War­ring­ton won­der Lin­gard shares his naked am­bi­tion

Fol­low­ing a breakthrough cam­paign for Manch­ester United in which he’s come of age as a game-chang­ing No.10, the War­ring­ton won­der is daring to dream about con­quer­ing the world in Rus­sia – but be very afraid of his goal cel­e­bra­tion if Eng­land get to the fi

FourFourTwo - - CONTENTS - Words Ben Welch Por­traits Dun­can El­liott

Rain­drops rip­ple pud­dles and pelt the um­brel­las of cam­era crews try­ing to wrap up a shoot, be­fore Manch­ester United mid­fielder Jesse Lin­gard seeks sal­va­tion in the plush train­ing fa­cil­ity that’s play­ing host to this af­ter­noon’s ac­tiv­i­ties. When he does step in­side, he might de­cide he'd rather get drenched, as the walls are cov­ered in Manch­ester City em­blems and ac­tion pho­tos of the Premier League cham­pi­ons. Lin­gard is not be­hind en­emy lines, how­ever. Bury have leased City’s for­mer Car­ring­ton train­ing ground and are yet to com­pletely dress it with their own in­spir­ing sig­nage. The War­ring­ton won­der is here to talk to FFT ahead of his first World Cup – once he's dried off. Soon, the 25-year-old bounces through the door, dancing and singing along to T-shirt, a hit by Amer­i­can hip hop group Mi­gos. The cold, wind and rain can't dampen the mood of a man com­ing off the back of his best sea­son to date. At the end of 2017-18, the United academy grad­u­ate had scored 14 goals for club and coun­try – his top tally since his pro­fes­sional de­but in 2012 – so when FFT’S pho­tog­ra­pher asks him to re-en­act his med­ley of meme-mak­ing goal cel­e­bra­tions, it comes as sec­ond na­ture. Lin­gard’s ob­jec­tive must now be to take his goalscor­ing form into the World Cup, and prove that he can de­cide matches on the big­gest stage. But if he does re­alise the ul­ti­mate dream and hit the win­ner in Moscow on July 15, you won’t see a re­hearsed goal cel­e­bra­tion, but a flesh-bar­ing Full Monty. “I’ll be tak­ing ev­ery­thing off,” he tells FFT, his face con­tort­ing with laugh­ter. He com­poses him­self be­fore adding: “You know what, I don’t have any­thing planned yet. None of my cel­e­bra­tions (left) are planned, they just hap­pen and it de­pends on how the game is go­ing. “If you’re two or three up I think you can en­joy your­self a bit more, but if you bring it back to 1-1 it’s a dif­fer­ent cel­e­bra­tion. You have to choose the right cel­e­bra­tion based on the state of the match. If I score in the World Cup fi­nal, my cel­e­bra­tion will be a lot more pas­sion­ate, tak­ing my shirt off and then run­ning around like an ab­so­lute lu­natic.” Some crit­ics have dis­missed Lin­gard as a ‘so­cial me­dia player’, all dances and com­pli­cated hand­shakes. But over the course of a long dis­cus­sion with FFT, the ris­ing Red Devil re­veals the tenac­ity and am­bi­tion be­hind his play­ful char­ac­ter.

If he can shine for Eng­land in Rus­sia over the sum­mer, it will com­plete a jour­ney char­ac­terised by dogged per­se­ver­ance through set­backs and doubt – and his grand­fa­ther will be able to add the cli­mac­tic clip­pings to a scrap­book 19 years in the mak­ing.

Ken Lin­gard has been col­lect­ing cut­tings of his grand­son’s ca­reer since he was six. “My gran­dad has got ev­ery sin­gle thing that I’ve been in the news­pa­per for,” beams the 25-year-old.

“When­ever I was in the pa­per I used to think, ‘Oh, that’s pretty good’ and laughed it off. It was good to get recog­ni­tion at such a young age, but I didn’t read any­thing into it.

“He has also kept all of the shirts I’ve worn for Manch­ester United and Eng­land – it’s mad.”

But Ken did more than just ar­chive Jesse’s achieve­ments. Draw­ing on his own ex­pe­ri­ence as an elite ath­lete, the for­mer Team GB pow­er­lifter helped to de­velop his pro­tege’s ath­leti­cism, will to win, work ethic and ded­i­ca­tion to the red half of Manch­ester.

“He’d done a lot in his life so I looked up to him,” says Jesse. “He was there help­ing me week in, week out.

“At one point I was play­ing for both Manch­ester United and Liver­pool. I’d play a game for Liver­pool, be­fore he’d drive me down the mo­tor­way to play for United. I also had a few tri­als at Man City, but when it came to de­ci­sion time I knew that United were right for me, and all my fam­ily sup­port them, too.”

It’s said some foot­ballers are born while oth­ers are made, but Lin­gard ben­e­fited from na­ture and nur­ture. His ex­plo­sive speed can be at­trib­uted to ge­net­ics, but also the tar­geted work he did on his fast-twitch mus­cle fi­bres un­der Ken’s tute­lage.

“I used to go on the weights with him when I was young and I’ve got a de­cent dead­lift tech­nique,” he jokes. “I’m back­ing my­self in the gym: even though I look small, I can lift. I’m strong!”

Whether it was in the gym, on the pitch or at home with loved ones, Lin­gard was sur­rounded by com­peti­tors. It proved per­fect prepa­ra­tion for what was to come at Car­ring­ton, where tal­ent alone is not enough: it’s a pre­req­ui­site.

“My dad used to play foot­ball at semi-pro level, my mum was a gym­nast and my brother has a dance school in Greece, so I think all of us be­ing com­pet­i­tive has rubbed off on me and I take that onto the pitch when I play foot­ball,” he says.

He needed that X-fac­tor at United. For all the work he was do­ing in the gym, Jesse was still small and eas­ily over­pow­ered by phys­i­cally ma­ture boys. The coaches kept him in the Un­der-16s while his peers grad­u­ated to United’s U18s, and at one point it looked like he might not make the grade.

Liv­ing in digs, away from his fam­ily, Lin­gard was forced to de­velop un­usual men­tal strength for a teenager. “It was dif­fi­cult, es­pe­cially for my fam­ily, but it’s pay­ing off now,” he ex­plains, af­ford­ing him­self a grin of sat­is­fac­tion. “It was part of my de­vel­op­ment at a very young age – I had to be ma­ture and pro­fes­sional. It showed char­ac­ter and men­tal­ity. I wasn’t wor­ried I wouldn’t make it. I just wanted to play for the club I sup­ported, whether it be the U18s or U16s.”

United’s U18 coach Paul Mcguin­ness would of­ten throw Jesse into the ‘cage’ – a fenced-off pitch at Car­ring­ton where mixed age groups could do bat­tle. Work­ing in tight spa­ces, he’d use his su­pe­rior tech­ni­cal abil­ity to give big­ger lads the slip. And when they sought retri­bu­tion, he’d get up, brush him­self off and go back for more.

One par­tic­u­larly wise ob­server could see Lin­gard was a late de­vel­oper who needed time to fill out. “United al­ways thought I would be 22 or 23 when I played for the first team,” he re­veals. “Those were the words of Sir Alex Fer­gu­son. I lis­tened to him and trusted his words, and now I’m a reg­u­lar for Manch­ester United.”

But as Fergie pre­dicted, it didn’t hap­pen overnight. Lin­gard’s ed­u­ca­tion con­tin­ued in the Foot­ball League, on loan at Le­ices­ter, Birm­ing­ham and Brighton, and his long-awaited United de­but on the open­ing day of the 2014-15 sea­son was mem­o­rable for all the wrong rea­sons. Not only did United lose 2-1 at home to Swansea in Louis van Gaal’s first com­pet­i­tive game at the helm, but Lin­gard limped off af­ter 24 min­utes with a knee in­jury. It would take 14 months, and a loan spell at Derby (be­low), be­fore he re­turned to the Red Devils’ first team.

“That was a ma­jor set­back – when you’re in­jured for a long time, it can get to you,” he re­calls. “I had the right peo­ple around me, and knew if I played with the right at­ti­tude and men­tal­ity then I’d come through it. I had con­sid­ered mov­ing on, but Louis put me in back in the team and I played a lot the next sea­son [2015-16].”

Be­tween that re­turn – at half-time in a 3-0 win at Ever­ton in Oc­to­ber 2015 – and the start of last sea­son, Lin­gard showed glimpses of tal­ent with­out mak­ing his name in­deli­ble on the team-sheet.

At the start of this sea­son, a few months shy of his 25th birth­day, his ca­reer path looked road­blocked by at­tack­ing mid­field­ers – Paul Pogba, Hen­rikh Mkhi­taryan, An­thony Mar­tial, Mar­cus Rash­ford, Juan Mata and Marouane Fel­laini were all com­pet­ing for one of the three berths be­hind striker Romelu Lukaku.

He’d made only one Premier League start be­fore Novem­ber 28, when Jose Mour­inho, re­act­ing to a meek 1-0 de­feat at Chelsea, chucked him into the start­ing XI at Wat­ford. Lin­gard grabbed his chance with a goal in a 4-2 win, trig­ger­ing a rush of eight more in 12 games.

His out­stand­ing dis­plays con­vinced Mour­inho he can be trusted in big games, has the tac­ti­cal nous and po­si­tional flex­i­bil­ity to play across the for­ward line, and pos­sesses the guile to be ef­fec­tive in the No.10 role – a job no one else has made their own at Old Traf­ford.

The man­ager’s trust and Lin­gard’s sub­se­quent show­ings have helped to trans­form a player of un­cer­tain po­ten­tial into a prolific match-win­ner.

“I had been pa­tient my whole ca­reer so I knew if I waited a bit longer I’d get my chance,” he re­veals. “The man­ager has played me in the big games and I’ve per­formed. He knows what he wants out of his play­ers and I want to give back to him.

“He’s shown be­lief in me, and play­ing in the No.10 role is much more com­fort­able for me as I like to get on the ball and make things hap­pen. When you’re in form, you feel like you can do any­thing.”

Lin­gard took that con­fi­dence into his fourth Eng­land start, against the Nether­lands in March. With the friendly goal­less and ap­proach­ing the hour mark, he struck a first-time 20-yard shot into the bot­tom cor­ner to give the Three Lions a first win in Am­s­ter­dam in 49 years. The fin­ish typ­i­fied the tech­ni­cal abil­ity and men­tal strength Gareth South­gate is try­ing to breed in his new-look team. “You dream about play­ing for your coun­try, but to score your first goal for Eng­land...” Lin­gard pauses. “It doesn’t get any big­ger than that. The ball fell nicely for me on the edge of the box, I com­posed my­self and put it in the bot­tom cor­ner.” The re­ac­tion to his strike was any­thing but com­posed – and hav­ing re­turned to the dress­ing room at full-time he reached for his phone, not the shower gel. “My phone was popping off,” he chuck­les, his hands cradling two mo­biles as he talks. “It was good – you want that sup­port from your fam­ily and friends af­ter each game.”


Lin­gard’s smart­phone is never very far away. To a tech-savvy mil­len­nial it’s for more than just call­ing home – it’s a por­tal into his world, where he gives mil­lions of fol­low­ers a sneak peek be­hind the scenes. Jesse’s so­cial me­dia ac­tiv­ity might at­tract a death stare from Roy Keane, but it gives an in­sight into his per­son­al­ity – a cheeky char­ac­ter who is well-liked by his team-mates and al­ways look­ing for mischief – and is a far cry from his straight-bat­ting post-match in­ter­views. “It’s strange,” he ad­mits, be­fore tak­ing a mo­ment to pick his words care­fully. “With in­ter­views I go into pro­fes­sional mode and I’m not be­ing me – the me you see on so­cial me­dia – but if I can bring that side of my per­son­al­ity out a bit more, I think peo­ple will ap­pre­ci­ate it.”

More than any­thing else, Eng­land sup­port­ers will ap­pre­ci­ate watch­ing a team who play with speed, move­ment and am­bi­tion when they kick off their World Cup cam­paign against Tu­nisia on June 18.

Ac­cord­ing to Lin­gard, that’s in sync with how the play­ers are think­ing. “As a group there’s a lot of ex­pec­ta­tion – we be­lieve we can go far,” he en­thuses. “The man­ager is giv­ing us the free­dom to go out and ex­press our­selves on the pitch and play with­out any pres­sure. That has to be our mind­set. We shouldn’t worry about any­thing off the pitch.”

Pres­sure off the pitch will come from the fans and me­dia, who de­spite fram­ing Eng­land as rank out­siders, will be wait­ing to ham­mer them on ev­ery avail­able plat­form should they suf­fer a hu­mil­i­at­ing loss. In a group that also in­cludes tour­na­ment debu­tants Panama, there’s a real threat of an up­set on the Ice­land Euro 2016 scale.

This cul­ture of fear will not in­fect the cur­rent band of brothers, states Lin­gard. “All teams at this level are tricky and dif­fi­cult. We’ve got to go out there and try to win ev­ery match, no mat­ter who the op­po­si­tion is. That has to be our mind­set.

“We’re go­ing to be men­tally and tac­ti­cally pre­pared to take on the test, and with this squad we’ve got a good mix of youth and ex­pe­ri­ence. This is a tightly knit group who are close, so I think our team spirit, char­ac­ter and to­geth­er­ness will pull us through.”

This pally en­vi­ron­ment sounds worlds away from the one de­scribed by for­mer Eng­land trio Rio Ferdinand, Frank Lam­pard and Steven Ger­rard. The BT Sport pun­dits, who were part of the Three Lions’ so-called ‘Golden Gen­er­a­tion’ that failed to reach the semi-fi­nals of a ma­jor tour­na­ment, re­vealed that fierce ri­val­ries be­tween Manch­ester United, Liver­pool and Chelsea di­vided the na­tional team dur­ing their play­ing days.

South­gate has paid heed to this warn­ing and or­gan­ised team-bond­ing ac­tiv­i­ties to elim­i­nate cliques and bring the squad to­gether.

“We room on our own, al­though Mar­cus Rash­ford is in my room all the time,” grins Lin­gard. “But more im­por­tantly, we’re mix­ing with the other lads as well – that’s where the team spirit starts to come in and we gel. We do lots of team bond­ing be­cause we’re only to­gether for a week and a half at a time, so it’s hard to get to know some­one.”

The emer­gence of Lin­gard has prompted the press to pit the United for­ward against Tot­ten­ham’s Dele Alli (above) as they com­pete for their favoured role be­hind the striker. And al­though Harry Kane and Alli are team-mates with an es­tab­lished un­der­stand­ing, the lat­ter has strug­gled to hit top form in 2017-18, scor­ing nine Premier League goals com­pared to the 18 he net­ted a sea­son ear­lier.

Lin­gard is used to be­ing the un­der­dog, but now he’s an un­der­dog bang in form and full of con­fi­dence and that mat­ters, in­sists United’s No.14. “The player in form is go­ing to show his ca­pa­bil­i­ties on a match­day,” he says, be­fore adding a caveat.

“First I had to get into the World Cup squad, and now there’s still a lot of work to do. You’ve got to be train­ing hard when you go to an Eng­land camp, im­press the man­ager and plant a seed in his head.”

Here’s a thought: could Lin­gard and Alli not just play to­gether? Or are they an­other pair of supremely tal­ented in­di­vid­u­als who sim­ply can’t gel, a la Lam­pard and Ger­rard?

“I don’t see why we couldn’t play to­gether,” says Lin­gard. “The play­ers we have bring dif­fer­ent skills to the team and we can all play to­gether, no mat­ter what po­si­tion.

“It’s an­noy­ing that peo­ple keep bring­ing it up, but it’s the world we live in. You’ve got to get on with it.”

The faux-ri­valry must pique the in­ter­est of the pitch­fork-hold­ing devil sit­ting on Lin­gard’s shoul­der. Does he ever drop Alli a cheeky text af­ter a goal for United, to re­mind his coun­ter­part he’s just jumped ahead of him in the peck­ing or­der?

“No,” he chuck­les. “We’re com­pet­ing for a place in the side but when we get to­gether with Eng­land we’re team-mates, and we have to make sure we get the job done.”

The big ques­tion is what does get­ting the job done for Eng­land look like this sum­mer? Ex­pec­ta­tions are more mod­est than pre­vi­ous World Cups as South­gate heads into his first fi­nals. Look­ing at the glass half empty, the Three Lions are a work in progress. No one has grabbed the goal­keeper jersey, the de­fence is ex­per­i­men­tal, the mid­field lacks a lock-picker and Kane is the only mem­ber who can stake a claim to world-class abil­ity. How­ever, if your glass is half full, this is a squad largely un­af­fected by pre­vi­ous failures, while the man­ager is try­ing to de­velop a sys­tem to en­cour­age flu­id­ity and flair. Reach­ing the last eight would rep­re­sent a fine per­for­mance in Rus­sia, but maybe, just maybe, this team can stun the world. Den­mark did so at Euro 92 and Greece at Euro 2004. What about Eng­land? Should the na­tion dare to dream? What is foot­ball, if not for dream­ing? Pic­ture this: an iconic im­age of Jesse Lin­gard hold­ing the World Cup aloft, an­other tri­umph for the un­fan­cied. Lin­gard pauses, thinks, puffs out his cheeks, thinks, shakes his head, thinks some more, and stut­ters. “Do you know what? This sum­mer is a chance to make that hap­pen.” Just re­mem­ber to keep your clothes on, Jesse: this one is def­i­nitely go­ing in gran­dad’s scrap­book.

Jesse Lin­gard wears adi­das Foot­ball Ne­meziz 18+ for ul­ti­mate agility. To find out more in­for­ma­tion, head to adi­das.co.uk


Top Com­mu­nity Shield suc­cess in 2016 with Zla­tan Ibrahi­movic and David de Gea Topleft “I’ll take you all on”: Lin­gard tries to get out of a jam at West Ham Left Jesse hit four goals on his Birm­ing­ham bow back in 2013

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