Jesse Lingard: The predator who works hardest

When he arrived in Berlin for the 1936 Summer Olympics, he was a black man in what was to be Hitler’s turf, at least for the next decade or so. By the time Jesse Owens was done with his Olympic events, he had torn apart race tracks and a dictator’s xenophobic claims in equal measure.

Jesse Owens at the podium in Berlin, 1936.

Jesse trained all his life, just so he could excel for the brief moment he got in the sun. “A lifetime of training for just 10 seconds,” he used to say. Oh, that man had a way with words. Before all the glory, he was perhaps just another black man in the early 20th century out to prove a point, racing more than just opponents on the track. But once the spotlight shone bright, his words not only held meaning, but weight too.

As good ol’ Jesse put it, “One chance is all you need.” Like a tiger crouched and ready for its prey. Or perhaps a footballer waiting for his moment of glory.

Those moments can come and go, just like the tiger’s prey. It’s up to the predator to pounce at the right time. Given, he will miss a few times. But once he goes for the kill, in that moment, he will have his chance to satiate his hunger.

It all boils down to that hunger. Born in the corner of the English town Warrington, to the Lingards, Jesse Lingard too had his dreams, like every kid. A hankering that just wouldn’t go away. He dreamed of one day donning the haloed red of Manchester. Aged 7, back in 1999, he was sent off to the academy. In his time there, he had just one goal in his mind: to grace the Theatre of Dreams with the badge in front and his name on the back, as one of their own.

He progressed through the ranks and the name Jesse Lingard first appeared on the team sheet in November of 2011 and then again in January of 2012. But Sir Alex Ferguson kept him on the bench, unused, both times.

Forever willing to extend the long rope to academy graduates he found worthwhile, Sir Alex decided it was time to send Jesse outside to prove his worth. He changed 4 clubs in 4 years, all on loan. After the first two stints at Leicester and Birmingham, where he impressed, he still did not get a chance to perform at the club where he had learnt his art. And when the time came, under Louis Van Gaal, he limped off the field in just 24 minutes. It’s hard to imagine what must’ve gone through his head. All his life, he had planned for this very day. But it all slipped away. Had his prey passed him by? Had his chance gone?

It makes you wonder about Jesse Owens, when he was crouched at the starting line, ready to devour the track in front of him in Berlin. He had that determination, that drive to make sure he gets to the finish line before anyone else. That’s how you go down in history. Was all the travelling taking it’s toll on young Jesse Lingard’s hunger to succeed on home turf?

In 2015-16, short on players, Louis Van Gaal decided to give him another shot. The team already had big names. The likes of Juan Mata, Angel Di Maria, Radamel Falcao and not to mention United’s talisman Wayne Rooney were all part of the squad. Tough crowd to break into, but Jesse wouldn’t give up. Big names came and went. But since age 7, he had been here, and he stayed. Sporadic yet noticeable performances held him at least in the periphery. No complains, just hard work.

Cut to 3 seasons later, he is still very much here. But how many times have you seen people sing praise about the man? He is said to be the almost one and not the always one. Let’s go back to 2016, when a 10-man United was playing against Crystal Palace in the FA Cup final.

Jesse came on for Juan Mata, who had equalised with a volley from some 5 yards out. But Jesse bettered it. He scored a volley from 20 yards out that proved to be the winner. It’s hard to forget that goal. The win was also the most noticeable accomplishment by Van Gaal, and it turned out to be the last time he’d be managing Manchester United.

Jose Mourinho, a man known for bringing silverware and big names to his teams, also trusts him. But how often do you see reporters asking questions about Lingard? They are more worried about why a 100 million pounds worth Paul Pogba isn’t scoring goals from 30 yards out. Or what happened to the Armenian wizard Henrikh Mkhitaryan that forced Jose to sell? Or is Anthony Martial a good fit for the team or not? What is Marcus Rashford’s future like?

It is almost as if everyone has taken Jesse for granted. His consistency in recent months is baffling. To a man like Mourinho who looks not only at talent but how useful a player can be in his setup, Jesse is perhaps his most lethal weapon. One you may not expect to strike but one who almost always does. What more could a manager want? What more could a fan want?  

His greatest quality is perhaps not being worried about the limelight, but gaining the trust of his manager. He may have been ousted at times because of the bigger names and bigger price tags around him. Football’s philosophy over the last few years has changed. Names matter more than skill sometimes. But somehow, he finds his way back. There must be a reason Mourinho too picks him in the team every now and then. You can’t attribute it all to others being injured or their failures. Recently, he was brought on when United were losing by two goals to Burnley.

He gracefully flicked one goal into the left bottom corner and viciously hit a low volley, on the bounce, through a crowd, into the other. Yet all we spoke about was United’s poor performance against Burnley. Had he not hit the bar and scored his 3rd, the topic might well have been different.

One the 1st day of the New Year, as United faced Everton at Goodison Park, the deadlock was broken by a wonderful Anthony Martial curler into the top corner, after a slick pass by Paul Pogba. The headlines were set to be written featuring the French duo. But Everton were looking to spoil the party. Who stepped up? Well…

Again, just like he did in 2016 in the FA Cup final, he bettered the 1st goal. He did not need an assist, he drove past defenders, reached the same distance as Martial and curled one past the keeper into the top corner, on the run. A few weeks ago, he laid waste to the Watford defence sealing the win. He scores volleys, curlers, long-rangers, nutmegs the keeper and celebrates like a boss.

Oh, he scored in the FA Cup final, the Community Shield (again going past 4 or 5), the EFL Cup final. All of which United won. What more do you need?

How about scoring a brace at the Emirates in a 3-1 victory against Arsenal? Well, that night we all spoke of David de Gea being on God Mode, but it was Jesse who put two past the Gunners to seal the victory.

Jesse Lingard was at his best at The Emirates against Arsenal, even as David De Gea walked away with the plaudits.
Jesse Lingard was at his best at The Emirates against Arsenal, even as David De Gea walked away with the plaudits.

Yes, he has bad games. But who doesn’t? There’s always a time in a player’s career when he hits his stride. That  time, for Jesse, is here. His opener against Derby County was proof enough. Again, he answered the prayers as the Devils tried to penetrate the Derby defence. Jesse was at the centre of the three-pronged weapon that United have so ruthlessly used over the years. Ball on the bounce, outside of the foot, net ruffling in the top left corner – all in a matter of seconds. Yet, we forget. There are always talks of other big names joining the big club. When they fail, the club turns to Jesse and he’s there, waiting behind the curtain.

Soon, he might become that big name. He was bred here, under the Mancunian skies. His success is drawn from that same drive as the American sprinter had all those decades ago. That there will always be doubters, but you have to drown them out. It’s always a race. You will always be proving someone wrong, you will always need to be quicker, be it on the track or on the pitch. You need to believe that you will always surprise someone. Jesse does just that, waiting in the shadows, ready to pounce and surprise the world. He will always be a risk taker. His goals, his darts into the box, his take-ons are proof of that. That hankering is very much alive.

There is something about him. Something that says that one day, he will do something bigger and greater. These aren’t chances, this is pure hard work paying off. He earns the right to step onto the grass. But one day he will get THAT chance to become immortal amongst the Devils and you better expect him to pounce. Because just like his namesake said, when he set out to prove the world wrong- “One chance is all you need.”

Akarsh Mehrotra

Plays more than he writes, has more football shoes than regular ones, hardly misses a penalty.