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Jesse Lingard and Tricks of the Light

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Reputations rise and fall precipitously in soccer, but even by those standards, Lingard’s transformation, what he has described as his “new lease of life,” is eye-catching. He had not just become a bit-part player in Manchester United’s eyes; he had, to the wider world, become something close to a figure of fun.

Every month, a meme borrowed from the influential, worryingly prescient British comedy series “The Day Today” made its way round Twitter, asking if Lingard had scored or assisted on a league goal over the last four weeks. It had been started innocently enough, but, as is the way of things on social media, had been co-opted by cruelty.

The joke, of course, was that he never did. Lingard had enjoyed one golden month in December 2018, scoring four goals and creating two others, but had done nothing before or since. His reputation had been built on the exception, rather than the rule.

That the impression stuck was, at least in part, because Lingard was seen as fair game for mockery. Partly, that was through no fault of his own. Pundits assailed him for his extracurricular business interests. The news media, meanwhile, bizarrely insisted on identifying him as a young prospect, long after he had outgrown that particular label. Fans, at least some, objected to his performed, public persona, particularly online.

And partly, he did not help himself. It is deeply unfair and moderately pompous to judge a young man for expressing his personality, but at the same time it seems likely that the elaborate goal celebrations, the social media antics and the use of the nickname J-Lingz did not help others take him seriously. Lingard, to some extent, was complicit in his Peter Panning.

By January this year, the combination of all those factors seemed to have brought Lingard’s career to a standstill. He had barely played for Manchester United, despite, in his view, the fact that he had returned from lockdown in good form and fine fettle. The only clubs interested in handing him a second chance were West Bromwich Albion and Newcastle United — the transfer market’s last refuge of the damned — and, thanks to the fact that Moyes had worked with him at Old Trafford eight years ago, West Ham.

The evidence of the last three months is that he chose correctly. Some credit for Lingard’s renaissance, of course, must go to Moyes, who has filled him with trust and confidence, and provided a space in which he can thrive. Much of it, too, must go to Lingard. He has a whiteboard on the wall at his home filled with a set of targets for him to achieve, including the number of shots he takes, the number of players he beats. In private, he is clearly very serious about his career.


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