How Jesse Lingard Refused to Let His Manchester United Dream Die

Sam Pilger@sampilgerContributing Football WriterJanuary 25, 2018

Manchester United's English midfielder Jesse Lingard celebrates scoring the opening goal during the English FA Cup third round football match between Manchester United and Derby County at Old Trafford in Manchester, north west England, on January 5, 2018. / AFP PHOTO / Lindsey PARNABY / RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE. No use with unauthorized audio, video, data, fixture lists, club/league logos or 'live' services. Online in-match use limited to 75 images, no video emulation. No use in betting, games or single club/league/player publications.  /         (Photo credit should read LINDSEY PARNABY/AFP/Getty Images)
LINDSEY PARNABY/Getty Images

"You have to trust us; we have a pathway for Jesse at Manchester United and really believe he can make it."

As far back as when he was eight years old, this was the message former Manchester United coach, and former manager Sir Alex Ferguson's first-team assistant, Rene Meulensteen would repeatedly convey to Jesse Lingard's family when they collected him from training sessions.

As the young Lingard jumped into a waiting car, Meulensteen always made the effort to speak to his grandfather Ken or mother Kirsty and impress upon them that, despite the obstacles, the club believed he could succeed at Old Trafford.

"When I started working with Jesse, he was tiny, really little, but he also had this incredible energy and drive," Meulensteen said. "There are always doubts, but we worked hard with Jesse, laid down a technical foundation, focused on skills, and he flourished.

"At every step, I painted a picture for his family, that Jesse could be like Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs, who at the time were in the first team, and become a real player at the club, and always made sure they understood we had a plan for him."

Manchester United's English midfielder Jesse Lingard celebrates scoring the team's second goal during the English Premier League football match between Everton and Manchester United at Goodison Park in Liverpool, north west England on January 1, 2018. / A
PAUL ELLIS/Getty Images

It has taken longer than normal, but 17 years later, after several false starts, four loan spells and a constant battle for respect, Lingard has earned a regular place in the United first team.

Alexis Sanchez's arrival may mean further competition for places, but Lingard has never been one to duck a challenge.

Before this season, he had made 83 appearances for United and scored several important goals, including a dramatic extra-time winner in the 2016 FA Cup final. But he remained a peripheral player at the club. He was deemed good but probably not quite good enough to remain at Old Trafford for too much longer.

At United since he was seven, familiarity had bred contempt among some of the club's fans, and last year United manager Jose Mourinho was even forced to defend himself from criticism after giving Lingard a new contract.

At the start of this season, Mourinho chose not to start Lingard in United's first seven Premier League games. That fueled the view that, now 24, Lingard's chance to play regularly for United had gone and a permanent move away beckoned.

But after being given his first league start of the season at the end of October, against Huddersfield Town, Lingard has emerged as one of United's most important players and one of the leading players in the Premier League.

In his new central position, playing as a No. 10, Lingard has scored 10 goals in his past 18 appearances in all competitions and has contributed two assists.

In the Premier League, he can boast more goals than Kevin De Bruyne or Dele Alli this season, and he has more goals and assists per minutes on the pitch than De Bruyne, Alli and David Silva.

Lingard has become a key part of Jose Mourinho's plans
Lingard has become a key part of Jose Mourinho's plansLaurence Griffiths/Getty Images

Lingard has inspired United to play with a greater fluidity and attacking threat, while his goals have mostly been decisive and spectacular efforts.

Ferguson, and his coaches, always knew this day would come.

"Jesse Lingard is going to be some player," Sir Alex declared in 2012, as reported by Mark Jones of the Mirror. "He is 19, came through our youth system and is built like Jean Tigana was for France. But he never got into the limelight there until he was 24, and that will be the same with Lingard. He will become a player when he's 22 or so. As an attacking midfielder he has got really good talent."

Lingard has had to take the long route, but his story is the triumph of resilience, patience and trust.

Born and raised in Warrington, Lingard was discovered playing for his local junior team, Penketh United, aged seven by United scout Mike Glennie, who spoke to his grandfather after a game.

Lingard was placed in United's skills development programme, headed by Meulensteen. For four years, between the ages of eight and nearly 12, Meulensteen worked with Lingard for four sessions each week.  

Sir Alex Ferguson and Rene Meulensteen
Sir Alex Ferguson and Rene MeulensteenVI-Images/Getty Images

The programme specifically focused on improving the skills of young players, working repeatedly on between 24-30 different tricks, including step-overs, Cruyff turns, hooks and drag-backs, which were used in a variety of small-sided games from 1 vs. 1 up to 4 vs. 4.

"This was a different approach to what many were used to, but I believed in the value of skills development," Meulensteen said. "We felt we were giving them the tools to become professionals."

At first, the benefits of focusing on skills was not immediately obvious, and Meulensteen's under-9 group, including Lingard, would suffer the embarrassment of losing a fixture 10-3 to Leeds United.

"The parents were up in arms," Meulensteen said. "They had never seen kids doing skills in their own penalty area, but I knew it was worth it, and they quickly learned when to properly use them. A year later, when we played Leeds again, we beat them 11-2.

"I can recall players like Ruud van Nistelrooy and Diego Forlan coming down to watch our sessions, and when they saw Jesse, both said, 'Jesus, this boy is good!'"

The major concern with Lingard was always about his being significantly smaller than the other boys in his age group, and when he was an under-18, he stayed with the under-16s because of his size. But the United coaches refused to lose faith and believed he would just take longer to mature as a player.  

"In England, you need physical strength, and we knew Jesse was never going to be like Cristiano Ronaldo," Meulensteen said. "But Sir Alex himself was never worried by Jesse's size; all he ever asked us coaches was, 'Can the boy play?'"

Lingard would become an important member of United's 2011 FA Youth Cup-winning side, along with Paul Pogba and Ravel Morrison.

"Jesse brought people together in that side," former United assistant manager Mike Phelan recalled. "Even as a kid, he was linking players and making all those around him better."

Pogba and Lingard played on the same youth side
Pogba and Lingard played on the same youth sideANTHONY DEVLIN/Getty Images

But while Pogba and Morrison were quickly handed first-team debuts, Lingard—though he was twice given a place on the bench—was not close to a breakthrough.

"When he came to train with the big boys like Scholes and Ferdinand, he did well," Phelan recalled. "There was an excitement about Jesse, but we could see he was a late bloomer, and there was a lot of quality in front of him. He had to be patient."

In November 2012, Lingard went on loan to Leicester City in the Championship with his United team-mate Michael Keane, but he returned after only making five substitute appearances.

For the next six months, Lingard would be forced to fester in the shadows until the summer, when he scored five goals during the pre-season tour of Australia and Asia under new manager David Moyes.

But a cautious Moyes ignored Lingard's form, preferring Adnan Januzaj as a youthful member of his first team. Lingard was sent on another loan, this time to Birmingham City.

Then-Birmingham manager Lee Clark had been desperate to take Lingard to the Midlands, and two days after arriving in September 2013, Lingard rewarded his faith, scoring four goals on his debut in a 4-1 win over Sheffield Wednesday.

"He scored a hat-trick in the first half and was amazing," former Birmingham midfielder Chris Burke, now at Kilmarnock, said. "I will always remember his first goal, the way he ghosted past a defender and placed the ball in the corner rather than smash it. He was sheer class.

"He was two steps ahead of everyone else at Birmingham and the rest of the Championship. He was that good. He had such intelligence and speed of thought; he knew just when to pass, shoot and run. He had the talent, but I tell you, he worked so hard too."

Lingard on loan at Birmingham
Lingard on loan at BirminghamMichael Regan/Getty Images

After spending three months with Birmingham, scoring six goals in 13 games, Lingard returned to Old Trafford in January 2014. But as Moyes' regime was imploding, the manager was in no mood to indulge any more young players. In February, the Scot sent Lingard out on loan once again, this time to Brighton & Hove Albion.

"We all knew about him because of what he had done at Birmingham," former Brighton defender Gordon Greer said. "He was a confident young player, but there was no cockiness. He was down to earth and very likeable.

"Even though he came from a big club, he still had to prove himself. We knew we were a stepping stone, and so we looked at him and asked, 'What can you do for us?'"

The answer was a great deal, as Lingard contributed four goals in 17 appearances to help Oscar Garcia's Brighton side reach the Championship play-offs, where they would lose to Derby County in the semi-finals.

"He brought us composure on the ball, he travelled well with it too, so he got us up the park and helped link play," Greer said. "You could tell he was real quality but that he was probably suited to a higher level."

One person who agreed was new United manager Louis van Gaal, who succeeded Moyes in the summer of 2014. He handed Lingard his United debut against Swansea City at Old Trafford on the opening day of the 2014/15 Premier League season.

But after only 24 minutes, Lingard seriously injured his knee stretching to challenge Swansea captain Ashley Williams and had to hobble off the pitch, distraught at the cruelty of it all.  

Lingard spent the following months watching from the sidelines and recuperating before going on another loan spell, this time to Derby County.

He spent the final four months of the season playing under Steve McClaren with the Rams, scoring two goals in 15 games, once more impressing his host club and receiving a slew of complimentary reviews. But Lingard wanted more than this.

BURNLEY, ENGLAND - JANUARY 20: Jesse Lingard of Manchester United during the Premier League match between Burnley and Manchester United at Turf Moor on January 20, 2018 in Burnley, England. (Photo by Robbie Jay Barratt - AMA/Getty Images)
Robbie Jay Barratt - AMA/Getty Images

By the summer of 2015, it had been a full four years since he had become a professional at United, but he had a mere 24 minutes of first-team football to show for it.

An uncharacteristic self-doubt consumed him, and for the first time, he thought he might have to leave United for good.

"I have seen other young players grow impatient and bolt to another club; it is the youth of today—they want everything now," Phelan said. "But Jesse ultimately wasn't prepared to settle for that; he knew he was good enough and could make it at United. He showed real character and kept believing."

Meulensteen added: "The difference was Jesse is United through and through. He would not give up being here. There was no way he would walk away from his dream before doing all he could."

As a toddler, Lingard had run around his garden dressed in a United kit. He had stared in awe at Cristiano Ronaldo and his silver boots when he had come to watch his age group training. For more than a decade, all he had ever wanted to do was play for United.

But at the start of the 2015/16 season, Lingard finally decided that this campaign was make or break for him. He was 22, the age Ferguson had predicted he would regularly get into the first team.

By October, Lingard had not appeared in the Premier League and began to fear the worst. He was finally called from the bench to replace Juan Mata at half-time in a 3-0 win against Everton at Goodison Park.

From that moment, everything changed. He soon won Van Gaal's trust, scoring his first goal for United the following month, against West Bromwich Albion in a 2-0 win at Old Trafford.

"It was a great experience under Van Gaal," Lingard told Paul Hetherington of the Daily Star. "He gave you the confidence to go and play. I knew that Van Gaal had faith in me, and it was great to play that season."

Van Gaal is a largely a derided figure at Old Trafford, but the man who gave Clarence Seedorf, Patrick Kluivert, Xavi and Andres Iniesta their debuts knows talent, and he came to appreciate Lingard's attacking verve and work ethic.

Louis van Gaal had a lot of faith in Lingard
Louis van Gaal had a lot of faith in LingardCatherine Ivill - AMA/Getty Images

By the end of the season, Lingard had made 40 appearances in all competitions and scored six goals, including his extra-time winner in the FA Cup final against Crystal Palace at Wembley Stadium.

But Van Gaal would learn of his dismissal from United within hours of winning the FA Cup, forcing Lingard to have to impress yet another new United manager, his fourth in five years.

"Fantastic goal in the cup final; s--t post on the bus to West Ham," was the text message Jose Mourinho sent to Lingard after he had been appointed United's new manager in the summer of 2016.

He was alluding to Lingard's tendency to play the fool on social media. In May of that year, Lingard had posted a video of himself laughing on the United team bus as they were under attack en route to playing in West Ham United's final game at Upton Park.

Mourinho was challenging Lingard: Are you a serious player, or are you more interested in courting popularity online?

The United manager quickly had his answer. In the Portuguese's first competitive game in charge of the club, Lingard scored another brilliant goal at Wembley to help United win the Community Shield against Leicester City. He would add another at the national stadium in February to help United win the EFL Cup.

Last season, Lingard also earned an England call-up and impressed Mourinho enough to be offered a new four-year contract that media outlets such as the Daily Mail reported as being worth up to £100,000 per week.

But the reaction of some United fans to this deal showed that Lingard, the local lad, was still being taken for granted. Mourinho responded: "If you don't pay, they go, so we can be criticised for paying so much, but we'd also be criticised if we lost a young England player from the academy." 

Lingard's long battle for acceptance had still not been won.

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 20: Marcus Rashford of Manchester United celebrates scoring his sides first goal with Jesse Lingard of Manchester United during the Carabao Cup Third Round match between Manchester United and Burton Albion at Old Trafford o
Alex Livesey/Getty Images

And at the start of this season, he found himself crowded out by Marcus Rashford, the now-departed Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Anthony Martial and Juan Mata.

Once back in the team, Lingard's move inside from the wing has been the making of him this season.

Before this campaign, he had contributed a goal or assist to United every 378 minutes in the Premier League. This season, it is now every 98 minutes.

When Lingard was 15, Meulensteen had suggested to him his best position would be behind the striker and encouraged the youngster to watch videos of Barcelona's Iniesta.

"I saw so many similarities in their games, and I always believed that Jesse was the English Andres Iniesta," the Dutch coach said. "Like Iniesta, he finds these pockets of space, he is always on the move and has very good feet. The only thing missing until recently was goals, but now Jesse is scoring important goals too.

"In my opinion, you could fly Jesse to Barcelona, let him play in Iniesta's position, and he would comfortably be able to do it and fit in. And he does it in the Premier League, which is more difficult than La Liga, so that is a credit to Jesse.

"Jesse's size held him back, but now it is actually an advantage, as he is light, agile and quick, and so opponents can't live with him."

Lingard spoke about his rise with Sky Sports in January: "I think it's my time now. I knew I had to step up and take charge, and that's what I've done.

"The goals have come, which gave me confidence. The first few seasons, I was just getting used to the Premier League. ... [Now] I've got objectives, a different mindset to get goals and assists."

Manchester United's English midfielder Jesse Lingard (L) celebrates scoring the opening goal during the English FA Cup third round football match between Manchester United and Derby County at Old Trafford in Manchester, north west England, on January 5, 2
LINDSEY PARNABY/Getty Images

It might be Mourinho who is benefitting the most from Lingard's transformation, but his former coaches, who helped nurture him for more than a decade, have taken great pride in seeing him fulfill his potential.

"I know Sir Alex has a smile on his face when he watches Jesse," Phelan said. "He laid the foundation for him, he saw what he was capable of and he loves watching him from the stands at Old Trafford. Jesse is part of his legacy at the club."

After most games this season, Meulensteen has sent Lingard a text with the simple message: "Well done, lad."

Seventeen years after he first started to coach Lingard and told his family about the pathway the club had for him, Meulensteen has felt vindicated by Lingard's success this season.

"We had a vision for Jesse, so it is wonderful to see him become the player we always thought he could be," he said. "He's smiling now, getting the credit he deserves and, after a long wait, he is now where he always wanted to be."

                            

All quotes and information obtained firsthand unless otherwise stated. 

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