When the England squad moved into their hotel at the start of the World Cup, each player was allowed to select some personal photos to be framed and put up in the rooms. And so sitting on the little ledge above Jesse Lingard’s desk in Repino is a picture of himself as a small boy, aged maybe seven or eight, wearing his red Manchester United kit, a ball at his feet: a reminder of the shy, starry-eyed kid from Warrington who first fell in love with the game, a kid who couldn’t possibly know that this was just the start of a long and wonderful journey.
Late on in England’s 6-1 win over Panama , as Gareth Southgate’s side languorously closed out a game they had spectacularly ransacked in the space of 45 first-half minutes, the television cameras picked out Lingard, now sitting on the bench, having got his goal and come off for Fabian Delph.
Spotting a rolled-up ball of socks on the ground next to him, Lingard picked it up and started juggling it, still seated. It was, as the commentators say, a lovely moment: a window into the world of a guy who plays football like it’s a toy he’s just opened on Christmas morning.
As strange as it may seem these days, for a player so seemingly enamoured with the camera, there was a time not so long ago when Lingard used to dread big games. His coaches at United remember an FA Youth Cup semi-final against Chelsea in 2011 where he was so overcome with nerves he began shaking. At one point he was sick on the pitch. And even when he broke into the professional ranks, enjoying a sparkling pre-season tour under David Moyes in the summer of 2013, that paralysing doubt was still there, at the back of his head, telling him he wasn’t good enough.
“I thought in my head it was still too early for me,” he would later recall. “I remember when we got back from tour. I was nervous. My passes were short. So I knew, even then, that I couldn’t handle it.”
Where did that crippling doubt come from? And how did Lingard manage to conquer it to the point where he can put away the winning goal in an FA Cup final, or a score a 20-yard curler for England at a World Cup and then gallop to the corner flag doing the Shoot Dance? The answer, you suspect, tells us a little about Lingard, a little about United, and a little about this England side, and where it may be headed.
For one thing, Lingard isn’t as young as people think. He’s 26 this year. In terms of this England squad, he’s dead centre, the fulcrum: the 12th oldest, the 12th youngest. But even from an early age, he was identified as a late developer. Sir Alex Ferguson once compared him to Jean Tigana, another midfielder with exceptional game intelligence, impeccable timing, tenacity and energy, who only really began to leave his imprint on the game at an age when those qualities were able to outweigh his physical slightness.
Tigana played a less attacking role in the France side of the 1980s than Lingard does for England, but otherwise the parallels are apt. There were bigger stars in that team, but Tigana was one of those players who coaches adore: a guy who greased the wheels, made the team tick, who slipped into the system rather than forcing the system to work around him. He was as comfortable tracking back to shield the defence as he was bursting into the channels with a surprising burst of speed. And like Lingard, he was small in a game, and an area of the pitch, where it was not always an advantage.
It was Lingard’s size, above all, that fed those nagging doubts.
“He was light,” Bryan Robson later remembered, “and he didn’t show enough to make me believe he could be anything more than a squad player.” And had he emerged a decade or two earlier, it’s likely that little Jesse - a player who his former United coach Rene Meulensteen believes could be England’s closest equivalent to Andres Iniesta - would have slipped through the cracks. It was his good fortune, and England’s, that he found an environment, and coaches, that recognised his virtues and allowed him to thrive.
Firstly there was Ferguson, who recognised early on that Lingard needed time to develop. Lingard was not the star of his generation at United: Paul Pogba and Ravel Morrison were, two richly gifted midfielders who have enjoyed wildly divergent career trajectories ever since. Then there was Louis van Gaal, whose commitment to developing United’s academy talent remains one of his underrated legacies, and who hauled Lingard off his loan carousel and gave him his first proper run in the United side.
And most recently there has been the influence of Jose Mourinho, who may not get the same credit for developing young English talent as his light-blue counterpart across the city, but who in many ways has provided Lingard with the final flourish his game needed: a hardness, a durability, an enhanced awareness of his defensive responsibilities, of how his own skills fit into the side as a whole. “My overall awareness on the pitch,” he said at the start of last season when asked how Mourinho had developed his game. “Knowing where you are on the pitch. Doing things in the right areas, that’s very key.” Even so, his goal output has never been greater: 13 this season in all competitions, more than doubling his career tally at United.
Mourinho, for his part, has been beguiled by Lingard’s work ethic, his unstinting attitude to training, his infectious sense of fun. “He is the funny one that doesn’t disturb the class,” he said recently. “He is the funny one that the teacher isn’t upset with.”
Southgate, too, has discovered this. Lingard’s prat-falling, silly celebrations and social media shenanigans may cause a certain amount of harrumphing in all the right places, but in many ways he embodies England’s basic sense of fun, its impish impudence, its love of the ball and its love of the game. It was somehow fitting that he scored England’s most joyously free-flowing goal of the tournament, a scampering one-two and buried finish from distance, a product of vision, acceleration, intelligence, movement and technique. “A generation of kids will remember that goal,” Rio Ferdinand said afterwards.
There were a few voices suggesting Lingard was under pressure for his place. It wasn’t close to being true. Every manager needs his Lingard, the player who encapsulates what the team is basically about. For Southgate, happily, it appears to be Lingard: a player of versatility and courage, of spirit and soul and only good vibes.
“The togetherness I’ve seen is incredible,” Lingard’s United team-mate Ashley Young says. “Off the pitch, everybody mixes with each other. Everybody wants the ball. Nobody shies away from the ball. We’ve got to keep on doing that, keep showing our confidence, keep playing the way we have. This could be the start of something good.
The journey may have been long, but it isn’t over, not by a long stretch. Belgium are next, and even if as expected Roberto Martinez rests a few of his star players, their technical midfield pair will offer Lingard a different sort of test, different kinds of decisions. After that, who knows? It never pays to put shackles on your dreams, as the photograph above his desk will surely remind him: the umbilical link between the boy with the ball at his feet, and the man with the world at his feet.
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