It’s testament to Marcus Rashford’s relentless altruism that we so rarely talk about him in a footballing capacity anymore. The man has touched the lives of millions by tirelessly lobbying the government into extending free school meal provisions, and with other initiatives like the time he learned sign language so he could judge a poetry competition for children with hearing difficulties. But a lot of this may not have been possible had Anthony Martial not injured himself in the warm-up ahead of Manchester United’s Europa League tie with Danish side Midtjylland five years ago this month.
Rashford was drafted in to start the game. In that moment, he was unwittingly yanked from youth football and given a permanent spot on centre-stage. A brace on his debut earned him the right to face Arsenal in the Premier League next. Another couple of goals and an assist helped sink the Gunners; Louis van Gaal’s instant talisman was off — well on his way to a glittering career.
Between that breakout February and the end of the season, the teenaged Marcus Rashford scored eight goals in 18 matches. He managed the only goal of the game in a Manchester derby and then found the net just three minutes into his England debut (pictured below), four days before Roy Hodgson was due to announce his European Championships squad. When he did name it, Rashford had made it in. But something changed as a result.
This had been the same season that Leicester City had inconceivably won the Premier League, largely thanks to the totally unforeseen form of skinny £600,000-signing Riyad Mahrez and former non-league striker Jamie Vardy. At Tottenham Hotspur, academy graduate and serial loanee Harry Kane had just shown he wasn’t a ‘one-season wonder’. He was anything but. And so Rashford was never likely to be England’s focal point up front at Euro 2016. When Kane and Vardy weren’t doing the business in the group stages, it wasn’t Rashford called upon but an off-form Daniel Sturridge.
Rashford clocked up just 21 minutes’ worth of game-time off the bench during what was a torrid tournament for England, twice shoehorned onto the wing late on in games. He was their star performer in the abysmal defeat at the hands of minnows Iceland; he played just four minutes. Rashford had impressed out wide with skilful, ballsy, unpredictable cameos.
The young forward continued to grow at Manchester United. José Mourinho replaced Van Gaal as manager; England boss Hodgson gave way to Sam Allardyce, who himself was soon replaced by Gareth Southgate. Rashford was now a mainstay in the England set-up and the most promising prodigy at Old Trafford. He still lacked two things, though… two things that he simply couldn’t go without if he was ever going to come close to fulfilling his lofty potential.
Rashford needed consistency. He also needed to nail down a single position and make it his own. In the two league seasons following Euro 2016, Rashford hit five and then seven goals. He produced the odd assist too, but his numbers weren’t what he’d have liked them to be. Indeed, they weren’t at the level of his raw 18-year-old incarnation, who had nothing to lose and everything to gain. The young player was finding his feet nicely, but his stock was no longer rising at quite the same meteoric rate they’d started at.Embed from Getty Images
Because he was such a fixture in the English game, fans and pundits often forgot just how young United’s newest ‘baby-faced assassin’ was. He was deployed across the frontline and on the wing at different moments. In this period, he would work hard to hone his craft and refine his main selling points. Soon after the 2018 World Cup where he played a key supporting role from the bench, Rashford told his managers at club and country that he wanted to focus on being a wide forward. His preference was as a right-footer cutting in from the left, yet his magical footwork and frightening pace posed just as much of a threat when out on the right.
For a player of his skillset, the sport was changing at just the right time. The footballing philosophies of Jürgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola — at the time, the Premier League’s newest Galáctico coaches — certainly weren’t similar to one another. However, they did both normalise three-man forward-lines. His England teammate Raheem Sterling has blossomed under Pep Guardiola, and it may well have been the same story for Rashford had he played for either manager. But once the original ‘baby-faced assassin’ Ole Gunnar Solskjær replaced Mourinho as United head coach, the stars began to align once more for the soon-to-be footballing philanthropist.
United worked on improving their functionality under a 4-2-3-1 system — Rashford’s place on the left wing was not customary straight away, but over time Anthony Martial became a viable ‘false 9’ option. Rashford was finally put where he wanted to be… and got to stay there. Southgate’s England were now ditching the two-man focal point that sent them to the semis in Russia. Instead, Sterling, Kane and Rashford was seen as the Three Lions’ most potent attacking force.Embed from Getty Images
It worked. Rashford started scoring for United and England with the kind of regularity he hadn’t managed before. England looked better, United looked better, Rashford looked better, and all was well.
Playing better than he ever had done, he started out on an entirely new, fearless journey. Rashford took it upon himself to become the voice for millions of children, with the inspirational work he has done to make this country a better place for young people. A small minority have cowardly suggested he should “just focus on his football.” Are the rest of us seeing something they’re missing? Have his performances suffered as a result of his philanthropy? He’s struck 42 goals and registered 24 assists in 86 matches for club and country since the autumn in which his incredible work began. This is a man juggling both considerable responsibilities perfectly — a role model to many, and a footballer in the form of his career.
He looks set to play a lead role for England at a major tournament at long last. There can be no doubting his consistency now. Marcus Rashford the teenage striker sensation is no more. The man who replaces him is a consistently excellent left-sided wide player. Aged just 23, he is now a senior Manchester United player, a senior England player, a model citizen and a national hero.
Anyone still hoping he’ll “just focus on his football?” Hello? Anyone?