It’s Jesse Lingard’s birthday. He turns 31 today and, at this stage of his life, he must realize that it will not be easy to shift some of the perceptions that come from being a non-football player. For now, at least.
Talk to Lingard’s former teammates and they will tell you about a guy who was popular at all his clubs and played at a level, including a World Cup semi-final, that automatically commands respect among his fellow professionals.
But it is also a stark reality that many others will wonder how a player with Lingard’s record of success has spent so long without a club and seems less troubled by that situation than one might think.
The last time Lingard played competitive football was April, when he played two minutes as a substitute for Nottingham Forest against his old club Manchester United. His last 90-minute performances in the Premier League came with Forest in August 2022 and, before that, you have to go back another 15 months to find his previous one, on loan to West Ham from United.
Since then, it has been largely a period of drifting for a player who had previously won 32 caps for England and contributed to some of United’s happiest moments since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement, including the winning goal in FA Cup final 2016. There were some niggling injuries, some personal problems and only sporadic glimpses of his undoubted talent.
And, just over two years since his last England appearance, ‘JLingz’ life involves a completely different routine these days: picking up a ball and heading out, alone, without a personal trainer, to work on his fitness.
Something similar happened to Michael Owen when he left United at the end of the 2011-12 season and it quickly became apparent that a player who was once football royalty, with all the wealth and accoutrements of superstardom, may have to reevaluate his position within the sport.
Owen, like Lingard, was in his thirties. His list of highlights was even bigger, being a former Ballon d’Or winner, but his age had also started to become his biggest competitor. And, while neither of you will ever end up on Skid Row, it can’t be easy trying to adapt when the boundaries change and the sport, as a whole, stops looking so favorably on you.
In Owen’s case, he was too old, too expensive and too injury-prone for elite clubs and there were times, during a long and busy summer, when he considered giving up football to pursue his racing business of horses.
“I received a couple of requests from abroad: one from the Vancouver Whitecaps, a Canadian MLS team, and one from an Australian team, the Newcastle Jets,” Owen wrote in his 2019 autobiography. “When I considered these two possibilities , neither was particularly appealing.
That aside, Stoke City were the only Premier League team who showed any real interest and, if you remember their tactics under Tony Pulis’ management, it always seemed strange to imagine a player with the size and skills of Owen in their forward line. Even Owen had doubts. But he signed anyway because the alternative would have meant his absence from football for over six months – which is exactly what is happening now with Lingard.
“My God, the whole episode was so empty,” Owen added. “When I first signed for Liverpool, I literally couldn’t write my name fast enough. The same goes for Real Madrid and, for that matter, Manchester United. I have to admit that when I signed (for Stoke), I did it without any joy. It was just a job and I only signed on because I thought it was the right thing to do at the time. What else could I do?”
It seems like a question Lingard must have asked himself many times since he started turning up at a sports center in Newton Heath – the area of north Manchester where United were founded – to repeat his exercises, train and then upload photos on its social media channels with catchy phrases like “keep pushing” or “positivity and progress.”
“Even the most difficult days will pass sooner or later,” we read in a recent post. “Let’s just be positive.”
The intention, presumably, is to show potential employers how hard he works, how devoted he remains to the sport, whatever one may say, and how he is ready for a new challenge. His ambition, apparently, is to find a team in the United States. “Motivation, hunger and love for the game,” we read in another recent post.
Unfortunately for Lingard, the new MLS season won’t start until February. Nothing has been resolved and, over the last six months, the football industry has been harsh and cynical enough to make many people question its priorities. Why, they want to know, is someone with his skills out of a job? He does not care? Doesn’t this hurt his professional pride? Because no one wants to be a non-footballer, right?
The questions are understandable because, however he is dressed, there is nothing orthodox about a footballer spending six months, or perhaps more, out of the game.
But there is context here and, if nothing else, the nature of modern football makes it likely that we will see more of this happen in the future.
Here we have a man of extraordinary wealth who is in a position where he doesn’t have to rush to do what he’s going to do next.
It is not a lack of offers, according to people familiar with the situation who will remain anonymous to protect their positions, or that Lingard is making arrogant assumptions about the level at which he should play. It’s more about waiting for the deal that suits them best, rather than feeling obligated or pressured to accept whatever comes their way.
After all, that’s exactly what Owen did with Stoke and look how it turned out. To no one’s surprise, Owen didn’t fit Pulis’ long-post methodology, sitting on the bench while Peter Crouch and Jonathan Walters started in attack.
In a moment of tragicomedy, a training session ended with one of the senior pros holding court in the locker room and asking with a mixture of humor and seriousness: “What the hell is Michael Owen doing here?”
Owen, who was asking himself the same question, retired at the end of the season without taking part in the championship, but had offered to quit on at least one occasion in the previous months.
In such a context, perhaps Lingard has a right to be picky. It would be much more difficult, perhaps, if interest had dried up. But the phone keeps ringing, and as long as it does, the attitude seems to be: why rush?
Lingard had already spent several weeks training with Al Ettifaq, the Saudi Pro League club where Steven Gerrard is the manager and whose players include Jordan Henderson, Moussa Dembele and Georginio Wijnaldum.
Before that, Lingard had been on a similar deal at West Ham and had even played for David Moyes’ side in a behind-closed-doors match against Ipswich. Many people wondered whether this might lead to something more substantial and Lingard would have a chance to mend his relationship with the club’s fans, who had been offended by his decision to pick Forest ahead of them a year earlier. But nothing more came of it and all the talk about Saudi Arabia also vanished
The wolves toyed with the idea of moving for him. Other Premier League clubs have discussed their availability, along with an Italian one. Nothing, however, has worked and it is worth remembering that Lingard, despite everything, will not be cheap. Forest paid a basic weekly salary of £115,000 ($147,000), plus some attractive bonuses, which led to some problems between the player’s camp and the club’s owners.
Lingard is not beyond reproach and one wonders whether, on reflection, he recognizes that it was a mistake not to rejoin West Ham last season, especially as it meant he would not have been part of their Europa Conference League triumph, their first major trophy of the club for 43 years. years.
Other offers have been made by Newcastle United and Fulham, with four-year deals under discussion. Instead, Lingard signed a one-year contract with Forest, where he made just 14 starts, rather than accepting the club’s offer of a two-year deal.
Maybe that was a mistake too, but he and his advisers thought he would be in a stronger position if he played well for a year, which he didn’t, and made himself available on a free transfer.
With this in mind, it becomes easier to understand why Lingard wants to ensure his next choice is the right one.
The unfortunate farewell of Jesse Lingard and Manchester United
His penance comes in the form of a 24/7 reminder through the cesspool of social media that he is a slacker and a waste, that he has thrown away his career, and various other fascinating responses to go along with it for all to see the hostile headlines and the usual unpleasantness. that someone in his position you need to meet.
Some people can get extraordinarily angry when they think a super rich footballer isn’t making the most of his talent. It’s an everyday part of Lingard’s life and that, perhaps, is the saddest thing as he has in the past tried to open up about some of his more difficult moments at Old Trafford and his occasional mental health problems.
So yeah, maybe MLS will be the best place for Lingard to rediscover himself, and with this being his birthday, maybe we can refrain from judging him too harshly until we see what happens next.
Have you made any questionable choices? Forks. Does he need to find his way again soon? Absolutely yes, unless he wants to become one of football’s forgotten men. But he could play another five or six years if he really wanted to.
The next few weeks will tell us more. It all comes down to Lingard’s priorities and that’s the biggest question when, ultimately, 31 is too young for any player to be talked about in the past tense.
(Top photo: Clive Mason/Getty Images)