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
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.”
“MY GOAL CELEBRATIONS AREN'T PLANNED – THEY JUST HAPPEN. IF I SCORE In THE WORLD CUP FINAL, I'LL BE TAKING EVERYTHING OFF!"
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
“SOUTHGATE IS GIVING US THE FREEDOM TO GO AND EXPRESS OURSELVES AND PLAY WITH no PRESSURE. THAT HAS TO BE OUR MINDSET"
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