There was a time when the Manchester United academy was so brimming with first-team-ready talent that Sir Alex had to drive promising young players out into the woods and set them free. Peer behind the right sycamores in the Cheshire countryside and you’ll most likely stumble across a once-promising Mancunian centre back, noisily suckling a badger cub against his mossy nipples while he patiently whittles a likeness of Jesper Blomqvist into a tree stump. Some say that Phil Neville still drives out there at the weekend, tossing copies of Four Four Two and bottles of Lucozade into the undergrowth.
Nowadays things are dramatically different. Press your nostrils against any particular Manchester United team sheet and you’ll inhale a heady cocktail of bank notes, helicopter fuel and the damp ink of a freshly stamped passport.
The exception, at least for the past two United games, has been Jesse Lingard – the bright young winger who is arguably in his fourth year of ‘next big thingness’. A player some feel could have perhaps grasped the first team squad by the anus hairs some time ago, Lingard seems to be in the midst of what you could either describe as his second or final chance.
And, in fairness, the first time Lingard squeezed his toe into the starting eleven, a cruel injury almost instantly ended his ambitions for that season – he regained fitness only to finish the 2014/15 campaign amongst the soggy cardboard collapse that was Derby County’s abortive play-off push.
Now though, Lingard seems in a better place to wrap a confident fist around the teat of opportunity and squeeze. In his last game he delivered a star showing and an important goal in United’s 2-0 win against West Brom. Before that he was an eager, if not always incisive, attacking threat for Manchester United against CSKA Moscow – creating United’s goal with a one-touch cross so good even a lumbering bin bag filled with warm yoghurt could, and indeed did, score from it.
It’s perhaps revealing that Lingard’s chance is a direct consequence of Memphis Depay’s failure to seize his own. Arriving with as big a reputation as a Dutch footballer can merit these days, Memphis has proceeded to look simultaneously over-revved and under-bothered. Whether it’s the rumoured fondness for ‘shenanigans’ or simply an aversion to the bare-balled managerial discipline of a greased, pink man-walrus, Depay’s record this season stands at 1 goal in 8 Premier League appearances. Lingard has already matched that in a single league start.
But if Lingard’s contribution compares favourably with his costlier teammate, his status amongst fellow Premier League youngsters is less straightforward. Lingard is, after all, 22 years old – old enough to remember in real terms how sh*t Duffy was. And do you know who else is 22? England star and established Premier League striker Harry Kane. £50m Raheem Sterling is 2 years younger. Even Spurs’ Deli Alli – at 19 and in his first ever top flight season – is ahead of Lingard in the race not to be celebrating his 25th birthday playing left back for Aston Villa.
Perhaps it says more about youth progression at Old Trafford than Lingard’s abilities. You may well raise an eyebrow to the point of rupture to learn that, in comparison to Paul Scholes’ zero loan appearances and David Beckham’s 5, Lingard has managed nearly 50, over 3 years, for four different clubs.
Also, the very fact that Lingard has started two back-to-back games puts him a hefty stride ahead of his youth team contemporaries. Of the young players that Louis van Gaal tossed into his early (and largely hapless) United teams, James Wilson has had 8 Premier League minutes this season, Paddy McNair contributed a forgettable 21 minutes in the win against Southampton and Tyler Blackett is busy dispelling the myth that Scottish football is easier than fist-fighting with a jaffa cake.
- Could United get stung against the Hornets?
Fly on over to our latest Watford v United betting
Oddly, despite just two notable games this seasons Lingard has already found himself in Roy Hodgson’s England squad, albeit because of injuries. Perhaps that says something about how easily a ‘big club player’ can dampen Roy’s slacks. But equally it says a great deal about a player everyone seems to have been waiting quite a while for.
Lingard has, on first inspection, all the bits you need to mash together a delicious footballer. Swift and direct in his running; inventive and mature in his passing; willing to do what he’s asked, but never without a clear sense of what makes fans fling hot Bovril into the air. He may well become the homegrown star that finally, properly interrupts the shiny conveyor belt of big money solutions. And, yet, in a strange and slightly sad reflection on Manchester United’s modern youth policy, this promising young player is just as likely to end up relentlessly weeping in the semi-detached bungalow he now shares with Ronnie Wallwork and Jon Spector.
So we conclude – with no small sense of churlish satisfaction – that being young, gifted and wealthy can be just as sh*t as our lives. Hurrah?