It’s Jesse Lingard’s birthday. He turns 31 today and, at this stage of his life, he must realise it is not going to be easy shifting some of the perceptions that come from being a non-footballing footballer. For now, at least.
Speak to Lingard’s former team-mates and they will talk about a guy who has been popular at all his clubs and played at a level, including a World Cup semi-final, that automatically commands respect among his fellow pros.
But it is also a harsh reality that many others will be wondering how a player with Lingard’s record of achievement has spent so long without a club and seems less troubled by that situation than you might assume.
Lingard last played competitive football in April, a two-minute substitute appearance for Nottingham Forest against his old club Manchester United. His last 90-minute performances in the Premier League came with Forest in August 2022 and, before that, you have to go back another 15 months to find the previous one, on loan to West Ham from United.
Since then, it has largely been a period of drift for a player who had previously won 32 England caps and contributed to some of United’s happier moments since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement, including scoring the winning goal in the 2016 FA Cup final. There have been some nagging injuries, some personal issues and only sporadic glimpses of his undoubted talent.
And, little more than two years since his last England appearance, the life of ‘JLingz’ involves an entirely different routine these days: taking a ball and going outside, alone, other than a personal trainer, to work on his fitness.
Something similar happened to Michael Owen when he left United at the end of the 2011-12 season and it quickly became apparent that a player who was once football royalty, with all the superstar’s wealth and accessories, may have to re-evaluate his position within the sport.
“I did get a couple of enquiries from overseas — one from Vancouver Whitecaps, a Canada-based MLS side, and one from an Australian side, Newcastle Jets,” Owen wrote in his 2019 autobiography. “When I considered those two possibilities, neither particularly appealed.
That seems like a question Lingard must have asked himself many times since he started pitching up at a sports centre in Newton Heath — the area of north Manchester where United were founded — to go through his drills, work up a sweat and then upload the pictures to his social-media channels with snappy phrases such as “keep pushing” or “positivity and progress”.
But there is some context here and, if anything, the nature of modern-day football makes it likely we will see more of this happening in the future.
Here, we have a man of extraordinary wealth who is in a position where he does not have to rush into what he does next.