Jesse Lingard has made a habit of proving people wrong. Written off again after slipping into the shadows at Manchester United, he has found a new home at West Ham United and forced his way back into the England squad after a two-year absence.
There are still plenty of reasons to suggest he won’t be part of Gareth Southgate’s side at the European Championship this summer, but then there were also doubts about whether he could make it at United, or become a professional footballer at all. Previously, there were question marks about whether he was good enough to start for England at the last World Cup, and whether he could rejuvenate himself at West Ham. Those who know him best, an inner circle made up mostly of family, know not to bet against him.
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An England recall for World Cup qualifiers against San Marino, Albania and Poland is a reward for Lingard’s willpower as much as anything he has done on the pitch. He’s scored four goals in six games since joining West Ham on loan in January and was nominated for the Premier League’s Player of the Month award in February.
That he is at the London Stadium at all is evidence of his own determination to prove himself again and again. Lingard was told in meetings with Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer that he was still needed at Old Trafford, but after making just three appearances between September and January, the midfielder made it clear he wanted to leave. Solskjaer needed to be convinced first; then came executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward, and finally, owner Joel Glazer. The easy option, during weeks of internal negotiations, would have been to stay and wait patiently for the occasional game in the FA Cup, but then the easy option as a youngster would have been to listen to the coaches who suggested he was too small and slight to even make the grade.
West Ham were one of eight Premier League clubs to register an interest in taking him on loan in the January transfer window, among others in Spain, Italy, Portugal, and France. So keen were Southgate and assistant Steve Holland to have Lingard back in the England squad that they made personal phone calls to managers, passing on a glowing reference. David Moyes was one, although he already knew enough after including Lingard in his squad, aged 20, for United’s preseason tour in 2013.
Moyes’ instinct was right and in 2021, Lingard has helped West Ham stay within touching distance of the top four with 10 games to go. Southgate and Holland have also got what they wanted: Lingard back playing regular football and in contention again for the national team.
There is still a perception that Lingard is more interested in the trappings that come with life as a footballer than actually being one, but it’s often a judgment made on the side of his personality he presents through social media rather than anything substantial. He was a regular in the United first team under Jose Mourinho, one of the most demanding managers in the world. During United’s tour of the United States in 2018, Lingard happened to be on holiday in Miami following the World Cup when he was asked by Mourinho to cut short his break and play in a friendly against Real Madrid. Lingard spent the day of the game visiting sportswear shops looking for a pair of boots before club medical staff convinced Mourinho it wasn’t a good idea.
Upheaval in his personal life after his exploits with England in Russia affected his form, as did heavy criticism from some sections of United’s fanbase who viewed him as an easy target. Lingard can appear supremely confident on Instagram, but he can also be shy and withdrawn. The abuse, particularly on social media, got so intense that there were times when he didn’t want to go out for lunch with friends and family. Those closest to him say the best thing about his move to West Ham has been seeing him smile again.
Lingard has worked hard, both on and off the pitch, to get back to his best. He took a personal trainer on holiday to Mykonos in the summer in a bid to hit the ground running this season but despite topping the stats in the preseason fitness tests at United, found opportunities limited to the Carabao Cup. He had already become frustrated at Old Trafford, particularly after the Europa League semifinal defeat to Sevilla when he was left on the bench despite Solskjaer’s team needing a goal in the final 12 minutes to take the tie to extra time.
Such has been Lingard’s impact at West Ham that Moyes has already asked club bosses to explore the possibility of making his signing permanent, though United want more than the £10-15 million the Hammers are willing to pay. All of which leaves Solskjaer, Woodward and the Glazers with a decision to make this summer.
Lingard will have a year left on his contract and they face a choice between offering him a new one or cashing in before possibly losing him for free in 2022. Lingard is yet to make a decision on his future but, at 28, is determined not to spend the prime years of his career on the bench. His best games have been as a No.10 behind a central striker, and Solskjaer has already decided Bruno Fernandes is his first choice in that role. West Ham won’t be the only option if he is allowed to move on; if possible, he would like to stay in the Premier League.
“It’s been a long journey, very mentally challenging, but full of hard work and belief,” Lingard posted on social media shortly after the latest England squad was announced on Thursday. It has paid off.