Manchester United's Jesse Lingard: We just play with no fear
It’s when the talk turns to Manchester City that the real Jesse Lingard comes to the fore and the general politeness falls away.
There was a moment in last month’s Manchester derby when the 23-year-old’s teenage teammate Marcus Rashford found himself on the ground near the dead-ball line with Martin Demichelis looming over him with menace; loudly accusing him of simulating a foul, prompting the 5ft 9in Lingard too jump in.
Lingard doesn’t like City so much: that much is patently obvious. “Things like that... you can’t be getting pushed around by three City guys, so someone had to step in, he says. “I was squaring up to Fernando as well.” Neither is there much circumspection about the satisfaction he took in defeating a dreadfully inadequate City side that day at the Etihad Stadium. “That game there was no pressure at all. I was playing in the No 10 position which I like. There was so much space and so many gaps we could exploit. And we did.”
If Lingard is the street-fighter in some respects, then it is because he has had to be. Because of the relatively diminutive frame which led many who know him best to wonder privately if this United thing was going to work out for him - and prompted an intervention from Sir Alex Ferguson to say that it would be ok; he would be a late developer, that’s all. And also because the road to this breakthrough season has also been a long and complicated one, pockmarked with potholes, diversions, injuries, setbacks, managerial struggles and the collateral damage that always brings.
When he scored five goals in pre-season for David Moyes, three years back, his moment seemed to be here, but Moyes thought otherwise. He again thought he’d found the home straight at the start of last season, by which time one of his great friends from United’s 2011 FA Youth Cup winning team, Paul Pogba, was flourishing at Juventus.
Then Lingard, who’d spent the best part of four years on loan at Leicester, Brighton and Birmingham, was injured in the first game of the season against Swansea City and forced to go on the road again. Derby County offered the next place of sanctuary, where he could rebuild himself physically. “It’s always in the back of your mind that you want to stay at United and you want to play for United,” he says - though the painful truth is that if you’ve not broken through at United by 21, the odds are going to be against you.
There’s no logic to what has happened in the last six months. While Adnan Januzaj – who two years ago was sparkling, flourishing, destroying defenders and declaring “gonna be like Tiger Woods” on his Facebook page when a Nike deal materialised – struggled for any headway, Lingard had his Everton moment: a call up to an injury-limited squad face today’s opposition at Goodison Park last autumn, since when he has been a mainstay.
“I knew when I got my chance I knew had to take it no matter what so you go out with no pressure,” he says. “I am pretty much fearless, like the other young players as well that are coming into the squad now like [Marcus] Rashford and [Anthony] Martial. We just play with no fear and at the end of the day you are just playing football with your friends, pretty much, but obviously you still have to win the game….”
Well, that fearlessness has certainly not always been there – and that is the fascinating part of the Lingard story. In this interview, in a side room at the club’s re-shaped, modernized Carrington training ground, he recalls the nerves which beset him at the end of that Moyes pre-season, when he returned from tour to play Sevilla at home in the last friendly. “I thought in my head it was still too early for me,” he says. “I remember [that game] when we got back from tour. I was nervous. My passes were short and everything. So I even knew then that I couldn’t handle it at that stage….” This is the same Lingard who physically shook with anxiety during the pre-match meal for the Youth Cup semi-final with Chelsea a few years ago.
For a manager, this is a problem as old as the hills. Matt Busby listed the young George Best as “reserve” on the first teamsheet to include his name, 53 years ago, to preserve him from stage fright. Ferguson’s coach Rene Meulensteen was another who felt Lingard just needed patience. He tells of the how a United youth side, with Lingard in it, lost 9-2 at Leeds on one occasion, leaving parents in uproar. "Look at it in a year's time," he told them. Twelve months later, the same side beat the same opposition 10-3.
He’s the survivor: the only member of that Youth Cup winning side who beat Sheffield United in the 2011 final and he doesn’t hide the fact that he wished Pogba and Ravel Morrison, whose troubled pathway has led to Lazio, had hung around. “The FA Youth Cup team, they could still be playing now,” he says. “Morrison and Pogba, could still be playing in the first team if they stayed, but they chose different paths and but they are still playing obviously – he is playing at Juventus.”
Lingard is still in touch with both players though he straight bats the question of whether he has told Pogba to come back “Yeah [I’m in touch with him] and Rav as well,” he says. “[But] nah, I haven’t said anything about [coming back to Pogba]. It’s just normal chat. He is a down to earth guy, but coming through.”
His complicated kind of progress means that the player anticipating his first Wembley start for United in the FA Cup semi-final against Everton today can barely remember the myriad trips he has made to the national stadium. It’s so long ago that he sat with United’s youth team players for the 2011 Champions League Final against Barcelona that he actually has to be reminded of the fact when questioned on his Wembley memories.
“Yes,” he says, as thoughts of that evening come flooding back. “I remember thinking: ‘This is massive’, with a massive pitch and a great atmosphere.” There was also a place on the bench in the 2013 Charity Shield against Wigan Athletic. (“I didn’t get on.”) and the same seat for England’s friendly against France last November. (“I was hoping I would get put on for a few minutes at the end but it didn’t happen.”)
It means that the individual who is likely to get a start against Roberto Martinez’s side will be the old man of Louis van Gaal’s troop: a full five years older than Rashford and Timothy Fosu-Mensah in this season of the young at United.
There was no particularly encouraging conversation with Louis van Gaal when that injury against Swansea left him on crutches and preparing for a long stretch out of the game. “I can’t really remember. At that time it was all about not getting too down and depressed,” he relates. “But when he plays you get that confidence straight away. And after that Everton game, I played pretty much every game. Moscow away in the Champions League, the Manchester derby, that whole month of October was important. We had City, Middlesbrough in the Capital One Cup… we had a lot of tough games that month so to throw me in was pretty much sink or swim and I survived.” A succinct encapsulation of the creed which has delivered him, against considerable expectation, to Wembley Stadium.