REPINO, Russia — If anybody embodies the new-found positivity and fun coursing through England’s World Cup squad, it’s Jesse Lingard.
He’s been racing aboard unicorns in the pool at England’s team hotel. He’s kept the public back home abreast of England’s campaign in Russia through his widely followed social-media channels. He’s the life and soul of England’s training sessions , always providing laughs and banter — when appropriate, of course.
Yet, with Lingard, there’s an inner determination behind the jokey facade. As one of the few locally born talents to actually break into — and stay in — Manchester United’s first team in recent years, he has had to have that particular trait.
Now, he is established as a first-choice midfielder in a young and seemingly fearless England team that is through to the last 16 of the World Cup.
“It feels like a new revolution,” the 25-year-old Lingard said, in reference to England when he could easily have been talking about his own development.
“JLingz,” as he is sometimes labeled, doesn’t seem to take life too seriously. After holding a news conference at England on Sunday, he walked into another interview being staged with teammate Danny Welbeck, grabbed hold of the microphone, and started asking questions himself.
Then, he moved onto the ten-pin bowling alley inside England’s base and threw down three straight strikes, laughing all the way through it. England and United teammate Marcus Rashford, who Lingard has a close bond with, had a wry smile while playing in the next lane.
It wasn’t Lingard’s first strike of the World Cup. In the 6-1 win over Panama in the group stage, he scored one of the goals of the tournament so far, exchanging passes with Raheem Sterling before curling a long-range shot into the top corner of the net.
He scored similar goals for United this season — one against Everton at Goodison Park in the Premier League — so it’s no surprise United manager Jose Mourinho has become a fan, at a time when many others wondered if Lingard had what it takes to play for England’s biggest club.
“He has put that trust, that faith in me to play me in big matches and week in, week out,” Lingard said, “so it is only up to me then to repay that faith by playing well and putting in good performances. He has played a massive part in my development.”
Southgate is having a similar impact on Lingard and England’s other youngsters. Recent England teams have looked weighed down with pressure at major tournaments — the most painful and obvious example being in the 2-1 loss to Iceland in the last 16 of the European Championship in 2016 — but not this edition.
“No matter what round we are in, we are still going to play the same,” Lingard said. “We’ll play with no fear and with that freedom. That’s what got us here today so why change? We aren’t going to change for no one and no team.”
It remains to be seen if this youthful England side does end up freezing on the big stage now the stakes are higher. It will also be facing its toughest opponent so far in Russia in the form of Colombia, which topped its group and has the dangerous Radamel Falcao leading their attack.
Falcao might feel he has a point to prove, having been a big disappointment in two spells in English football — for United in the 2014-15 season and for Chelsea the following one. He only scored five goals across those two years, a paltry return for a player once considered among the most-feared strikers in the world.
Lingard was on loan at Brighton, then a team playing in the second tier of English football, when Falcao was at United but he still remembers him from training sessions.
“Great finisher,” Lingard recalled. “In and around the box, he is lethal.”
So, though, is Lingard. As the happy-go-lucky midfielder is showing for both club and country.