Jesse Lingard heads into the 2018 World Cup with just two competitive starts to his name for England but with a prominent role awaiting him in Russia. John Brewin speaks to Lingard's former coaches and mentors to discover the qualities which have made this late developer such an important player for club and country.
They called it “the Cage”. A game of 13 v 13 where boys of 12 duked it out with almost fully grown 18-year-olds, it was a no-rules, fun diversion for the hopefuls at Manchester United’s Carrington training ground.
Its purpose was rather more calculated than the harem scarem free-for-all a passing observer might have mistaken it for. Jim Ryan, the club’s director of youth football, wanted to recreate the park kickabouts of his post-war youth in Scotland. In Ryan’s view, and that of United's manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, it was those impromptu all-age matches, played without rules from dawn on housing estates across the country until dusk, when the sodium street lamps could no longer prevent players bumping into each other, that once made Scotland such a hotbed of the game. In 1967, Celtic famously won the European Cup with all but one of their 15-man squad born within 10 miles of Parkhead, and every English team of the 1960s and 1970s worth its salt featured a classic Scottish ball player.
These days, Scottish parks, and those in England for that matter, are no longer filled with kids playing football but in recreating that environment in more controlled conditions, United coaches felt they had a shortcut to working out which players could step up to show the moral courage a player requires to succeed in the professional game.
He was like a little boy. But mentally he was ahead of most of the bigger boys.
Within “the Cage”, and despite a physique described without exception as “tiny” by coaches and those who knew him as a teenager, Jesse Lingard stood out. Most of the facets that have made him a favourite of both current United manager Jose Mourinho and England coach Gareth Southgate were apparent in a small, childlike figure whose lack of size was counterbalanced by confidence, enthusiasm and creativity. The goals Lingard struck for United at Wembley in both the FA Cup final of 2016 and the League Cup final of 2017 were little surprise to the coaches who knew him back then, and the capers and jokes the social media devotee brings to various platforms were all present and correct.
"He was like a little boy,” says Paul McGuinness, the former United youth team coach who now works for the English Football Association as its National Coach Developer. "But mentally he was ahead of most of the bigger boys. He was quicker, sharper, a good learner, brighter. Just like he is now, bright as a button, always having a laugh. His personality helped to get him through, be resilient enough. If he was getting knocked down, he was always getting back up again.”
Ferguson created an environment and culture that featured a team of ex-United players, including Ryan, Brian McClair and Tony Whelan, all passing on what they learned during so many collective years at the club. The lineage went right back to Jimmy Murphy, the Welsh coach who was Sir Matt Busby’s right-hand man from the conclusion of the Second World War until both retired in 1969. It was a hard school, and ruthless to those who could not make the grade, but fun and creativity were key to the education process.
2. The Class of 2011
Ryan Tunnicliffe, Jesse Lingard, Paul Pogba and Ravel Morrison of Manchester United Academy Under-18s celebrate with the FA Youth Cup trophy in the dressing room
Image credit: Getty Images
Lingard’s age group contained plenty of gems: Paul Pogba, the rangy Frenchman lured from Le Havre as a 16-year-old; Ravel Morrison, a midfielder with as rich a talent as even Ferguson thought he had encountered; Will Keane, a striker of poise, alongside twin brother Michael, a defender not as gifted but who worked hard to make it to a professional contract; Sam Johnstone, a highly regarded goalkeeper; captain Ryan Tunnicliffe, hard-working and forceful in midfield; Tyler Blackett, a classy, athletic defender; Larnell Cole, Lingard’s closest friend on the team and with whom he would practice the latest American dance crazes, a skilful, diminutive forward.
Together, those players would win the 2011 FA Youth Cup, getting past a Liverpool team containing Lingard’s future England colleague Raheem Sterling in the quarter-final and Sheffield United, featuring Harry Maguire, in a two-legged final won 6-3 on aggregate. But the club's record 10th lifting of the trophy was also its last. Since McGuinness’ team moved up into the senior ranks, English football’s youth scene has been dominated by Chelsea, winners of the trophy in six of the last seven seasons, but with still only Andreas Christensen produced as a regular first-teamer.
And once Pogba’s 2012 departure and subsequent £89m recapture from Juventus is set aside, only Lingard, and belatedly, has properly completed the pathway from primary school aspirant to United first-team regular. Unlike the Busby Babes, or the "Class of ’92” that later reasserted the club’s reputation as an institution built on the flowering of youth, there are no documentaries on heavy MUTV rotation celebrating a golden generation from 2011.
With Jesse, you didn’t know if he would grow. Would he be too small?
Lingard’s path to prominence was not easy, and circuitous. The rest of the aforementioned have forged careers in football, but away from the Old Trafford stage they were nurtured to grace. "It’s always in the back of your mind that you want to stay at United and you want to play for United,” Lingard said before the 2016 FA Cup final against Crystal Palace, where he would be playing without any of his old pals around him.
"You just don’t know,” says McGuinness of the difficulty of predicting which players might make it. "Even Pogba, you thought he had a real chance, but you just didn’t know. You hope so and you can’t be sure. With Jesse, you didn’t know if he would grow. Would he be too small?” Ferguson, though, was ready to wait. "The manager said to him, ‘you’ll be 23 before you are really ready’,” says McGuinness, and it was at 23 that Lingard, as a substitute, scored the brilliant extra-time volley that sunk Crystal Palace at Wembley.
3. A waiting game
Jesse Lingard in action for Manchester United's youth team in 2010
Image credit: Reuters
Rene Meulensteen, who served as United’s first-team coach from 2006 until Ferguson's retirement in 2013, first joined the coaching staff in 2001 as a skills coach. Lingard, then an eight-year-old, was in the first intake of classes where Meulensteen practiced the Coerver Method, a football coaching technique named after Wiel Coerver, who led Feyenoord to winning the 1973-4 UEFA Cup. Coerver believed promising youngsters could become great players by focusing on individual ball skills; honing a perfect first touch buys time to make the next move.
“What I always found with Jesse is that he was full of beans, he had enormous energy, and enormous willingness to learn,” Meulensteen tells Eurosport. “All our lessons were about learning new moves, new tricks, and putting that into full-sided games. Jesse couldn’t get enough, he was a pleasure to work with. We always knew Jesse would not be the biggest and strongest of players. The one thing that set him apart was that he was very intelligent. He was very agile, had a great change of pace and had a big heart. He had his challenges to overcome but he coped with that very well. You have to have patience with those players, and we devised a different pathway.”
I always said to Jesse, ‘you remind me of Iniesta, you can be the English version'
That pathway included Lingard being kept down the age groups while his more physically developed peers pushed on. Photos of him at 16 show a waif who could pass for 13, but it was his bravery that meant coaches like McGuinness and McClair would not lose faith. “At other clubs he wouldn’t suit the skills,” says McGuinness, but United’s old heads had shown similar patience with Paul Scholes, also tiny as a youngster and who himself did not become a proper first-team regular until he was 23 or 24. "I always said to Jesse ‘you remind me of Iniesta, you can be the English version’,” says Meulensteen, “The player that weaves between the lines, that is able to create chances through combinations with other players and being able to beat a man, which is what he does now.”
Lingard - from Warrington, the sprawling, industrial Cheshire town that sits between Manchester and Liverpool and in which football loyalties are divided between Mancunian and Merseyside clubs - was determined to make it at the club whose matches he had attended with his granddad even before he had signed on their books. At 13, he moved out of his mother’s home to club digs and attended Ashton-on-Mersey school in Sale, a southern suburb of Manchester close to Carrington, on a Manchester United Schoolboy Scholarship - “MANUSS” as it’s known at the club - but it would be fully 10 years until he was able to seize his chance.
4. Out on loan
Despite Ferguson twice selecting him as an unused first-team substitute, and a spate of decent moments on United’s pre-season tour of Asia and Australia in 2013, Lingard’s chance would only truly arrive once he had undertaken four loan spells, at Leicester City, Birmingham City, Brighton and Derby County. None of them were for extended periods away from the Carrington cradle, but were long enough to give him experience in the Championship, where rough-hewn professionals will not give flickering, self-confident starlets the chance to show off their Coerver-learned ball skills.
That final three-month spell from February 2015 at Derby followed the most serious setback of his career. Having impressed new manager Louis van Gaal in a pre-season tour of the United States, Lingard was selected as right wing-back in the opening Premier League match against Swansea, only for 24 minutes of characteristic brightness to come to an end after he over-reached for a tackle with Ashley Williams and badly damaged a knee. ”I think it was my fault,” Lingard later said. ”I dived in. I was excited and it was a new step for me.”
Oh, he was just magnificent
Where Van Gaal, who gave 14 youngsters their United debuts during two years at Old Trafford, was prepared to trust him, predecessor David Moyes, swiftly under pressure after succeeding Ferguson, did not feel able to blood youth. Allowed by Moyes to seek experience elsewhere, it was in the second spell of that loan quartet, at Birmingham, under the management of Lee Clark, that Lingard first hit national headlines. On his Blues debut against Sheffield Wednesday on September 21 2013, he scored a hat-trick in the space of 13 first-half minutes and scored a second-half fourth in a 4-1 win.
“Oh, he was just magnificent,” Clark now tells Eurosport of that debut. “I played him off the left of an attacking three, coming in on his right foot and he was just phenomenal. Not just his goals, his general play. Now, without being disrespectful to some of the players I had, sometimes the problem Jesse had that he was a couple of steps ahead of them. They weren’t always on his wavelength.”
Birmingham City's Jesse Lingard (Right) celebrates his and City's 4th goal with Tom Adeyemi
Image credit: PA Photos
Clark had previously loaned players from United, including 19-year-old Danny Drinkwater when manager at Huddersfield during the 2008-9 season, and found that Lingard shared “that same mentality. He had the Man United way, they educate their players. They are ridiculously talented but they work them hard as well. He’s a terrific lad off the pitch, he’s very respectful to management, staff and team-mates and he’s got fire in his belly. I remember in his last game for us against Wigan, he picked up two yellow cards for tackles. As long as they are not reckless tackles to get a yellow, you can’t begrudge them that as you want them to be competitive.”
As Lingard scored his FA Cup final winner, Clark was in the process of preparing his Kilmarnock team for a relegation play-off but had taken time to watch his former protege. “When you have had a little part to play in someone getting success like that, it makes you proud.”
5. The one who got away
Ravel Morrison (R) celebrates with Jesse Lingard after scoring in the FA Youth Cup semi-final in 2011
Image credit: Reuters
As someone who worked with both outside that United cocoon, Clark is ideally placed to compare Lingard with Ravel Morrison, the wayward prince of that 2011 youth team. Of the pair, who still keep in touch to this day, Morrison was hailed as the next future great.
Lingard stayed the course to become a reliable, admired professional while Morrison, a chaotic off-field life complicated by repeated scrapes with the law, has become the great lost talent of his generation, someone who might have been the creative fulcrum of Southgate’s team in Russia, but who instead spent the 2017-18 season playing for Mexican club Atlas, on loan from Lazio, where he washed up when all ports of call in English football were exhausted.
Once Ferguson, the last among United’s coaching staff to admit defeat, had decided the best thing for the young man’s career and his personal safety was to get away from Manchester, it was to West Ham and close friend Sam Allardyce that Morrison was sold in January 2012. Clark, ever keen to get the use of one of United’s jewels, handed Morrison the chance to spend a season on loan in the Midlands, and despite an often tempestuous relationship, he remains appreciative of the rich talent Morrison possessed then, and probably still possesses now.
“Ravel has not handled the outside issues,” say Clark. “They’ve dominated and taken over his football. Magnificent footballer, the most talented I have worked with. I likened him to a modern-day Paul Gascoigne, who was a genius, and I played and grew up with Paul at Newcastle United. This boy was anything he wanted to be. He should be a prominent player in the Premier League and in the England World Cup squad, without a doubt, but you have to have the full package and Rav hasn’t been able to stop the off-field issues from side-tracking him.”
An injury-hit time in Guadalajara with struggling Atlas was at least offset by a lack of getting into off-field trouble, suggesting some lessons have been learned, but should he be interested in the World Cup, Morrison will be watching friends like Lingard and Pogba on television.
6. Controlling the message
At least Lingard has been reunited with the other enfant terrible of his United generation. Pogba’s return to United came in 2016, four years after an explosion between Ferguson and agent Mino Raiola. They enjoyed a relationship the manager described in his autobiography as “oil and water” before later labelling the “super-agent” a “s***bag.”
With the likes of McGuinness, Meulensteen, Ryan and McClair now gone and Ferguson a face on matchday in the director’s box, Pogba returned to a club much altered from that he left but Lingard was a familiar face, his personality the same as it been had when the pair first met as 16-year-olds. Together, they have become United’s prime exponents of social media, a world that may be alien to many an older fan, and to which the club itself was resistant until relatively recently.
Where United execs were concerned by potential loose cannons like Wayne Rooney and Rio Ferdinand setting up Twitter accounts, there have been few such worries with the Instagram antics that Lingard and Pogba get up to. Besides, these things are now recognised as being good for business. Lingard’s good-natured tormenting of Marcus Rashford, with whom he has been close since they met in “the Cage” when the striker was just 12 and the midfielder a youth-team player, serves to display a human side to footballers that this age of rigid media management otherwise prevents.
“There’s a group of players who have taken fans into the dressing room and Jesse is at the heart of that,” says Lewis Wiltshire, consulting partner at leading digital sports agency Seven League. “I now know what the dressing room looks like and the corridors, too. They take them into their inner sanctum, and I think it gives them a platform they can control their message with, a right of reply. You have a generation of players who have grown up with a smartphone in their hands, and they know far more than the PR execs.”
Lingard, not someone overly given to newspaper interviews or TV appearances, has created an image for himself that those close to him say reflects who he actually is in real life, and has always been.
7. A special approval
Manchester United's Jesse Lingard is substituted off as Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho looks on
Image credit: Reuters
Joining Lingard’s many admirers within the game has been Jose Mourinho, hardly a manager known for a patience with nascent talent. From scoring the first goal of Mourinho’s regime with a burning, weaving run through the middle of Leicester’s defence in the 2016 Community Shield, a match that his manager would count as one of three trophies at the end of the season, Lingard has been a trusted option, someone whose versatility and willingness to adapt is fully appreciated. And within Mourinho’s outwardly austere regime, United’s manager is known to enjoy Lingard’s sunny personality and ability to find fun in the mundanity of professional football’s grind, since that messing around is paired with hard work of the type the Portuguese has always expected from players.
As someone who paints his career journey from translator to two-time Champions League-winning manager as a struggle against the forces of the game’s establishment, Mourinho has often favoured those who have also had to fight their way through to the top, from Didier Drogba the late developer, to Frank Lampard, heavily criticised as a young player yet who retired as Chelsea’s all-time leading scorer with just about every possible medal in the game to a chorus of appreciation from all corners.
I think Jesse is making that jump
Mourinho’s demands for bravery and determination border on machismo and Lingard, behind the smiles, is not a soft touch. Where colleagues like Luke Shaw, Rashford, Anthony Martial and even Pogba, all preternaturally gifted, have each been given a rough ride by a pernickety manager, Mourinho has appreciated Lingard’s mature commitment. “These boys, they either jump or they don't jump,” the manager said pointedly in January. “It's one thing to be a young talent, and another thing is to be a very good player. Some players are not capable to do that jump. They go from great potential young players to normal players. I think Jesse is making that jump. He is being more consistent, he is adaptable, he understands better the game, he understands the different spaces and positions. I think he is going in a good direction.”
It has not all been roses, and in Mourinho’s first significant test in the Premier League, a showdown with Manchester City in September 2016, Lingard was hauled off at half-time as Pep Guardiola’s team ran rings around United’s midfield to eventually win 2-1, a scoreline that flattered the losing team. However, unlike Henrikh Mkhitaryan, who suffered that same half-time embarrassment, Lingard was back in the starting XI within three weeks with the Armenian absented from Premier League duty until late November as Mourinho suggested he needed time to work out “the intensity, the aggression, the game without the ball and the competitiveness” of playing for United.
Having scored 10 goals by New Year’s Day, Lingard’s output slowed considerably in the latter half of the 2017-18 season, and though a headed, winning goal against Chelsea in February pleased his manager, the arrival of Alexis Sanchez rather muddied the waters for those attackers who would expect to be playing off lone striker Romelu Lukaku.
8. Rocket to Russia
England's Jesse Lingard takes part in a press conference at The Grove Hotel in Watford
Image credit: Getty Images
When Southgate was selecting his final 23-man England squad, there was little doubt that Lingard, barring injury, would be one of the midfielders. "I'm delighted for Jesse,” the manager said after Lingard scored his first senior strike in March in 1-0 defeat of the Netherlands. “He’s a player we've worked with for three or four years from the Under 21s and this year he is starting to finish the chances."
The make-up of Southgate’s selection suggests a decision to go with players as unaffected by the country's previous failings as possible, with players like Jack Wilshere, Joe Hart and Chris Smalling left behind. Too often, England teams have set sail for major championships with heavy baggage weighing them down. ‘Good tourists’ were sought and Lingard has much in common with a number of his fellow travellers, many of them former colleagues from Under-17 and Under-21 level.
Like him, Harry Kane, the captain, had to wait for his chance at his parent club, and was also sent on four lower-league loans to toughen up. Dele Alli, who has a similar fun-loving social media presence, had to come through at MK Dons, while Harry Maguire has been an opponent since those Youth Cup days. And in Rashford and Danny Welbeck, Lingard has two confirmed pals from youthful Carrington days alongside him.
What impact might Lingard make in Russia? Those who have worked with him speak of an ability to raise his level just when required, as a result of the mental strength that has carried him on the long journey from being the smallest boy in ‘the Cage'.
“He’s got through it,” Paul McGuinness says. “Everybody is really proud of him.”