Jesse Lingard is not a footballer: he will not be the last

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It's Jesse Lingard's birthday. Today he turns 31 years old and, at this point in his life, he must realize that it is not going to be easy to change some of the perceptions that come from not being a footballer. For now at least.

Talk to Lingard's former teammates and they'll tell you 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 professionals.

But it is also a harsh reality that many others will wonder how a player with Lingard's record of achievement has gone so long without a club and seems less concerned about that situation than one might assume.

Lingard last played competitive football in April, a two-minute substitute appearance for Nottingham Forest against his former 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 earned 32 caps for England and contributed to some of United's happiest moments since Sir Alex Ferguson's retirement, including scoring the winning goal. in the 2016 FA Cup final. There have been some niggling injuries, some personal problems and only sporadic glimpses of his undoubted talent.

Jesse Lingard celebrates his winner in the 2016 FA Cup Final (Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)

And, just over two years after his last game for England, 'JLingz''s life today involves a completely different routine: picking up a ball and going out, alone, without being a personal trainer, to Work on your 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 wealth and trappings, could having to reevaluate your position within. the sport.

Owen, like Lingard, was in his early thirties. His list of highlights was even longer, as a former Ballon d'Or winner, but age had also started to become his biggest opponent. And while neither of us will ever end up on Skid Row, it can't be easy trying to adapt when the boundaries shift and the sport, as a whole, stops looking at you so favorably.

In Owen's case, he was too old, too expensive and too injury-prone for the elite clubs and there were times during a long and challenging summer when he contemplated quitting football to pursue his horse racing business.

“I received a couple of inquiries from overseas: one from the Vancouver Whitecaps, an MLS team based in Canada, and another from an Australian team, Newcastle Jets,” Owen wrote in his 2019 autobiography. “When I considered those two possibilities, None particularly attracted me.

Aside from that, Stoke City were the only Premier League team to show any real interest and, if you remember their tactics under Tony Pulis, it always seemed strange to imagine a player of Owen's size and skills on their line Of attack. Owen also had doubts. But he signed for them anyway because the alternative would have meant him being absent from football for more than six months, which is exactly what is happening with Lingard now.

Michael Owen and Stoke City, managed by Tony Pulis, were an unhappy marriage (Clive Rose/Getty Images)

“Oh 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 applies to Real Madrid and, indeed, Manchester United. I must admit that when I signed (for Stoke), I did so without any 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 began training at a sports center in Newton Heath, the area of ​​north Manchester where United was founded, to do his exercises, sweat and then upload the photos. to their social media channels with snappy phrases like “keep pushing” or “positivity and progress.”

“Even the hardest days will eventually pass,” reads a recent post. “We only do positive things.”

The intention, presumably, is to show potential employers how hard you're working, how devoted you still are to the sport, no matter what they say, and how you're ready for a new challenge. His ambition, it seems, is to find a team in the US. “Motivation, hunger and love for the game,” reads another recent post.

Unfortunately for Lingard, the new MLS season doesn't start until February. Nothing has been fixed and, over the last six months, the football industry has been tough and cynical enough for many people to question its priorities. Why, they want to know, is someone with his ability out of a job? He does not care? Doesn't this hurt his professional pride? Because nobody wants to be a non-football player, right?

The questions are understandable because, regardless of how it is dressed up, there is nothing orthodox about a footballer spending half a year, or possibly more, out of the game.

But there is some context here and, if anything, the nature of modern football makes it likely that we will see more of this in the future.

Here we have a man of extraordinary wealth who finds himself in a position where he doesn't have to rush what he does next.

This is not a lack of offers, according to people familiar with the situation who will remain anonymous to protect their positions, nor that Lingard has arrogant assumptions about the level he should play. It's more about waiting for the deal that suits you best, rather than feeling obligated or pressured to accept whatever comes your way.

Jesse Lingard started in the 2018 World Cup semi-final for England against Croatia (Clive Rose/Getty Images)

That, after all, is exactly what Owen did with Stoke and look how it turned out. To the surprise of absolutely no one, Owen did not fit into Pulis's big man at the back 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 professionals gathering in the locker room and asking with a mix 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 after failing to start in the league, but had offered to hand in his dismissal on at least one occasion in the preceding months.

In that context, perhaps Lingard has the right to be demanding. Perhaps it would be much more difficult 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 previously spent several weeks training with Al Ettifaq, the Saudi Pro League club where Steven Gerrard is the coach and the players include Jordan Henderson, Moussa Dembele and Georginio Wijnaldum.

Before that, Lingard had a similar deal at West Ham and even played for David Moyes' side in a behind-closed-doors match against Ipswich. Many people wondered whether this could lead to something more substantial and whether Lingard would have the opportunity to improve his relationship with the club's supporters, who felt aggrieved by his decision to choose Forest over them a year earlier. But nothing else came out and all the rumors about Saudi Arabia also faded away.

The wolves toyed with the idea of ​​moving through it. Other Premier League clubs discussed his availability, including one from Italy. However, nothing has gone right and it is worth remembering that Lingard, despite everything, will not come cheap. Forest paid a basic weekly wage of £115,000 ($147,000), plus some eye-watering bonuses, which caused some issues between the player's team and the club's owners.

Jesse Lingard had a disappointing spell at Nottingham Forest (Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)

Lingard is not blameless and one wonders whether, on reflection, he recognizes that it was a mistake not to rejoin West Ham last season, especially as it meant not being part of their Europa Conference League triumph, the first major trophy. of the club in 43 years. years.

Other bids have been proposed by Newcastle United and Fulham, with four-year deals being discussed. Instead, Lingard signed a one-year contract with Forest, where he only started 14 games, rather than accepting the club's offer of a two-year contract.

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 was available on a free transfer.

With this in mind, it's easier to understand why Lingard wants to make sure his next choice is the right one.

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His penance comes in the form of 24/7 reminders, via the cesspool of social media, that he is lazy and a spendthrift, that he has wasted his career, and various other charming responses that They accompany all the hostile headlines and the usual annoyances. that someone in his position has to face.

Some people can become extraordinarily angry when they think that a super-rich footballer is not making the most of his talent. It is an everyday part of Lingard's life and that is perhaps the saddest thing given that he has tried to open up in the past about some of his most difficult times at Old Trafford and his occasional struggles with his mental health. .

So yeah, maybe MLS is the best place for Lingard to rediscover himself, and with this being his birthday, maybe we can avoid judging him too harshly until we see what happens next.

Have you made some questionable decisions? Yes. Do you need to find your way back soon? Absolutely, unless he wants to become one of football's forgotten men. But he could play 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 too young to talk about any player in the past tense.

(Top photo: Clive Mason/Getty Images)



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