Inside Lingard's South Korea deal: How FC Seoul convinced him it's the right move
After a winter window where little happened, a transfer which took place a week after the deadline for many clubs might have been the most interesting of the lot.
Jesse Lingard, who started for England in a World Cup semi-final in 2018, who won the 2016 FA Cup (scoring the winner in extra time) and 2017 Europa League with boyhood club Manchester United and who impressed during a loan 2021 spell at West Ham United, has signed for South Korean side FC Seoul on a two-year deal, with the option of a further year.
It is an interesting step for a former Premier League player to take.
K League 1, South Korea’s top flight, is a division in which international players from major European nations rarely tread.
But this has been a frustrating spell for Lingard, who won the last of his 32 caps in October 2021 and had been without a club for eight months following his release by Nottingham Forest in June. He turned 31 in December and has not played since a two-minute substitute appearance against former employers United in the Premier League on April 16.
“I just want to enjoy playing football again and putting a smile on people’s faces,” said Lingard. “When FC Seoul came into the equation, they showed a lot of commitment. They flew to Manchester to watch me train and came with the contract. There were multiple verbal offers but FC Seoul showed how much they wanted me and it was only right I repaid their faith in me.”
After a turbulent time since being let go by Forest when his one-year contract expired, this is the story of his search for a new club, his move to Seoul — and this leap into the unknown.
Last summer, Lingard got in touch with West Ham manager David Moyes.
The attacking midfielder has a special bond with Moyes, who coached Lingard between 2013-14 while manager of Manchester United. Lingard then scored nine goals and provided six assists in 16 appearances for Moyes’ West Ham during a loan spell in the second half of 2020-21.
But Lingard had turned down a return to the London Stadium when he left Manchester United at the end of his contract in 2022, instead signing a lucrative one-year deal with newly-promoted Forest. He also received offers of two to four-year deals from Fulham and Newcastle United. Lingard’s mindset was to have a good season at Forest, become a free agent again, and then assess his future with the hope of renewed interest. But that isn’t how it played out.
Despite Lingard having signed elsewhere a year earlier, Moyes did not hold any grudges and was happy to invite the attacker back to the London club so he could work on his fitness while seeking a new club. Lingard trained with the squad for a month and Moyes was impressed with his desire to improve his conditioning as he worked alongside fitness coaches Josh Ewens and Nick Davies.
Lingard was in good shape and played in a behind-closed-doors friendly against Championship side Ipswich Town in September, but Moyes felt game time would be limited if he signed him. West Ham had Jarrod Bowen, Michail Antonio, Said Benrahma, now on loan at Lyon, newcomer Mohammed Kudus and Lucas Paqueta as preferred attacking options.
While Moyes did not offer Lingard even a short-term deal, he was receiving offers from elsewhere.
In late September, Wolverhampton Wanderers’ new head coach Gary O’Neil tried to sign Lingard. Discussions took place but with the club operating on a budget due to financial fair play regulations, the hierarchy wanted to limit potential incomings. This made it harder for O’Neil to get approval. Everton showed interest but it never turned into an offer.
Lingard wanted to stay in the Premier League but it became clear that would not materialise.
Steven Gerrard, manager of Saudi Pro League side Al Ettifaq, initially enquired about his availability at the end of August. He then got back in touch in October, wanting Lingard to go out and train in Saudi to put pressure on the club to sign him.
Lingard opted to fly over and trained with Al Ettifaq for three weeks, accompanied by Andy Pollard, his financial advisor. He met chairman Samer Al-Mishal and trained well. But after those three weeks, Gerrard said the club would not sanction a deal.
In mid-December, other teams started to monitor Lingard’s situation. He received offers from the Championship but had no desire to return to the second tier of English football, where he’d had a series of loans from United early in his career. West Bromwich Albion spoke to Lingard’s representatives and made offers on two separate occasions. He received a £50,000 per week proposal from Turkish side Besiktas, but Lingard turned them down twice.
There was an approach from an unnamed club in Slovakia and offers from clubs in North America’s MLS, including Portland Timbers, but a firm salary cap meant it was not an attractive proposition.
All of which leads us to FC Seoul.
It is worth mentioning Lingard has not signed for the basic salary. He has joined, he insists, for the new experience, the commercial opportunity, the security of a long-term contract and the desire to play again.
“The last eight months were hard,” said Lingard about his time away from the game. “My mindset is to never give up. I knew I needed to sign for a club in January and I was training every day, with a strict programme throughout the week. I had my own personal trainer and am in good condition — physically, spiritually and mentally.
“Everyone is entitled to their opinion, but I know what’s best for me and my career. I want to make the K League global and do well here. All I want to do is get back on the pitch and show people what I can do.”
FC Seoul’s interest started six weeks ago.
An offer came through a Korean agent acting for the club, via Pollard. Lingard waited rather than rushing into a decision. He could sign any time as he was a free agent, but was aware when clubs are done with their transfer business at the end of a window they rarely have space to add other players and wanted to avoid spending a whole season without a club. FC Seoul sent people to Manchester to watch Lingard closely, as he had not played in so long. They were happy with what they saw.
There is a United connection in South Korea, with Park Ji-sung having played for the club from 2005-12 and a sizeable local fanbase, which helps his marketing potential. The football salary Ligard is on is average money, but his commercial deal is potentially very good. It includes a percentage of sales on merchandise, not just shirts.
FC Seoul’s offer interested Lingard. Talks took place to see how the proposed move could become more viable, the answer to that was via a commercial/marketing partnership. Lingard enlisted Tom Keane, senior partner at law firm Brandsmiths, and Pollard to handle it for him. Soon, it was a done deal.
He is not being parachuted into a new team at mid-season, as would be the case if he’d stayed in Europe, because the K League plays from March to December. FC Seoul are six-time Korean champions and five-time runners-up and got to the Asian Champions League final in 2013 but their most recent league title was eight years ago. After finishing seventh in the 12-team competition last season, they begin their 2024 campaign away against Gwangju FC on March 2.
Despite criticism of Lingard’s decision to move to South Korea, he could be a huge commercial figure for the club. While he was in Korea over the last couple of days, getting ready to sign, he already had a couple of commercial offers from companies for decent money.
Written proposals from clubs were few and far between for Lingard. Many were short-term. FC Seoul were the only ones to really excite him. He could have gone to Turkey or the United States but wanted to try something new and non-traditional for a European player. People close to him, who asked to remain anonymous to protect relationships, say he is fearless about stepping into the unknown. But, more importantly, he is desperate to start playing football again.
Seoul’s offer of a potential three-year contract shows their commitment to Lingard.
He was happy to sign it and hopes FC Seoul will be where he finds happiness again.
(Top photo: Clive Mason/Getty Images)