In Sir Alex Ferguson’s final days as Manchester United coach, he recommended that the club keep faith in one of their academy kids. English football’s greatest ever coach talked of a player with searing pace, a strong work ethic and fantastic skill, even though he was considered too small and weak to rub shoulders with the big boys during the Scot's reign. The player he was talking about was Jesse Lingard.
This season, his performances have propelled United into second in the table and, seemingly out of nowhere, Lingard has become an indispensable member of Jose Mourinho’s team. But the young star was almost thrown on to the scrapheap. David Moyes didn’t fancy him, and although Louis van Gaal started Lingard in his first game as United boss in 2014 - a 2-1 home defeat to Swansea - Lingard had to wait a further 14 months for his next start.
While Mourinho is not a man renowned for giving youth a chance, he saw something in Lingard. Having signed Henrik Mkhitaryan from Borussia Dortmund, it had seemed the Englishman was being pushed towards the periphery at United - but Lingard had other plans.
“I’ve had to be patient and wait for my chance,” Lingard told Rabona. “Chances to break into the team don’t come along very often at United so when you get those opportunities to impress the coach, you have to take them. I’m pleased that I’ve made a good impression this season, but one bad game and you might be out again. So you have to stay focused.”
Lingard appears more focused now than ever, but it’s taken some time for him to mature. He was shipped out on loan to Leicester, Birmingham, Brighton and finally Derby, before Van Gaal felt he was ready to play again for United. Much like his England teammate Harry Kane, Lingard returned from the Championship far better equipped for football at the highest level.
“In football, there’s the quick route and the long route,” Lingard explains. “I took the long route and it’s eventually got me into the United team. My loan spells toughened me up and now I’m reaping the rewards. Championship football is very different to the Under 23s. The players are stronger and don’t give you respect because of who you are or where you’ve come from. Physically, but also mentally, it’s a league where you can turn from a boy to a man.”
Lingard is not alone in citing the Championship as the ideal platform for young players to cut their teeth, but it was when he was much younger and still in United’s academy that he was taken under the wing of Rene Meulensteen, United’s skills and development coach under Ferguson. Lingard was there from the age of 8 to 12 and recalls what he calls “the good old days”.
“Those sessions with Rene were great for me,” Lingard says. “He taught me the technical side of the game, how to be skilful and how use certain skills to get out of difficult situations. He made me understand that improving your skill and close control is a vital part of being a top player.”
But when Meulensteen first started the sessions, some of the players misunderstood their purpose and started using their newfound skills - back heels, feints, flicks, ball juggling - while in their own box and on one occasion a United youth team that featured Lingard lost 10-3 to Leeds.
“[Laughs] Yes that’s true,” Lingard admits. “All the lads wanted to show off their new skills a little bit too much in the early sessions with Rene. We had defenders doing backheels to the goalkeeper at the start! I won’t mention names but it wasn’t what the gaffer had in mind. But then we started to realise when to use our skills and when to play the simple pass, and eventually I was able to take that to a higher level.”
A year after that embarrassing defeat by Leeds, the two sides met again. This time Leeds were on the receiving end of an 11-2 defeat by United, and it was clear that Meulensteen’s methods were quickly rubbing off on the team, not least Lingard.
"When I started working with Jesse, he was tiny, really little, but he also had this incredible energy and drive," Meulensteen is on record as saying. "There are always doubts, but we worked hard with Jesse, laid down a technical foundation, focused on skills, and he flourished."At every step, I painted a picture for his family, that Jesse could be like Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs, who at the time were in the first team, and become a real player at the club, and always made sure they understood we had a plan for him.”
That plan has seen Lingard flourish under Mourinho’s watch, and the player made 42 appearances for United last season, plus four for England. One of those was in the Europa League final, in which United beat Ajax - a moment he sees as a watershed moment for the club in the post-Ferguson era.
“We started to believe at that point and after that night in Stockholm we felt that a real winning mentality had been established,” Lingard says. “That’s what you get with Jose Mourinho though. He’s won wherever he’s been and wants to keep on winning. I’ve never met anyone who has his drive and ambition to succeed. He talks to me on the pitch but also outside of football to make sure I am OK.”
“He’s a bit like Sir Alex in that respect, who cared not just about training, the games and making sure everything was good from a footballing perspective, but he’d go the extra mile to make sure you were happy in your life outside of football. They have both been key figures in my development at United.”
Under the guidance of Ferguson, Mourinho and Van Gaal, Lingard is finally starting to fulfil his potential and, in a World Cup year, his timing is impeccable - and having worked so long and hard to reach the peak, now he needs to stay there.
“People say that I suddenly burst onto the scene at United, but it’s taken years to become an overnight success,” Lingard says. “Years of work, of training, of listening to the advice of my coaches. I’m pleased that I’ve shown I belong on the big stage. Now I want to stay there.”
Jesse Lingard wears the adidas Cold Blooded NEMEZIZ 17+, designed to unlock agility. www.adidas.co.uk/nemeziz