In a season of stuttering fortune, of goal-shy forwards and lacklustre midfielders, of too many home draws and not enough goals, last week came one bit of unequivocal good news for Manchester United. It may not have amounted to anything in the pursuit of trophies, or even of a Champions League place. But it was a moment which simultaneously spoke of the future and acknowledged the past.
And yet the signing of a new contract by Jesse Lingard provoked among a large swathe of United fans the kind of fury which made you wonder whether they have any knowledge of the history or meaning of the club they claim to support.
Lingard appears to wind up a good proportion of United followers. According to them he is too lightweight, too inconsistent, too infuriating to be worth persisting with. Get rid of him, one incensed supporter told me recently, he is a waste of space, not good enough. Instead of wasting time with this waster, this fan told me, he would prefer United to break the bank to bring in Eden Hazard, Riyad Mahrez, anyone rather than persisting with a player he reckoned would never amount to anything worthwhile.
Given that Lingard has scored three times at Wembley for United, two of them winning strikes in cup finals, the other a screamer in the Community Shield that will live long in the memory, such an attitude seems short sighted to the point of myopia. Sure, it is undeniable that Lingard can sink into profound irrelevance during matches. Sure, he has yet rarely dominated matches in the way the greats do, even from the wing. Sure, he may not be the next George Best. But it is also true that he represents something important about the United tradition which suggests he is worthy of a little more patience and time.
Since 1936 United have fielded at least one home-grown player in every single matchday squad. And while it might be the case that about half of that time was made up by Bobby Charlton and Ryan Giggs, that is a tradition which makes the club unique among today’s big sides across Europe. And Lingard fits perfectly into that tradition. He arrived at Carrington as an eight-year-old and has made his way up through the very same system which produced Charlton, Best, McIlroy, Hughes, Whiteside, Giggs, Scholes, Beckham, Butt, the Nevilles, Brown, Welbeck and Rashford. That is some continuity.
At 24, he is still a work in progress. He needs to build strength, consistency, purpose. What Mourinho was doing by agreeing the new deal was to make plain that the route to the first team that has been at the heart of the United way is still very much open under his leadership. He knows he has to develop the player. But he believes the raw materials are there in abundance. As has been proven by the quality of goals like his belter against Middlesbrough this season. Giving him the new contract is a demonstration that he has faith in him to deliver. As confidence injections go, it is substantial.
That does not seem to be the most outrageous of deals. Yes, Lingard will be paid £75,000 a week. But that is the going rate these days. And it can hardly be his fault if clubs are prepared to pay such riches.
Read the full article on eurosport.co.uk: Lingard critics know nothing about Manchester United