It’s Jesse Lingard’s birthday. He turns 31 today and, at this stage of his life, he must realise it is not going to be easy shifting some of the perceptions that come from being a non-footballing footballer. For now, at least.
Speak to Lingard’s former team-mates and they will talk about a guy who has been popular at all his clubs and played at a level, including a World Cup semi-final, that automatically commands respect among his fellow pros.
But it is also a harsh reality that many others will be wondering how a player with Lingard’s record of achievement has spent so long without a club and seems less troubled by that situation than you might assume.
Lingard last played competitive football in April, a two-minute substitute appearance 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 the previous one, on loan to West Ham from United.
Since then, it has largely been a period of drift for a player who had previously won 32 England caps and contributed to some of United’s happier moments since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement, including scoring the winning goal in the 2016 FA Cup final. There have been some nagging injuries, some personal issues and only sporadic glimpses of his undoubted talent.
And, little more than two years since his last England appearance, the life of ‘JLingz’ involves an entirely different routine these days: taking a ball and going outside, alone, other than 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 superstar’s wealth and accessories, may have to re-evaluate his position within the sport.
Owen, like Lingard, was in his early thirties. His highlights reel was even more extensive, as a former Ballon d’Or winner, but age had also started to become his biggest opponent. And, though neither man is ever going to end up on Skid Row, it cannot be easy trying to adjust when the boundaries shift and the sport, as a whole, stops looking at you so favourably.
In Owen’s case, he was too old, too expensive and too injury-prone for the elite clubs and there were times over a long and challenging summer when he contemplated abandoning football to devote himself to his horse racing business.
“I did get a couple of enquiries from overseas — one from Vancouver Whitecaps, a Canada-based MLS side, and one from an Australian side, Newcastle Jets,” Owen wrote in his 2019 autobiography. “When I considered those two possibilities, neither particularly appealed.
That apart, Stoke City were the only Premier League side who showed any real interest and, if you remember their tactics under Tony Pulis’ management, it always seemed strange to imagine a player with Owen’s size and skill set in their forward line. Owen had doubts himself. But he signed for them anyway because the alternative would have meant his absence from football going beyond six months — which is exactly what is happening with Lingard now.
“My God, the whole episode was so empty,” Owen added. “When I first signed for Liverpool, I literally couldn’t write my name quickly enough. The same applied at Real Madrid and, for that matter, Manchester United. I must admit that when I signed (for Stoke), I did so with absolutely no joy. It was just a job and I signed only because I thought it was the right thing to do at the time. What else could I do?”
That seems like a question Lingard must have asked himself many times since he started pitching up at a sports centre in Newton Heath — the area of north Manchester where United were founded — to go through his drills, work up a sweat and then upload the pictures to his social-media channels with snappy phrases such as “keep pushing” or “positivity and progress”.
“Even the hardest days will eventually pass,” read one recent post. “We only do positive.”
The intention, presumably, is to show potential employers how hard he is working, how devoted he remains to the sport, whatever anyone might say, and how he is ready for a new challenge. His ambition, it seems, is to find a team in the U.S. “Motivation, hunger and love for the game,” read another recent post.
Unfortunately for Lingard, the new MLS season does not start until February. Nothing has been fixed up and, over the last six months, the football industry is hard-faced and cynical enough for many people to question his priorities. Why, they want to know, is somebody with his ability out of work? Does he not care? Does this not hurt his professional pride? Because nobody wants to be a non-footballing footballer, surely?
The questions are understandable because, however it is dressed up, there is nothing orthodox about a footballer spending half a year, or possibly longer, out of the game.
But there is some context here and, if anything, the nature of modern-day football makes it likely we will see more of this happening in the future.
Here, we have a man of extraordinary wealth who is in a position where he does not have to rush into what he does next.
It is not about a shortage of offers, according to people with knowledge of the situation who will remain anonymous to protect their positions, or that Lingard holds any arrogant assumptions about the level he should be playing. It is more about waiting for the deal that suits him best, rather than feeling compelled or pressured to accept whatever comes his way.
That, after all, is exactly what Owen did with Stoke and look how that turned out. To the surprise of absolutely nobody, Owen did not fit into Pulis’ big-man-at-the-far-post methodology, sitting on the bench while Peter Crouch and Jonathan Walters started in attack.
In a moment of tragicomedy, one training session ended with one of the senior pros holding court in the dressing room and asking with a mix of humour and seriousness: “What the hell is Michael Owen even doing in here?”
Owen, who was asking himself the same question, retired at the end of the season after making no league starts, but had offered to hand in his notice on at least one occasion during the preceding months.
Against that kind of backdrop, maybe Lingard is entitled to be picky. It would be a lot harder, perhaps, if the interest had dried up. But the phone is still ringing and, as long as that is the case, the attitude seems to be: why rush?
Lingard had previously spent several weeks training with Al Ettifaq, the Saudi Pro League club where Steven Gerrard is the manager and the players include Jordan Henderson, Moussa Dembele and Georginio Wijnaldum.
Before that, Lingard had a similar arrangement at West Ham and even turned out for David Moyes’ team in a behind-closed-doors game against Ipswich. Many people wondered whether it might lead to something more substantial and Lingard having the chance to mend his relationship with the club’s supporters, who were aggrieved 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 fizzled out, too
Wolves toyed with the idea of moving for him. Other clubs in the Premier League discussed his availability, along with one from Italy. Nothing, though, has worked out and it is worth remembering that Lingard, despite everything, will not come cheap. Forest were paying a basic weekly salary of £115,000 ($147,000), plus some eye-watering bonuses, which led to some issues between the player’s camp and the club’s owners.
Lingard is not blameless and you have to wonder whether, on reflection, he recognises it was a mistake not to rejoin West Ham last season, especially as it meant him not being part of their Europa Conference League triumph, the club’s first major trophy for 43 years.
Other offers were proposed by Newcastle United and Fulham, with four-year deals under discussion. Instead, Lingard signed a one-year contract with Forest, where he started only 14 games, rather than accepting the club’s offer of a two-year arrangement.
Maybe that was an error, too, but he and his advisers thought he would be in a stronger position if he played well for a year, which he did not, and became available on a free transfer.
With that in mind, it becomes easier to understand why Lingard wants to make sure his next choice is the right one.
Jesse Lingard and Manchester United’s unfortunate farewell
His penance comes in the form of 24/7 reminders, via the cesspit of social media, that he is a shirker and a waster, that he has thrown his career away and various other charming responses to go with all the hostile headlines and regular unpleasantness that someone in his position has to encounter.
Some people can get extraordinarily angry when they think a super-rich footballer is not making the most of his talent. It is an everyday part of Lingard’s life and that, perhaps, is the saddest thing given that he has tried to open up in the past about some of his more difficult times at Old Trafford and his occasional struggles with mental health.
So, yes, perhaps MLS will be the best place for Lingard to rediscover himself and, this being his birthday, maybe we can hold off from judging him too harshly until we see what happens next.
Has he made some questionable choices? Yes. Does he need to find his way back soon? Absolutely, unless he wants to become one of football’s forgotten men. But he could play for another five or six years, if he really wants to.
The next few weeks will tell us more. It all comes down to Lingard’s priorities and that is the biggest question when, ultimately, 31 is far too young for any player to be talked about in the past tense.
(Top photo: Clive Mason/Getty Images)