Former goalkeeping coach recommended the young midfielder when on the coaching staff at Derby having seen his talent in United's youth set-up
FA Cup: Loan spell at Derby helped Lingard mature into a mainstay at Manchester United, says Eric Steele
Eric Steele will have divided loyalties when Manchester United entertain Derby County in the FA Cup third round at Old Trafford on Friday evening. Steele, 63 the current goalkeeping coach for the England Under 20s who won the European Championship last year, has long lived near Derby, a club he has worked at three times in his career, most recently after leaving Manchester United in 2013.
Between 2008 and 2013, Steele was the man who recommended United sign David de Gea to replace Edwin van der Sar and who trained with the Spanish goalkeeper every day. Back at Derby, and working with former United assistant manager Steve McClaren in 2015, he was asked his opinion when the Championship club mulled over a loan bid for United midfielder Jesse Lingard in 2015. He got it right with both players.
“Steve [McClaren] knew I’d been at Old Trafford when Jesse was coming through the youth set-up,” Steele says. “We had a good, settled team at Derby, but when you go into the last part of the season in a 24-team league, you sometimes need a boost. We needed someone who could play in two or three positions and that’s what impressed us about Jesse. He could play wide; he could play as a No 10. We also knew that he was going to have limited opportunities at United.
“Jesse came and he was a bit unfortunate that the side was settled, but he was so comfortable and confident on the ball. He had an unbelievable appetite to help people, he was driven and talented. He could see passes that others couldn’t.
“The difference between then and now is that he’s matured, he scores goals and he’s now in the full England set up. He also expresses himself further up the field, he gets in behind the 9 where he can affect the game. He’s a very talented footballer with good energy and good legs and I like the fact he accepts the ball when there’s pressure on him. When you see the goals he’s scored, you can see why he’s becoming a mainstay for Jose [Mourinho].”
Lingard – and United – used the loan system well. The player who grew up 10 miles from United’s Carrington training ground also went on loan to Birmingham City, Leicester City and Brighton & Hove Albion when all were outside the Premier League.
“There’s a skill to where you go on loan when you’re at Manchester United to improve yourself,” Steele says. “It has to be good for the parent club to improve the player. The loan moves Jesse made helped prepare him for the player we see now. He gained great experience on loan – as a player and a person – but he always wanted to go back to United and he was a success when he did. To score the goal in the  FA Cup final was the start of his rise at United.”
Steele still sees Lingard when he comes to St George’s Park with the senior England team.
“He’s a lively lad, very bubbly and doesn’t go very far without [Marcus] Rashford,” he says. “There’s a good friendship and loyalty there. To come through the United youth ranks and make the first team is a huge achievement. It’s good for England too when we get our young English players playing regular Premier League football.”
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Derby are second in the Championship and aiming, after several near misses, for a return to the Premier League for the first time in a decade. They face significant competition from big clubs including Wolverhampton Wanderers, Leeds United, Aston Villa and Cardiff City.
“The United game will be a benchmark for [manager] Gary Rowett,” Steele says. “He came in at the back end of last season, he took some time to get his style and approach established, but they’re starting to see the benefit of that. Derby are on a really good run of winning games. They have a very experienced team, with a lot of recognisable players over 30. They’re scoring a lot of goals, there’s competition in every area. Even though there’s a big gap between the top of the Championship and establishing yourselves in the Premier League, I think Derby will give a really good account of themselves at Old Trafford.”
Steele left Old Trafford in 2013. He was unfortunate because new manager David Moyes wanted to bring in his own staff and the successful coaches which had helped Manchester United become English, European and world champions were all allowed to leave the club, despite wanting to stay.
“I only realised what we had when we left,” Steele recalls. “You don’t realise how much you miss it until you leave. The pace and tempo at United and those players I worked with under Sir Alex [Ferguson], were special. I was very proud to have worked at United and be part of it.”
Those players included De Gea, who Steele, a former goalkeeper, recommended to Ferguson after spotting him playing for Spain’s U17s in Belgium.
“We always knew there was potential with David, but now he’s very close to being up there with the Schmeichels and the Van der Sars. He’s 27, the same age as when Schmeichel came to Old Trafford. David is a major part of the United team, he’s a crowd favourite and players recognise the job he does. I really like the fact that he does it with a smile on his face. He’s only going to get better and I’m very proud of him. I was delighted when he didn’t go to Real Madrid because he would be a loss to the Premier League.”
Steele worked with De Gea every day, helping build him up and toughen up the slight Spaniard.
“David now knows the league, he knows how teams operate, he knows the different stadiums,” Steele says.
“He knows what it’s like to go to Arsenal and that gives him the confidence to have the type of game he had there recently. You see all his attributes including his shot stopping. His speed and his reach are major assets. He’s still working on looking to command in the area, but that will come.
"He’s also had to contend with a lot of changes in front of him. Peter Schmeichel had [Gary] Pallister and [Steve] Bruce in front of him every week. Edwin [Van der Sar] had Rio [Ferdinand] and Nemanja [Vidic]. David only had a short time with them, the latter two, and since then he’s had various centre-back partnerships. He’s not had a settled pair in front of him and he’s learned on the job, he’s learned from his experience. Playing in transitional United teams under different managers has helped him and kept him busy, but he’s the No 1 for club and country and, with Manuel Neuer being injured, I’ve no doubt that he’s the No 1 goalkeeper in the world right now. Long may that continue.”