Jesse Lingard to Forest for £180k a week exposes the gulf between wage expectations and reality

Ian King

Jesse Lingard is a free agent and Forest may be interested, but who can justify that kind of wage outlay? Bosman did not have this in mind…


It’s now been seven weeks since Manchester United made one of the least surprising transfer announcements of the summer, that Jesse Lingard would be leaving the club upon the expiry of his contract. Lingard’s gamble had failed. After an excellent period on loan at West Ham United the season before, Lingard returned to Old Trafford last summer with every intention of demonstrating to the club’s hierarchy that he should be given an opportunity to take that improvement in form and mould it into something that Manchester United could use. He chose to ‘stay and fight for his place’ in the United team; understandable really, considering that he’d been with the club for 20 years.

A year on, it’s clear that this decision did nobody that much good. Manchester United had their worst season since the formation of the Premier League. Lingard ended the season having made just 16 league appearances while scoring just two goals. And even West Ham United couldn’t improve in his absence, finishing in seventh and missing out on a Europa League place for what would have been a second successive season. The fact that Manchester United issued their statement about his future on June 1 indicated that, if anything, they couldn’t wait to see the back of him.

Six weeks on, Lingard remains a free agent, though that’s not expected to last for much longer. West Ham remain interested in taking him to The London Stadium, but this week has brought competition for his attention with the news that newly promoted Nottingham Forest are also understood to be interested, and there have been other reports of interest from MLS and Saudi Arabia. But it’s Forest’s interest that is the most curious; they are reportedly prepared to break their wage structure to tempt Lingard to The City Ground.

All football transfers carry an element of gamble, but you might think that if a club was going to break its own wage structure to sign a player, they’d be looking to do so for one that is close to a sure thing as possible. But Jesse Lingard is holding out for £180,000 per week in wages, and this seems to have – understandably – become something of a sticking point for West Ham. After all, this would put Lingard on the same wage as Trent Alexander-Arnold and Roberto Firmino at Liverpool. And even though this is a somewhat crude way of comparing players, it’s difficult to see what the justification for this wage demand might be, other than that it would cost Forest less to pay a transfer fee for a player in the same position. Is he trying to factor in the ‘saving’ of this phantom transfer fee?

For more than a quarter of a century, thanks to the diligence of Jean-Marc Bosman, footballers have been able to leave European clubs at the end of their contracts without fees changing hands, but it can sometimes feel as though players are taking their free agency a little too freely. From where did Lingard pull the £180,000-a-week figure that he apparently considers himself to be worth, and upon what is he basing that figure? It isn’t on the basis of his previous income, we know that much for certain. Lingard’s last contract with Manchester United was at £75,000 a week, so his current demands are more than doubling what he was earning while he was broadly underachieving at Old Trafford between 2017 and 2022.

Of course, the only way in which to make sense of both transfer fees and wages in the modern game is to start from the assumption that any player is only worth what they think they’re worth and what somebody else is prepared to pay for them. But that doesn’t mean that Jesse Lingard going to Forest for £180,000 a week would be good value for both parties (and not even necessarily either), and Forest supporters may raise an eyebrow at both the fact that their club is giving consideration to breaking their wage structure to bring in any player – Forest have had their fair share of run-ins with instability in the not-too-distant past – while the fact that they’re considering doing so for a player for whom consistency hasn’t exactly been a byword in recent years and who is no longer seriously considered to be in contention for a place in their national team, seems counterintuitive. Does Lingard consider himself to be that much of a ‘sure thing’?

In a sense, there is a world in which Lingard makes sense for Forest. They lost five players at the end last season – Keinan Davis, Philip Zinckernagel, Max Lowe, Djed Spence and James Garner – who’d been on loan with the club, and if they are to be replaced then to do so with players experienced in the Premier League is understandable. Steve Cooper can hardly be said to be wet behind the ears as a coach, and it may well be that he believes that he can wring more out of this particular player. Sometimes – and this is particularly the case with a coach like Cooper, who got his team to charge up the Championship table last season and then managed to overcome the disappointment of missing out on automatic promotion to successfully negotiate the play-offs – you just have to trust the manager and the process. Possibly, for a coach within the England set-up, and for a player who did shine when he was last freed from the oppressive dark clouds that have hovered over Old Trafford for most of the last decade, he makes sense as a gamble.

Bosman’s ruling was about freedom of movement, rather than the enrichment of footballers. Players have always been treated as chattels to some extent or other and this remains the case to this day. Jesse Lingard’s wage expectations seem all the more surprising because there remain, as ever, plenty of other decent free agents who might not be as much of a gamble as he surely would be. But he is, of course, entitled to ask for as much as he likes. What really matters is how clubs respond to it all. But £180,000 a week is a big gamble to take on a player whose resale value would be low and who demonstrated precious little of the talent at his disposal last season. If Forest can complete this transfer and it works out for all concerned, then neither the club nor the player will have any complaints. But for now it all feels a little bit surreal.