In many ways, Sir Alex Ferguson was spot on with his prediction about Jesse Lingard.
Back when he was a 16-year-old in the Manchester United Academy, full of hopes and dreams of one day reaching the bright lights of Old Trafford, Lingard received a few sound words from the club’s great manager that would sustain him on his journey through the ranks.
Growing despondent and concerned for his career prospects as his friends were signing professional contracts when he was not being offered terms, Lingard was summoned to meet with Ferguson who told the teenager he had high hopes for him.
“One day, he had a meeting with me and my family,” Lingard wrote for The Players Tribune. “He sat us down in his office and he said, ‘It’s going to take a while for you, Jesse. We believe in you. But you’re going to have to be patient. You’re not going to be ready for the first team until you’re 22 or 23.'”
While most young, ambitious players have designs of breaking through at 18 or 19, Lingard had been explicitly told, by one of football’s greatest ever talent spotters and curators no less, that it would take an additional four or five years.
Lingard’s rise to the first team
But hearing it from, as Lingard said, the “main man” gave him all the motivation, patience, and self-belief he needed. After a few loan spells to aid his development, the former William Beamont Community High School pupil broke into the United first team in 2015, at the age of 22 – right on track with Ferguson’s prediction.
Two seasons later, Lingard had become an important part of the Red Devils squad and during the 2017/18 campaign, enjoyed his most productive spell of his career, scoring 13 goals and creating seven assists in all competitions. Lingard’s fine form was rewarded with a call-up to the England squad for the 2018 World Cup, where he started five games to help the Three Lions reach the semi-finals.
A year earlier, a new long-term contract had been signed, committing Lingard to United for five years – a recognition of his contribution to the team and a clear sign of his future importance to the club.
However, since the highs of the World Cup and the 2017/18 season, Lingard has endured a gradual decline in form and his role within at United has gone from first team regular to peripheral squad member. He was limited to 19 Premier League starts during the 2018/19 campaign, chipping in with four goals and three assists.
Reduced to squad player
Lingard’s impact reduced further in 2019/20, with the Warrington-born player starting just nine Premier League games. His only goals came with the last kick of the league season against Leicester City.
It left Lingard facing an uncertain future this summer. United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer does not appear to have the 27-year-old central to his plans, preferring instead to deploy the exciting young talent Mason Greenwood on the right side of a three-man attack. Meanwhile, United’s top transfer target during the off-season was Borussia Dortmund’s England international Jadon Sancho, who would have likely been deployed on the right wing, dropping Lingard further down the pecking order.
Ultimately, a deal for Sancho collapsed, which might hand a reprieve to Lingard as he aims to prove his worth to his boyhood club. With the summer transfer window now closed, Lingard will remain a United player until at least January, when he will enter the final six months of his contract.
It will be then that Lingard faces his first major career crossroads. Unless he forces his way into Solskjaer’s plans, it appears unlikely at this stage that United will offer the midfielder a new contract, meaning Lingard would be free to negotiate a pre-contract agreement with other clubs.
Lingard’s big career decision
His current contract at United is reported to be worth around £100,000 per week. His personal fortune is thought to be as much as £20m, including his sponsorships and business interests, putting Lingard in a similar wealth bracket to many other successful athletes, businesspeople and Euro Millions winners.
Given that any move next summer will be on a free transfer, and therefore interested clubs will not need to negotiate a fee with United for Lingard, he will likely be able to secure a similarly lucrative deal should he leave Old Trafford.
While money will always be a factor in contract negotiations, Lingard’s next career decision could be his most defining. At 27, he should be enjoying his peak years as a professional footballer by playing regularly and having an important role in a team.
Even if United offer Lingard fresh terms, would he be inclined to stay if he can’t be given assurances over his importance? While there are never any guarantees in football, a move elsewhere and to a club that views Lingard as a central component of their project could be just what he needs to revitalise his career.
Another factor that could dictate Lingard’s future at United is the position of Solskjaer. The Norwegian manager may not view Lingard as integral but his own future at the club is far from secure, so if a managerial change were to occur, it could give Lingard a new opportunity to impress a new coach.
However the next few months play out at Old Trafford, Lingard will be left with some big decisions to make. He has shown over a long enough period that he has the talent to succeed on the biggest stages. Now he just needs to make sure he has the opportunities to do so once again.