Jesse Lingard arrives at another career crossroads with skewed sense of direction

Jesse Lingard pulls a face before Nottingham Forest's clash with West Ham. Credit: Alamy
Jesse Lingard pulls a face before Nottingham Forest's clash with West Ham. Credit: Alamy

Jesse Lingard lost another year at Nottingham Forest and he’s running out of time. The ex-England forward needs to decide where he wants to go before choosing his next turn.

The last time Manchester United triumphed in an FA Cup final, Jesse Lingard volleyed in a brilliant winning goal. This weekend, while his boyhood club were back at Wembley, Lingard was to be found on a Barbados beach – having a whale of time, no doubt – contemplating what’s next after being released by Nottingham Forest.

It wasn’t supposed to go like this. Any of it. Lingard would prefer to have established himself at Old Trafford and, at times, he threatened to do so. But when – or rather, long after – it became clear he had no future with the club he joined as a seven-year-old, he took the most lucrative offer, one from Forest that also allowed him to keep his long-term options open.

The plan, presumably, was to dazzle the City Ground as the newly-promoted club’s highest earner, recapture the form he showed in half a season at West Ham, and go into this summer with a queue of top clubs gasping to punch his ticket back to the very top.

Instead, Lingard flopped hard at Forest. There were rare, woefully-infrequent glimpses of the old Jesse, the one who was a regular in Gareth Southgate’s England XI. But he offered no goals or even an assist in a season which died a death after a World Cup in which he still hoped to play.

Lingard was a regular until the mid-season break, playing all but two Premier League games, drifting through most of them. The first match after the World Cup was a return to Old Trafford, where at least he got a ripple of applause in lieu of the grand send-off he felt he had been deprived of. But even that personal half-lap of honour came prematurely upon having twanged his hamstring near the far touchline.

Lingard played three more times for Forest: once off the bench in a 4-0 defeat to a West Ham side he probably should have joined; a solitary start at Spurs which saw him hooked at half-time; and finally in a Forest shirt, the last two minutes of a 2-0 defeat to United at the City Ground. With Forest in the relegation mire, Lingard spent six of the last seven games on the bench. For the highlight of the season, the safety-securing 1-0 win over Arsenal, Lingard didn’t even make it as far as the bench.

Jesse Lingard on the pitch after Nottingham Forest secure Premier League safety. Credit: Alamy
Jesse Lingard on the pitch after Nottingham Forest secure Premier League safety. Credit: Alamy

So it’s no wonder that Forest weren’t interested in renewing terms, or even talking new ones. There was no rancour from either side and despite his struggles, Lingard seems to have been well-liked and generally a positive presence around the squad. But Forest didn’t fork out their highest-ever salary just for good vibes and bantz. Nor will any other top club who might have looked at Lingard last year as a potential freebie for this summer.

All of which leaves Lingard at a career crossroads. Another one. At the last juncture, you could argue he took a wrong turn.

West Ham wanted Lingard back after he scored nine goals in 16 appearances in the second half of the 2020-21 season to fire the Hammers into Europe and regain – all too briefly – his England place. ‘The club made him a really good offer,” said David Moyes after being custard-pied by Lingard. “I was surprised.”

It’s easy to say in hindsight, but going back to the familiarity of the London Stadium, with many of the same players he worked alongside previously, was the safest bet, if not the most lucrative. The forward took a gamble on thriving at Forest, which was much more of a punt when going into a squad full of strangers, not only to Lingard but to each other. It backfired. He’s effectively lost another year and he hasn’t many left.

Lingard is 30. He is no longer an up-and-comer with vast potential, nor has he been for the last few seasons. He ought to be at his peak, perhaps even past it. Lingard has always been a late developer, which Sir Alex Ferguson acknowledged over a decade ago: “He is 19, came through our youth system and is built like Jean Tigana was for France. But he never got into the limelight there until he was about 24, and I think that will be the same with Lingard.”

Six years ago, it seemed Fergie might have been right again. By then, he’d scored that Wembley winner and seemed to have earned Jose Mourinho’s trust. Never did he play more Premier League games for United or anyone else than during the 2017-18 season, aged 25. Was it then he lost the dead-eyed focus required to achieve the potential Ferguson and co. felt he had?

In the week Mourinho was sacked, Lingard was launching his clothing range – a “nonsense” according to Roy Keane. “If it was a good strong dressing room that wouldn’t be tolerated, and that’s why I worry about the United dressing room. For a young player who is still learning his trade, and he could be the nicest player in the world, to be coming out with all that nonsense… football should be your number one priority. Focus on the game. Don’t hide behind your cars, your tattoos or your agents. Play the game. You can do all that stuff when you retire.”

Keane was right to worry about the dressing room, and Lingard has since bemoaned the lack of leadership after Fergie left. ‘There was no control, no structure, people doing what they want – it was like a free-for-all,” he said in January, seemingly bemoaning the freedom he seized upon as much as anybody. Well, almost anybody.

Lingard capitalised on his profile to launch his fashion range and an esports organisation while being active on social media and YouTube. “I class myself as a footballer but maybe an influencer off the pitch,” he said in 2019, since when his influence on the pitch has evaporated.

Lingard has faced other struggles. He spoke out about his mental health battles earlier this year and family pressures have taken plenty of his time and headspace too. Taking that into consideration, with his career interests outside the game, perhaps it’s no wonder his career has stalled.

But if he wants to jump-start it, it’s now or maybe never. A year ago, he had Juventus, AC Milan, PSG, Newcastle all interested in offering him a platform to relaunch his career but, not for the first time, he made a poor choice. He almost certainly won’t have similarly grand options now as he embarks once more upon free-agency, but before he surveys what options might be available, rather than ponder what any club might offer him, Lingard should decide how much he wants to offer them.

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