We look into the story of Jesse Lingard, and how he has battled a lack of physical and technical gifts to graft his way into the Man United first team.
Two things happened in the 80s. Alex Ferguson, Scotland manager and renowned for his run with Aberdeen, joined Manchester United in November 1986. Only a few months before that, Dragon Ball started airing on Fuji TV. Both were about to revolutionize their respective fields for decades to come.
Dragon Ball Z, the sequel to Dragon Ball soon came as the adventures of Goku and his friends grabbed young eyes in wonderment. But for all the achievements of Goku, one never forgot the person who repeatedly did his best and yet failed in a world of aliens and monsters. A certain monk like figure, with a shiny bald head, emerged from the darkness even as Ferguson’s boys started to cement their legacy in footballing history.
In the real world, mediocrity and that weighty legacy combine to cast a dark shadow over the red half of Manchester.
Present day. The ball floats, suspended in mid air even as a diving Jordan Pickford tries to block its trajectory. The ball keeps going farther away as if drawn to the net like a moth to the flame – until it rests in the right hand corner.
It’s 2-0 and the Red Devils faithful can breathe – it hasn’t been a jolly festive season for them. And the man of the moment is once again Jesse Lingard. Just a month back, and you might have been forgiven for saying – who?
That was the topic of discussion when the twitter feeds raged ‘100 too many’ even as Jesse lined up to face Basel for his centenary appearance. Substituted at the fag end of the match, he failed to light up St. Jacob Park as United fell victim to a last minute goal and tense moments in the Champions League campaign. Yet again, an old scar had been reopened as memories of a more agonizing night greeted me when United left the group stage red faced a cold December night 6 years ago. Thankfully the error was mitigated by a solid win next up that ensured the Red Devils topped their group this time.
The cat calls for Lingard, long beyond the Chelsea match where he offered laughs as the referee outran him or those outrageous misses he so often contributed to, found more supporters.
What was this guy doing on the pitch in a red shirt? The potential of youth, so often used to account for the failings of better players, couldn’t be wasted on a 25 year old. He was a product of loans, unaccustomed to the culture and upbringing of the United faithful.
Who was Jesse Lingard pretending to be?
The man who couldn’t last a half as he walked off injured on his first full appearance for United? The man who never seemed to be good at anything beyond occupying space of the field?
Krillin was a hero. He was inept enough to not sustain against Goku’s foes but he understood his limitations and did his best. Never one to waver. In Dragon Ball, he was Goku’s friend, ally and competition. Fighting side by side, they took on evil even as they grew up. All that was forgotten as soon as new seasons of Dragon Ball Z came, and Krillin got relegated to bit player. The man to be made fun of everytime he died in battle and had to be resurrected. Just like Krillin before him, the world seemed to scream – why was Lingard on the pitch again? And again? And again?
As this December passed us by, Jesse showed us why. A man of contradiction, capable of the most breathtaking runs from the realms of Messi with wonderful finishes even as he made you tear your hair out ever so often at his ineptitude. A glimpse of the potential of Manchester United even as the club stumbled into a new era of competition from its rivals, especially the blue half of Manchester.
The laughs replaced by cheers, as United fell further behind in the race for the crown. In a world of Pogbas and Lukakus, it was a meek Cheshire lad who earned the messiah tag for a while. When he was on the pitch, United believed again. And he delivered. He was always a man for the big occasion, but consistency was never his forte. Until now.
It’s so easy to forget he has been a key component in almost every bit of silverware the red half of Manchester has achieved post-Ferguson. The scintillating goals of the Community Shield and Carling Cup final lost in the wake of the great Zlatan’s bellowing winners.
It wasn’t always like this. Just before what proved to be a bittersweet departure for Louis Van Gaal, the man who had trusted him to enter the side after years of nomadic existence, Lingard ripped off his shirt in rapturous delight. With Crystal Palace wondering what could have been, even as a struggling Manchester United sans the red carded Smalling found a savior in the diminutive Lingard – a volley heard around the world for a trophy starved Mancunian crowd.
Despite the questions, he ended his first full season with the FA Cup winner. A year changes a lot in men. But that was a false dawn. Ibrahimovic arrived, the strength of Goku with the arrogance of Vegeta. And despite Lingard scoring in both domestic trophy triumphs, it was Ibra the Lion who grabbed the headlines with the winners. The heroes had arrived, and Krillin could slink back into the shadows. The spotlight was gone.
Lingard is far from perfect. He is neither a mercurial finisher like Lukaku, nor a delightful trickster like Pogba. He even pales in comparison to Rashford, half a decade younger to him. But the drive in him, the hunger to give his all even when his all isn’t good enough – that has sustained him in a broken and battered Manchester United career.
At a time when the Gokus and Vegetas of the world are faltering and good seems to be losing, this Krillin of Manchester United is fighting the good fight. Creating moments of magic through sheer determination even as hapless defenders and goalkeepers are left in his wake – with the occasional stumble and gaffe as he is bent to do.
Watching Cristiano Ronaldo close in action as a young lad, I wonder what passed through Lingard’s head. To be as good as Ronaldo? To make himself worthy of that crest on his shirt? As a young lad, I’m sure all he wanted to do was play football and if possible, be a little good at it.
After the match with Everton, ex United defender Mikael Silvestre posted a tweet with Lingard’s shirt photoshopped into Lionel Messi’s hands. And the Jesse Messi chants caught on. But Lingard is not Messi, just as he is not Ronaldo.
In a world of demigods, all Lingard can be is an amazing mortal. But he does the best with what he has, just as Krillin did before him. Understanding his limitations and manipulating his game to make the optimal use of his skills.
Manchester United is flawed. It has been ever since Ferguson let Ronaldo leave for his dreams, a messianic trip to Madrid that would lead to a decade’s battle for top footballer with Leo Messi. Lingard watched the boy that had come and left to be a man. That world of Ferguson and Ronaldo is now gone. It’s a journey that was beautiful in its own space and deserving of accolades. But nostalgia drives us insane, holding on to the past we forget the present.
In the match gone by, Wayne Rooney looked back at the crowd of Old Trafford for the first time in years as not one of them, and Zlatan disappeared into the dugout after a brutal first half for United the previous week – leaving Lingard to remain on the pitch. The future of Manchester United was for all to see, even as the past sat back. He may with time even prove to be part of England’s present as the World Cup approaches.
And as Pickford, possibly the future for England himself between the sticks, brushed himself off, Lingard sprinted to the sidelines. One finger lifted to his mouth silencing the world. Silencing his own doubts.
For once Krillin saved the world. And he smiled as he did it.