It is impossible to overestimate human capacity for consternation and affront; to be certain, simply consult the state of our planet. But no field of endeavour incites quite the same indignance as football, in which players of rare flair and pathological perseverance are regularly derided as frauds, wage-thieves and clowns.
As such, it was unsurprising when Manchester United’s decision to award Jesse Lingard a new contract was greeted with widespread scorn; apparently, two cup final goals inside a year do not incontrovertible proof of usefulness represent. Likewise, his appreciation by footballing thinkers as disparate and legendary as Alex Ferguson, Paul Scholes, Louis van Gaal and Jose Mourinho is also not persuasive, because, well, see above.
This is not to say that Lingard – though capable of brilliance – is a brilliant player. But the best teams have neither the best player in every position, nor the second-best player understudying every position. Rather, they have a variety of options and alternatives which fit particular circumstances, as well as able deputies for when the first choices are unavailable. Now, it may well be difficult to grasp why Lingard has been so often preferred to Anthony Martial and Henrikh Mkhitaryan, but it is still foolish to conflate what he does with who he isn’t.
Manchester United's Jesse Lingard celebrates scoring their second goal with Ashley Young
Image credit: Reuters
Lingard’s Wembley contributions are not coincidental. Even when not playing well, he is brave and direct, prepared to run with the ball, without the ball, and shoot from distance – important qualities in any squad, let alone one as risk-averse as United's. It is for this reason that opportunities fall to him, and when they do he responds with conviction, an attitude which has compiled him a collection of lovely finishes and horrendous misses
Undoubtedly, his tally of six goals in 32 starts last season, five in 20 this, is not good enough, but for all the inconsistency of his end product, the excellence of his movement is uniform. Whether on the counter or against a set defence, he creates angles and space from a variety of starting positions off either foot.
The history of Manchester United is littered with contributions from men who, though not key, played key roles at key times. After Nemanja Vidic established himself as Rio Ferdinand’s partner at the start of 2006-07, Wes Brown barely played at centre-back until the end of the following season, when, in the second leg of the Champions League semi-final, he produced one of the greatest performances in the club’s history.
And there are plenty of others who, at various points in their careers, were neither regulars nor elite but no less significant for that fact; including Mark Robins, Brian McClair, Phil Neville, Teddy Sheringham, Ole Gunnar Solksjaer, Diego Forlan, Darren Fletcher, Ji-Sung Park, John O’Shea and Ryan Giggs.
In general, the best United sides have combined three aspects: expensive signings, clever signings, and players from the youth team. Since October 1937, every matchday squad has featured at least one homegrown product, and that facet is integral to the club’s spirit, swagger and success.
Lingard, born less than 20 miles from Old Trafford, has been at United since the age of seven, and is also close to Paul Pogba and Marcus Rashford, the most talented players among the current collection. Though these elements alone do not justify his new contract, they are still important, all the more so given the levity and fun that he brings with him – qualities noticeable by their absence during the last four years.
Manchester United's English midfielder Jesse Lingard celebrates
Image credit: AFP
Nonetheless, not everyone appreciates this: the only thing worse than someone enjoying their life is someone enjoying their life with good reason. And Lingard – for whom good reason constitutes playing for his boyhood club, with his mates, while earning a lot of money – enjoys his life in a very particular way: he celebrates his goals in the way that he wants to, he interacts with those mates in the way that he wants to, and spends his money in the way that he wants to.
“What would Roy Keane say?” retort his critics, and it is true that the world would be a better place if each of its inhabitants tattooed that maxim across their forehead. But when Roy Keane scored twice on his United debut, he performed two knee-slides; in his early years at the club, he was muckers with Lee Sharpe; and in later years he developed his own running-jump, flapping arms celebration with which he marked every goal.
The reality is that for some these complaints are euphemistic. British society is not exactly famed for the equitable way in which it treats people of colour, and there is a particular kind of displeasure taken when personality and identity are proudly asserted (read more about that here and here). Given Lingard’s joy in dabbing, dancing and handshaking, who could possibly hypothesise what the real issue might be?
By complete coincidence, there has also been plenty of whinging about how much money he is now earning. Of course, £100,000 a week is a lot, but hardly out of proportion given Lingard’s presence at one of the richest clubs in football at a time when the game is awash with unparalleled riches. When Phil Neville left United 12 years ago, he was earning more than half that; Wayne Rooney is currently earning more than three times that; which means that Lingard's salary is market rate and nothing more.
And, with United preparing for the games which will define their season, it made perfect sense to give it to him – most people perform better when they feel valued and relaxed. Sure enough, Lingard celebrated his achievement with an excellent show against Sunderland on Sunday before a promising but patchy display against Anderlecht last night. With Chelsea visiting Old Trafford this weekend, before the return against Anderlecht next Thursday, now would be a good time to solidify his progress.
-- Daniel Harris