Late-developing Lingard now a central figure
Paul McGuinness has spent the best part of 45 minutes talking about Manchester United's man of the moment, Jesse Lingard, when the conversation starts to wind up.
"It seems to have gone unnoticed, but he's a really talented player," United's former under-18s coach says. "I have to check myself sometimes and think, 'Am I biased here?', but isn't he the best player on the team at the moment? Someone said Ross Barkley is a snip at £15m to Chelsea. Well, Jesse Lingard looks quite good value, doesn't he?"
It is a peculiarity at a club who take great pride in their youth system that some products of that academy have faced such a battle for acceptance among elements of the fanbase.
Tom Cleverley could relate to some of the criticism Lingard has had down the years but those United supporters who seemed to forget the forward was one of their own have lost their voice of late. Jose Mourinho's talisman has not been Romelu Lukaku or Paul Pogba but a player who, as of October 21, had still to start a league game this season.
Eight goals in his past 10 games, and 11 all told, have installed Lingard as United's top-scorer behind Lukaku, and while the Belgian striker and other big names have struggled to live up to their billing in recent weeks, the kid from Warrington who has been on the club's books since he was seven has been leading the charge. It could be the same again when Stoke City visit Old Trafford tomorrow.
When Jose Mourinho joined United as manager shortly after Lingard's stunning volley against Crystal Palace won the FA Cup in 2016, he sent every player a personalised text message. The one to Lingard read: "Fantastic goal in the Cup final, s--- post on the bus to West Ham", a reference to the video the forward uploaded on social media of United's players ducking for cover as their coach was attacked by West Ham fans as it made its way to Upton Park before a league match. There was a time when Lingard's presence on social media seemed to rile people. Even the former United defender Rio Ferdinand - tired of seeing Lingard and his close friend Pogba publicly perfecting their dab, dance or handshake routines - urged them to focus on getting the team back up the table. It overlooked the pair's naturally playful humour but, either way, it is no longer a talking point.
Lingard has flourished under Mourinho. A move to a central position has liberated him and virtuoso performances against Watford, Arsenal, Burnley and Everton among others are shifting opinions.
Alex Ferguson said Lingard would be 23 before he was playing regular first-team football at United and the former manager was not mistaken. His United debut in August 2014 was curtailed by injury and it was October of the following year, a couple of months shy of his 23rd birthday, before Lingard played for the first team again. He was 25 last month but it is easy to forget that last term under Mourinho was his first full season as a United player and his journey to that point was not without its hurdles.
Lingard's story is a triumph of perseverance. He was a late developer, in part because he was so much smaller than his peers growing up.
"He was tiny," McGuinness recalls. "I don't think Jesse would have got a chance like he did at 99 per cent of clubs but the way we played suited him. We put skill first - combination skills, dribbling skills. Although he looked three years younger than some of the others, mentally he was at the top - one of the funniest, sharpest. Being small in some respects is an advantage because you are forced to think quicker. You have to be more aware."
Lingard's father, Roy, was lesser spotted in those earlier years although he is around now. Kirsty, Lingard's mother, was always supportive of her son but it was Ken, his grandfather, who was a rock in his life. He would constantly ferry the young Lingard to and from training and games.
Lingard attended what is now Beamont Collegiate Academy in the tough Warrington neighbourhood of Orford between 11 and 13 before moving to the Ashton-on-Mersey school, where United like to send their youngsters.
Lingard now has a younger brother, Jasper, at Beamont and turns up on occasion to watch his sibling play in school matches. "He gets mobbed on the sidelines, as you can imagine!" said Mike McLoughlin, a progress leader at Beamont, who was one of Lingard's PE teachers.
"He's a character but there's no edge to him. A lot of the lads at the time are still his friends now." Craig Milburn, assistant principal at Beamont who ran Lingard's school football team, remembers a grounded, unassuming boy who was "scary to watch" at football.
Still, Ken feared at one point his grandson might not make the grade at United because of his size but the club kept faith. "You saw Jesse passing all these tests," said McGuinness, who now works for the FA. "He'd get knocked down and kept getting back up again. He's had a lot of stick and he's always come back from it."
One story from the first leg of United's FA Youth Cup semi-final against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge in 2011, a competition Lingard and Pogba went on to win, is indicative of his attitude. "About five minutes into the game, Jesse's gone down," McGuinness explained. "So, the physio sees to him and then come's over to us. 'What's the matter with him?' 'He's so nervous he's been sick on the pitch,' the physio said. But the fact is, he got up and ended up scoring and playing great in that game."
Lingard had loan spells at Leicester, Birmingham, Brighton and Derby. The first at Leicester was an eye-opener. He would turn up for training in tracksuit bottoms, a hat and scarf, items banned by United until you had made the first team, and the reports back from Leicester to United were of a player "who doesn't look like one of yours". There was a marked change when he pitched up at Birmingham next and scored four goals on his debut.
It is probably symptomatic of how Lingard has flown under the radar that his FA Cup final goal against Palace ended up being overshadowed by Louis van Gaal's sacking. But McGuinness had seen him score that type of first-time volley plenty of times in training. "I watched that and thought, 'Yeah, that's from the cage', where we played mixed-age groups in a fenced area and he had to score with a first-time touch'," he said. "It was fantastic for developing instinctive skills.
"Jesse's had years and years of 'he's too small, he's too small' and then questions about whether he's good enough. Imagine how he feels now?' I bet he's thinking, 'I'm not too small now, am I?'"