Why this Man United cult hero is England’s World Cup wildcard

The first time I became aware of Jesse Lingard was when, on his debut for my local side Birmingham City, he scored four goals.

This achievement was particularly exceptional in light of the fact that Birmingham City are very much not the kind of side that you would ever expect to score four goals collectively – let alone be scored by one man alone.

However, being the glory-hunter that I am, my allegiance has never been with the Blues, but instead with the Reds of Manchester. As such, I felt doubly excited at the prospect of Lingard returning to Old Trafford and I couldn’t wait to see him turn out at the Theatre of Dreams, turning those dreams into goal scoring realities.

And at the beginning of the next season he made Louis Van Gaal’s opening day team sheet, featuring as a right-wing back in a 3-5-2 against Swansea. I had never actually seen Lingard before and I was surprised at how spindly he looked. Albeit only 21 he looked like he was in dire need of a hefty bout of puberty to grow into arms, and indeed a head, that looked far too long for his relatively slight frame.

Aesthetics aside, Lingard looked reasonably bright during the opening encounters but sadly succumbed to a serious knee injury which ruled him for months. Having earned his chance the hard way – via loan spells with Leicester, Birmingham, Brighton and Derby – it looked as though Lingard’s shot at the big time might have just been cruelly snatched away from him.

Thankfully, that didn’t happen.

By December Lingard was back in first team contention and just a year later, the Warrington born midfielder earned his first England cap and scored an injury time winner in the FA Cup final, a snap volley into the top right-hand corner. It was a hugely significant goal for United, securing the first piece of major silverware since Sir Alex’s departure.

For Lingard, the goal kick started a fantastic run of Wembley form which saw him net in the next season’s Community Shield matchup with Leicester and the EFL Cup final tie with Southampton.

Steadily Lingard was making a name for himself as a big game player, but there were still doubts about his general ability to make himself a fixture in what was now Jose Mourinho’s side.

Dabbing and Milly Rocking to high heaven alongside his friend and former FA Youth Cup winning teammate Paul Pogba, Lingard had verve and tongue in cheek arrogance to spare, but fans wondered whether this was a player for the long term, or just the next Tom Cleverley.

Then this season happened. As November wound to a close, Lingard exploded.

A fantastic solo goal in a 4-2 away victory against Watford was the start of a sublime run of form that put his Wembley exploits to shame. In just 10 games between November 28th and January 5th Lingard scored 8 goals, including 2 in United’s 3-1 away defeat of Arsenal.

Also grabbing 2 assists, Lingard earned back to back man of the match awards against Everton and then Derby in the FA Cup a match in which he scored a stunning opening goal, bending the ball past Scott Carson from outside the 18-yard box.

With that run of form Lingard elevated his position from bit-part squad player full of endeavour, to bona-fide United first team player. Nowadays when Lingard takes the field United fans can breathe a sigh of relief, knowing that even in the team’s darkest moments Lingard’s dynamism is guaranteed to at least make SOMETHING happen.

And in a rare turn of events, JLingz, as he is now known (he is his own hashtag didn’t you know), has carried that form forward to the England side. In his 8th appearance for the three Lions Lingard scored his first goal for his country in the recent 1-0 away win against the Netherlands.

In truth, the Dutch keeper Jeroen Zoet should have saved the shot, but let’s not quibble over insignificancies such as that. What’s more it was Lingard’s willingness to support attacks from his midfield position which was the greatest cause of optimism.

The confidence and courage with which he played was perhaps the hallmark of a player who has simply not yet had his soul crushed by playing for the national side, but the manner in which Lingard has steadily overcome doubt to prove himself at United suggests he might just have what it takes to not completely bottle it when Russia rolls around in just a few months’ time.

The biggest winner of Lingard’s semi-meteoric rise this season has of course been Sir Alex Ferguson who in quite incredible fashion predicted back in 2012 that Lingard would come good at the grand old age of 25, likening the player to Jean Tigana.

I will be totally honest, I have little to no idea who Jean Tigana is but he sounds good and more importantly, Ferguson was absolutely right. At 25 Lingard looks like everything’s coming together for him. He is one of United’s most important and relied upon players and looks like he could do the same for England.

With a track record of performing in the biggest games alongside a self-confidence and assurance which has fuelled his progress so far, Lingard might just be England’s dark horse this summer.

Unlike so many before him, Lionel Jesse, as he is also now known, isn’t going to assume the fetal position against semi-pro footballing nations like Panama and he isn’t going to sully his glistening white shorts with the putrid yellow of urine in a quarter final against a major footballing nation like France.

No, come rain or shine, Lingard is going to take to the field and he is going to back himself, express himself and then dab with such blissful enjoyment that plumbers, miners and TV installation men all across the country will be dabbing away too, getting filmed by their teenage daughters and going viral on every social media platform there is – and that for me would be even better than winning the World Cup itself.


Written by Scott Pope

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