Less than three years ago Jesse Lingard was dancing on top of the football world.
Nobody embodied the sense of fun and freedom of spirit that galvanised Gareth Southgate’s World Cup squad and led England all the way to an improbable semi-final more than the Manchester United academy graduate.
Heading into the tournament having started only two previous international games, Lingard would leave it as an apparent regular; a midfield dynamo destined to fulfil the prophecy of none other than Sir Alex Ferguson while the player was still in his teens.
Today, Lingard is contemplating a loan at West Ham before returning, hopefully revitalised, to the Old Trafford club he first joined at the age of just seven, and who he helped to lift the FA Youth Cup in 2011 as an integral member of a squad that also included the likes of Paul Pogba and Ravel Morrison.
If Morrison’s crash-and-burn career puts Lingard’s current fall from grace into context, the loan move marks a difficult chapter in a relationship with United that seemed, in the heady summer of 2018, destined to go from strength to strength.
Ferguson had called it first, in 2012: “Jesse Lingard is going to be some player,” he predicted. “I think he will be a player we have high hopes for, definitely.”
Lingard evolved from a bit-part player to a central figure of Southgate’s side in Russia, brilliantly cutting up Tunisia then firing a superb long-range effort against Panama which he celebrated by performing a dance from the video game ‘Fortnite’.
Lingard’s profile soared, and fans and media could not get enough of his fun-loving demenour and unflinching honesty in interviews. “If I score in the World Cup final, it’ll be passionate,” he told FourFourTwo. “I’ll be taking my shirt off and running around like an absolute lunatic.”
Yet continued praise from the purists – Rio Ferdinand wrote “I knew from an early that Jesse was always going to be good enough” – was not enough to sustain Lingard, whose elusive style, forged from a lack of physicality as a youngster, could, as with his off-field antics, often be misinterpreted.
His importance at Old Trafford dwindled upon his return, not helped by the accidental release of a foul-mouthed holiday video on his Snapchat account in June 2019, which prompted Gary Neville to label Lingard “a bit of a prat”.
Lingard apologised and was issued a “last chance” warning by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. At the end of the same year, he opened up to Solskjaer about “off-field issues”, relating to his responsibility for looking after his two teenage siblings due to his mother falling ill.
In an interview with the PA news agency in July 2020, Lingard recalled: “When I was playing, I was thinking about different things in the back of my head. I wasn’t really mentally right, to play even to an extent.”
Worse was to come as Lingard was left out of the England team for the Euro 2020 qualifiers in October, Southgate citing the “difficult period” the player had been through. The World Cup hero has not played for the national team since June 2019.
Likewise, Lingard’s last kick in the Premier League for the club he graced for two decades would be the goal he scored in injury time on the final day of last season at Leicester, sealing a 2-0 result which guaranteed United a return to the Champions League.
He would not be a part of the return to Europe his goal helped fashion. Sidelined through the current top-flight campaign, the prophecies have long since silenced and the Fortnite dancer heads to the Hammers in grave danger of becoming English football’s forgotten man.