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Your dad's least favourite footballer is about to save England's World Cup

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Alex Christian
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He’s the embodiment of the new breed of dancing-and-hashtagging modern footballer the traditionalists don’t get, but Jesse Lingard could win them – and the whole of England – around, one dab at a time 

“Footballers shouldn’t ever dance.”

“Typical Instagramming footballer: juvenile and ostentatious.”

“He likes to show off that he has too much time and money.”

“Good footballer. Not a fan of handshake celebrations, to be fair.”

“Until you’ve won something, you can’t do stuff like that.”

The opinions of five football-fan dads on Jesse Lingard. The final one belongs to Rio Ferdinand, ex-Manchester United legend-turned-pundit. He once ‘merked’ Shaun Wright-Phillips on national television, but not even he could stomach the sight of Lingard – alongside United teammate and frequent dance partner Paul Pogba – strutting in the dressing room to Wizkid.

And he’d be far from alone. Your ‘proper football bloke’ – your old man; Graeme Souness; most Sun readers – prefer players served straight up: strong sliding tackles, short sleeves all-year-round, sing-songs strictly limited to belting out the national anthem. And what makes this proper football bloke foam at the mouth are the trappings of the modern-day footballer: the intricately choreographed goal celebrations, full designer tracksuits, fully-stocked washbags, overblown headphones and #Blessed selfies. Someone, say, like Jesse Lingard.

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“People need to realise that footballers have personalities,” declares a beaming Lingard.

“Me, I’m bubbly. I’m fun. I don’t understand it when people say, ‘Why are you always dancing?’ What do you mean, ‘Why?’ It’s my character. Who’s someone to say you can’t dance?”

On the pitch at least, the 25-year-old midfielder has earned plaudits and fans’ begrudging respect. One of a dying breed of Man United academy players to break through at Old Trafford in the post-Fergie era, he’s versatile, industrious and disciplined – a quintessential Jose Mourinho-style attacker. It’s why the United boss consistently picks him ahead of his squad’s star names and mega-million pound signings. That, and because of his raw, uncoachable talent: fleet-footed, fast-twitch movement that lets him skip past defenders with balletic grace.

Since Ferdinand’s disapproval, Lingard has also won ‘stuff’: namely the League Cup and Europa League, to go alongside his 2016 FA Cup winners’ medal. His form has made him a staple of Gareth Southgate’s England squads, too – including the all-

important one set for penalty kick practice in Repino, Russia. He scored his first international goal – the winner – against the Netherlands in March. You might remember him doing his patented ‘J Lingz’ celebration: hands side-by-side, index fingers up. Your dad probably punched the air in delight, then instinctively shook his head in indignation. But even he’d agree that Lingard has the potential to light up the summer.

It’s the morning after United’s 2-1 victory over Tottenham in the FA Cup semi-final at Wembley. Lingard, bedecked in a Billionaire Boys Club jacket and Agolde jeans, is energetically throwing shapes to Drake, Big Sean and Mist tunes pumping out from the Kentish Town studio. The United first team stayed in London following their win and don’t have to report for training for another three days. Had they lost, however, they’d have been straight back on the coach to Manchester – such is life as an elite-level footballer.

Hours later, Lingard was out celebrating with his pals. Much of the night was documented via their Instagram stories: think air horns, dancing waiters and a lot of champagne bottle sparklers.

If Lingard himself had a drop of booze, it’s not showing. Fresh-faced and all smiles, he gulps some neat Disaronno during the shoot, passed to him by one of his six-strong entourage – only to immediately cringe and hand the glass back. 

“Sometimes you might go for weeks without a day off as a footballer,” he explains. “It’s good to let your hair down and have a couple of celebratory drinks. You enjoy the moment and have fun.”

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ShortList cover shoot over, Lingard is back in his own clothes: nearly £2,000 worth of Gucci, from his round-spec frames down to his monogrammed trackies and white, wool-trimmed (yep, really) sneakers. He’s broad-shouldered, yet surprisingly slight for a Premier League footballer. Friendly and engaging, he speaks in a soft, barely-there murmur. 

“This season has been good,” he mumbles into his pristine polo shirt. “My career is progressing nicely: I’m in the team a lot more, scoring goals, assisting, and winning trophies. It’s the best feeling.”

Lingard has a healthy habit of scoring goals in big games – two cup finals, plus important winners in the league against Arsenal and Chelsea. Yet any YouTube highlight reel of his will probably consist of more dabbing than scoring. Never since Paul Gascoigne’s Euro ’96 dentist chair celebration has a footballer’s post-goal movements generated as many tabloid column inches. This season, Lingard forced himself into the United starting 11 after scoring a stunning, slaloming, 40-yard solo strike against Watford. And how did he celebrate? By posing like Hercules and doing the dance from Mink Flow by Future and Young Thug.

He isn’t alone in taking the latest dance craze from ’Gram feeds to the pitch. The day before Lingard and I meet, Dele Alli marked his opener for Spurs by doing the floss – a move invented by 16-year-old Insta-star The Backpack Kid. 

“Yeah, I seen that,” grins Lingard. “I haven’t done that one yet. We actually spoke about it at half-time, he came running over asking, ‘Was it good? Was it good?’ I was like, ‘It was alright.’”

Many fans balk at the sight of a footballer celebrating with anything more intricate than a simple Alan Shearer-style finger in the air. Lingard doesn’t see the problem. 

“That stuff is just part of modern day football. When we score, whatever latest dance craze is happening, we’re going to do that and have fun. You see it on Insta, everyone’s doing it, you start messing around in the dressing room, you score, you do it. The NFL started off the dance moves, integrating sport and music. Odell Beckham Jr always dances after scoring a touchdown. Footballers are catching up to them.”

Across the pond, the greatest American athletes transcend their sports. Floyd Mayweather is a regular on Forbes’ rich lists, NBA star James Harden is as likely to appear on the cover of GQ as he is ESPN, while LeBron James tweets Kendrick Lamar to release new music – and King Kendrick does. Do we give our footballers too hard a time for simply wearing luxe threads and dancing in a 10-second goal celebration?

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“Yeah, I think we get slated more,” Lingard says. “When we lost against Sevilla in the Champions League, it was Paul Pogba’s birthday the next day. We had a little dance, vibing in the changing room, we got stick. When you win, you go Instagram, ‘Bam,’ fine. When you lose, you’re supposed to shy away and keep yourself to yourself. Odell and LeBron aren’t like that. They express themselves after a loss. Americans are just more into it all. You see them and it’s always good vibes.”

And what if OBJ were a Premier League player? 

“He’d be dancing every week,” giggles Lingard, endearingly – it’s the loudest he’s been all day. “And he’d still be criticised here. The people who’ve been watching football for years aren’t so used to seeing moves on the pitch.” Try fist-bumping your dad the next time England score if you don’t believe him.

If you strain your ears and listen closely, Lingard may sound Manc, but he’s actually from Warrington – halfway between Liverpool and Manchester. At primary school, he played for both the Reds and the Red Devils – eventually shunning Anfield to sign for United’s academy, aged seven. Although his diminutive size meant he was held back in the age groups, he persevered, going on to lift the 2011 FA Youth Cup. Again, he scored in the final. His teammates that day? Future England international Michael Keane and the one-time most expensive footballer in the world: Pogba.

“I’ve been good friends with Paul for years,” explains Lingard, leaning in. “We’ve always got on. People forget he came to United as a 16 year old – we’re the same age. We stayed in contact while he was at Juventus. When he scored there, he dabbed. When I scored against Newcastle [in 2016], I dabbed. As soon as he came back, we had to get our dabbing on for the United fans.”

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The dabbing and dance moves join traditional footballing facets like dribbling and step-overs to form Lingard’s personal brand – something he’s christened “JLingz”. A scroll down his Insta feed reveals the hashtag again and again. Hours before he arrived at this sun-baked corner of north London, Lingard posted a pic of him overlooking the City from the ninth floor of The Shard’s Shangri-La Hotel, like an athleisure-wearing Bruce Wayne. It was captioned: “Vision And A Plan #JLingz.” 

He’s one of the current crop of young, cool, elite footballers who use social media to convey worldliness and greatness. On Instagram, Raheem Sterling flits between Manchester City and DSquared2 tracksuits, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain rides horses into the sea and professional hypebeast Héctor Bellerín poses for pics with Giorgio Armani. A snap of Pogba reclining in a Miami infinity pool went viral after one journalist labelled it as “Trolling the world”.

But Lingard, whose Instagram bio simply reads, “Be yourself,” thinks the surreal holiday snaps and dreamy, pseudo-philosophy posts are justified – not so much boastful as #blessed. 

“Insta and Snapchat are the modern ways of communicating,” he says in between sips of lemonade. “It’s our way of getting ourselves out there to the public. Every celebration I do, there’s a kid doing it on Instagram the next day. They like to see that you’re having fun. There was a video I uploaded with England – all the kids danced to it. That makes you happy as a player.”

Should the curmudgeons be kinder to extrovert personalities like Lingard, then? 

“As long as you give the passion and fight that they want to see on the pitch, then they can’t say anything about you off it,” he responds.

But is it really them posting on their Twitter and Instagram timelines? Or are they merely club-sanctioned versions of themselves? The boa constrictor of media training forever lurks, coiling up around footballers, squeezing out their personalities until they become akin to club spokesmen. Lingard – at times – falls prey. 

Who are your best pals for England? “I think everyone.” What’s Mourinho really like? “Like one of us.” What are you looking forward to in Russia? “Everything, really.” 

What stands him apart from most elite players though, is that you can ask him about matters off the field. For instance, he explains that some of his posts do come under club scrutiny. 

“When to post something is important,” he says, melting into his chair. “You’re not going to do it during a game or anything like that. We’re not allowed to do anything two days before a match, any commercial-type activities.” 

He was recently entrusted with United’s Insta account for a day, filming the goings-on in training. 

“It was good – it’s an insight for the fans. Otherwise, they’re scared of coming up to us sometimes. They’re like… [he pulls an impressive rabbit-in-the-headlights expression] I think, ‘Where has this come from?’ I feel like a normal person. That’s how I should be treated. Footballers are only human. We’re normal people.”

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Dabbing and Insta aside, the biggest topic in football right now is the World Cup. Lingard can recall his first. Just about. He was nine years old. 

“I just remember that ball [the Adidas Fevernova]. That ball was sick,” he exclaims. “It was when Ronaldinho scored that goal against England. Was that 2002? With that team, I thought we were going all the way.”

In less than a year, Lingard – alongside the likes of Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Harry Maguire and Jordan Pickford – has gone from an outside bet for the plane to Russia, to probable and deserving starter. When talking about the current England set-up, he describes it as “more free”. In a fresh, youthful and – dare we say it – exciting side, he could become a breakout star.

Not that he’s thinking about it too much, yet. “Sometimes I don’t even know what the next game is,” he jokes, moving animatedly in his seat. “It’s a good group, winnable games. I think we can progress far, even to the final. We’ve got the confidence. And with the team that we’ve got, why not?”

And if he were to score at the World Cup, what dance would he do? Lingard laughs. “I don’t know, there might be a new craze by then, so I’ll have to do that.”

Whatever it ends up being, not only would you, Ferdinand and even your dab-hating dad not mind watching it – you’ll probably all join in, too.

(Photography: Zoe McConnell)