Jesse Lingard has written for The Players’ Tribune about the beginnings of his professional career at United.

Sir Alex Ferguson had told him early in to his time at the club that he would likely be a late developer but to be patient. That said, our legendary manager still gave Lingard the experience of an away match day when he was still a teenager.

It was under Louis van Gaal that Lingard finally made his debut for but picked up a serious injury after 20 minutes. Lingard has said that was a moment that helped him realise how precious it is to be given the opportunity to play for Manchester United and how much he appreciates it every time he pulls on the shirt.

I’ll never forget the day Sir Alex called me and Pogba up to the bench, away at Newcastle. We were 18, 19. I just remember looking around the dressing room and seeing all the legends preparing, pulling their socks on. Scholes. Rooney. Rio. Giggsy.

Me and Pogs take our spot on the bench, and you know, we were used to playing in reserve games in front of 200 people. This is 50,000. I remember looking up at that massive glass stand at the one end, and it was shaking. And I looked over at Pogs like, Oh my gosh, if the gaffer actually puts me in, I might wet meself.

Lucky for me, we stayed on the bench that day. But that was such a big moment for me. Just to be thrown into the fire like that, and to get to wear the shirt for Sir Alex, it was massive for my belief.
The truth is, I probably wasn’t ready. I can see that now. Sir Alex was bang-on about what he told me in that meeting years ago. I don’t know how he could see it, but he was right. I had to spend the next three years grafting, taking my lumps. I went on loan at Leicester, Birmingham, Brighton. I think those experiences were necessary. When you make it to the top, people see the glitz and the glamour, but they don’t see everything that went into it. They don’t see you living out of a Marriott in Leicester, eating room service for dinner every night, missing your family, doubting yourself, wondering if it’s ever gonna happen for you.

It’s funny, certain people will criticize me now because I’m always smiling out there on the pitch. But I’ll never stop being myself. I’ll never stop enjoying my football. I’ll never take the smile off my face when I step over the line, because I know what it means to wear this shirt. I know how lucky I am to do what I do for a living, and to represent this badge, and I’m never gonna stop enjoying it for a minute.

Because it all could’ve gone another way. Easily. When I finally got my debut in a United shirt against Swansea back in 2014, that was supposed to be the payoff for all the grafting, all the pain, all the years away from home. My whole family was in the stands at Old Trafford. I was 22 years old, just like Sir Alex predicted.

This was it. We’d made it.

Then I did my knee after 20 minutes.

Heard it pop, and I knew right away. I remember seeing my brother after the match, and he had tears in his eyes. Because he knew what it meant. It wasn’t just the injury. It was the timing. It was everything.

I was on the shelf for about 6 months. Couldn’t train. Couldn’t walk. Couldn’t do anything. Just laying on the sofa seeing United on Match of the Day, gutted. It was probably the lowest point of my life. I was genuinely depressed. That was rock bottom, really. I was literally picking my hair out I was so frustrated. But that’s also when I had time to think about my life, and I realized that all of this can go away so quickly, you know what I mean? Even if you work hard, and you have the talent, nothing is guaranteed.

It took me hitting rock bottom to really appreciate the opportunity we all have every time we pull on that United shirt. It can all go away in an instant.

It was a full 14 months before I had the chance to put on the United shirt again.

I haven’t stopped smiling since.