Academy programme advisor Tony Whelan tells the unique story of Jesse Lingard's rise through the ranks at Manchester United, from an impish boy to first-team star under Jose Mourinho…
“He’s always had that twinkle in his eye. The impish smile, too. There’s always something going on. You’re never too far away from something happening.
I came to Manchester United in 1990 as a part-time coach brought in by Brian Kidd. I then joined the Academy as a full-time member of staff in 1998, so I’ve seen the journeys of quite a lot of players in that time. This particular young man is a gem.
Not only as a footballer, but as a human being, probably one of the best players I’ve had the privilege to coach; such a charming, mischievous young man and a joyous young player. He’s very, very likeable. He’s had a journey, as all players have, but Jesse’s journey to where he is now is unique. The fact that he is the boy he is just makes his journey even better.
Jesse came into the club under a gentleman who has recently retired, Mike Glennie. He came through the development centres to the Academy and worked through all the age groups up to under-16. He got himself a scholarship, came into our full-time programme, the Manchester United Schoolboy Scholarship – MANUSS for short – at the end of his under-14 year. That was our first year, 2007/08. He was one of the first players that came into that new programme, so he was pioneering. He had to make a big sacrifice to do it, too. Warrington isn’t far away, but he had to leave home and move into digs, which is always a big deal for a young player.
He played down a year, so when he was an under-16, he was in with the under-15s. Even when he went full-time he was still playing with the under-16s. There was a big gap between him and the older boys, so in some of the games he didn’t play, simply because he wouldn’t have been able to get around the field and cope with the physical demands. He understood that. The thing about Jesse is that he was able to get his head around it and deal with it, and trust us to get it right.
We had to not play him in certain games, play him in others and bring him off to rest him at times, but he was able to deal with that. Some players just can’t get their heads around it. Jesse did. It wasn’t easy, but he had the patience, intelligence and trust in the coaching staff to know that those decisions were made in his best interests, that we were keeping him in cotton wool because we knew at some point he was going to grow. At some point all that ability would be able to come out. So he goes through all of that, goes out on various loans, goes on pre-season tours, finally gets to make his debut… and then injures his knee. He’s out for months.
During that layoff, I used to see Jesse hobbling into Carrington. Knowing that he couldn’t train or play, knowing the boy he was and how much he loved to play, how energetic he was, it hurt to see him like that. You can’t help but get attached to players, especially a lad like Jesse. Seeing him so down was hard to watch.
I’ll always remember going down to St George’s Park for an event during Jesse’s recuperation. I bumped into Gareth Southgate, who at that point was England’s under-21 manager. We had a conversation about Jesse, who had played for the under-21s. Gareth asked how he was. I said that I’d seen him a few times and he’d looked a bit down. That was that. It turns out that Gareth rang him, just to give him a bit of a lift, and now Jesse is in Gareth’s senior England team. There’s a wonderful neatness about all that.
Born and raised Gallery
Ten of our favourite Jesse Lingard photos from his early years at United.
For Jesse, it all came together at the 2016 FA Cup final.
I remember being a young boy and seeing how magical it was for any player to score the winning goal in an FA Cup final. To have that happen to somebody you know is just an incredibly special feeling.
What a goal, by the way. That superb technique and timing had been there when he was just a kid. We’d seen that kid grow up through the Academy, seen his talent nurtured, seen it come through and come to fruition, and we’d just seen the ultimate expression of that talent in an FA Cup final with a sensational, dramatic winning goal. The kid from Warrington had won the Cup. It’s very, very humbling in that moment to think:
“I know that boy, and he knows me.”And that’s part of the charm of Jesse’s story as well: it includes a lot of people.
The trophy was important, of course, but for a lot of people at the club, it was more than that. Jesse’s winner gave everybody in the Academy a great lift. It made us feel so proud of him as a person because we understood what his journey had been and what sacrifices he’d made, how he’d overcome his injury. The fact that he’s the boy he is, well, that was the icing on the cake.
It’s not just coaches who are involved in player development, people misunderstand that, it’s people in the office – Clare and Marie in the office who do all the admin – it’s the medical team that support them when they’re injured, it’s the kit managers ensuring the kit is put on them and so on.
Of course, you think about the people who took the kids in when they were really young, took them in to the development centres, people like Mike Glennie and Kevin Ward, and you think:
“What was it like for them?” The same goes for the people at our partner school at Ashton on Mersey. A lot of the teachers who taught Jesse are still at the school, and they’re watching him on telly. To witness a young boy reach the end of the journey, to become a professional and score a goal at that level, of that magnitude, in such an iconic match, in such a way. The drama, the quality, everything. It goes beyond words.
You really do get a sense of paternal pride. No question. It works the other way too. When a homegrown player leaves, it hurts. It’s very much like how I felt about my children when they left home. There’s a sense of loss because you’ve had them for so long. So when you see them thriving in the first team at Manchester United, it’s really is paternal pride.
Of course, the other thing to throw in is that, over the years, you get to know their families. We really got to know Jesse’s mum over the years, and his grandad, who was an immense support to him when he was younger. You think of them and wonder:
“If we feel this good, how must they feel?” It’s a shared thing. They must feel incredible to see him doing so well at this moment in time.
We would hope that his example inspires other players in the Academy. We can point to them and say that it wasn’t that long since Jesse was sitting where you’re sitting, doing the same things you’re doing, up to all the same tricks and mischief, making the same mistakes you’re making, and he worked his way through it and got on with it because at the end of the day he wanted to be a footballer, wanted to pay the price, make the sacrifice.
That’s the thing: some people want to be footballers or achieve things in life, but they’re not prepared to actually make the sacrifices, do the hard work that people don’t see. He was certainly prepared to do that, no question.
So is Marcus Rashford, and what really resonated with me was seeing them both play in the Europa League final in Stockholm last May. Two Academy boys helping this club win a European trophy, the one trophy we hadn’t won. For them to share in that together, knowing each other’s journey, and us knowing it what those boys had to go through to get to where they’re at, was wonderful. Recently they both played for England against Brazil at Wembley. It just makes the hairs stand up on the back of your neck.
It’s always special when you see a young boy come through the programme and achieve something. When I think of Jesse Lingard, I just think of a young kid who loves playing football and loves being with his mates. But Jesse isn’t a kid anymore. He’s a role model, a standard bearer. I think when he plays, he represents all that is good about football and all that is good about this football club: that love of the game. When he was in the MANNUS programme he was also an ambassador. He had to be. Don’t get me wrong, any player at this football club is an ambassador. You don’t sign up to that in an intellectual or conscious way but that’s exactly what you are. Jesse though, he loves the football club, he loves football. He loves playing it. He’s been at this football club for two-thirds of his life. Most of his lifetime. His memories, his mindset, his whole being is associated with Manchester United.
I was privileged to have played under Sir Matt Busby before he retired and I always remember his message. It was a very simple mantra: make sure you pass the ball to a red shirt, and enjoy your football. You train hard all week, so just go out there and play. Don’t worry about the environment or the opposition; you have the support of your team-mates and you’re playing for a wonderful football club.
Play without fear. Enjoy it.
That’s just Jesse, isn’t it?
From the day he first walked into this football club at seven years of age, he always had a smile on his face. He always loved playing, always loved the game, always had wonderful enthusiasm. You never had to ask him to work hard, and in some ways he’s inspired the coaches with his love of the game and love of the ball.
This is a special club. There have been special people here who have been the bastions of the youth development programme. Sir Matt, Jimmy Murphy, Sir Alex Ferguson… we continue to carry the banner in the youth department today, hoping to produce the next generation of players who are homegrown, who joined us from school, who will get in the first team. We have to believe that we can continue to do it. When you see people like Jesse and Marcus doing it now, it’s a great inspiration for us to carry on the work and an amazing inspiration for the young players who are here already.
Jesse still comes to watch the young boys play if they’re at Carrington in an afternoon or on a Saturday morning or Sunday morning. He’ll pop over and say hello, and I know that means a lot to the part-time coaches who’ve had him, that remember him. The fact that he’s able to do that and still remember his roots is a wonderful thing and testimony to the way he’s been brought up here.
Jesse might be an established first teamer with major trophies and England caps, but to us, he’s the same mischievous lad with the twinkle in his eye.