the second goal in a 3-2 win in the League Cup final. That was three different trophies in under a year, all achieved in part thanks to Lingard’s goals in the finals. He had no impact in the Europa League victory but was still on the pitch to see out the game. It’s a quirk of fate that United’s cup successes in the post-Ferguson era have been concurrent with Lingard’s rise.
Lingard is now a full-fledged member of the squad, in between the chasm that is a first-teamer and a rotation option. By adding goals to his game, he is now becoming the perfect Swiss knife: capable of playing as a right-winger, an attacking midfielder, and even as a support striker. His two-goal performance in the 3-1 away victory at Arsenal ranks as one of his best so far, gift-wrapped with some trendy moves. His game has matured, adding credence to the idea that he’s now a proper Manchester United player.
What makes Lingard so endearing is his standing amongst younger fans, who seem to take a diametrically opposed view to those of a more traditional persuasion. An assortment of dance moves have him down as an immature youngster in the books of weary men – a glance at Twitter proves just as much – which makes Lingard highly divisive, though he’s no different to Pogba in that regard.
Whether that makes him entertaining – or cringe-worthy – is not as dependent on age or bias as it is on what ‘fun’ means in this age. Lingard’s dabs and jigs with Pogba are construed as a lack of respect, maybe even distasteful, when in reality two mates are enjoying what they do. It is why Lingard isn’t given as much credits as he perhaps warrants. But what’s significant is that he’s now letting his performances talk more than his entertainment value.
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In the 1980s, Jean Tigana was one of France’s world-class midfielders, primarily turning out for Lyon and Bordeaux. It was to him that Sir Alex Ferguson compared Lingard to. Back in 2012, the legendary manager had the foresight to predict Lingard’s emergence onto the big stage at the age of 24, just like Tigana. That trust has served Lingard well, even if his rise has come after the Scotsman’s retirement. While Lingard was nailed down to be a late bloomer from the start, Ferguson’s belief has no doubt been a source of motivation.
Lingard’s rise is a lesson to youngsters across the bigger clubs, in that persistence can produce rewards far beyond the realms of imagination. United’s reputation for blooding youth players has worked in his favour – they held a belief in Lingard since the start despite his shortcomings, working hard to develop him into a professional player. Youth coaches may sometime sell dreams and false hope, but with United, that wasn’t the case. He has been the laughing stock on several occasions, sometimes deservedly so – his nonchalant attitude when West Ham fans attacked the team bus in 2016 comes to mind – but he’s always learning, always bettering himself. He’ll certainly need to call on that ability to learn and grow after his ill-timed tweet sent minutes after the Munich Air Disaster memorial had ended.
The Englishman is what you’d call a raumdeuter, a master of finding space, and with goals added to his game now, he is becoming the perfect team player. He is still viewed as a baby-faced youth, with the connotations that come with it: immaturity and inconsistency. But he is now 25 and taking on more responsibility in the team; it’s only his status as a late-bloomer that holds back perceptions of him. It’s unlikely he cares.
When he signed a new contract reportedly worth £100,000 per week, it drew criticism from fans, including yours truly, that he was not deserving of it. Humble pie has been served, and rightly so. He was still taken for granted back then, but that should no longer be the case. Despite being less gifted, he has outlasted both Ángel Di María and Memphis Depay. He’s jostled for his position, and Alexis Sánchez is just the latest competitor. He’s been expected to leave permanently, but he’s still around. For all the money spent, a youth graduate is one of the club’s important players.
Jesse Lingard’s is a story carved by the efforts of himself and his coaches, and José Mourinho is reaping the rewards of their hard work now. The pathway they laid for him has been taken advantage of, and to see his potential being fulfilled is a beacon for aspiring youngsters. If you keep plugging away, you could someday make it, even if you aren’t the next superstar. Cristiano Ronaldo, Lingard’s childhood hero, was a superstar built by graft and an unerring work ethic. While Lingard is nowhere of his ilk, he has certainly taken inspiration from his idol’s persistence, patience and flamboyance.
In an environment dominated by artificiality and money, Lingard is a refreshing change with his bubbly, cheery personality. He’s let his football do the talking, leading detractors to only nit-pick with a lack of conviction. With the World Cup looming, 2018 proves to be a big year for the winger. Lingard should be on the plane to Russia, with a good chance of starting, and it is there that he’ll have a platform to display his skills to the world.
The journey from Warrington to Old Trafford is much longer than the distance by road, but Lingard has reached the promised land and he’s not going anywhere. More than that, he’s earned it.