Well, Marcus Rashford announced himself on the main stage, looking to make a positive change. The authorities tried to deny him, but he had been too good for them, and on reflection, they were forced to give him what he wanted.
I’m talking of course about the offside decision that almost denied the Manchester United forward his first goal yesterday. It’s been a history-making year for Rashford, so fitting that he made a little bit yesterday, becoming the first substitute in United history to score a hat-trick in the Champions League.
I don’t need to write anything eulogising what Rashford represents (though I’m going to, of course). His actions have been able to speak louder than any words could.
I tweeted last night – after the hat-trick goal – with a drop of sarcasm that maybe he should concentrate on his football. Someone responded to me that he should be the subject of my next book. Whether it is with him (I’m here, Marcus – call me!) or one I write by myself, I’m sure Marcus will be someone I will be writing much more about in the future.
Today’s game has alienated many supporters. The money in the game has made it harder for common people to identify with the players. The only thread that seems as though it binds them together anymore is the shirt the players wear on a match-day. And there you have the impasse of the passhun percentage; that element of the support who demand any shortcoming on the pitch is compensated for with a little bit of running around. Particularly when Manchester United have been stuck in perpetual transition, and this is a tangible element we can see and therefore think we can control using our voice from the terrace, it sometimes feels like one of the biggest factors which serve as a barrier. They just don’t care. They’re not one of us.
Well, maybe there’s an element of truth in that. Maybe some of them don’t care. We don’t really know the difference, though we like to think we do. The reality is most of them care more than we give credit for, but we just don’t see it like we want to see it. Still, you can bet some of them don’t. Some of them do go through the motions. Some of them take their position for granted. It happens in every walk of life.
The fact is – whether it’s fair or not – the spectator sport element mixed in with the entertainment element mixed in with the competitive element, and all of the above, means it feels harder than ever to feel a true connection with players. Many of you will know that I am working on a book with the Da Silva twins. Those were two players who bridged that gap, two players you would just love to watch playing because you knew they loved playing for the club. It helped that it was part of one of the most successful times in our history, but because it was in the modern era, it was sometimes hard to make the connection because the players seemed a million miles away.
For some fans in Manchester it would sometimes feel as if those abroad were luckier – they got to watch every minute of every game, and on pre-season tours, supporters would often get the opportunity to be much closer to the players.
The reason I’m writing this is to emphasise just how difficult it is – and how refreshing it is because of that – to breakthrough and establish yourself in the manner which is traditional of the club.
Marcus Rashford was not banging down the door to the first team when he was drafted into the squad for the first time in early 2016. I don’t mean that disrespectfully. His reserve team record prior to his call up that season was two starts and six appearances from the bench with just one goal. He played along the front but usually from a wide position.
He was called on to the bench against Midtjylland in the Europa League with an injury crisis in the attack – a crisis which deepened in the warm up when Anthony Martial had to withdraw from the starting line up with an injury. Of course, Rashford scored two and the rest is history.
You know that story of course, but the point is that he did what has always been historically done at United. There was an opening in the first team and he took it and evolved his position to stake his own claim for the place. The fact he is a local lad from Wythenshawe made a difference, too.
From one goal in eight appearances in the stiffs to 8 in eighteen in the first team – Rashford ended his first season winning the FA Cup. His second season brought the League Cup and Europa League.
From then on there have been roadblocks and challenges. Zlatan Ibrahimovic was signed. Then Romelu Lukaku. Alexis Sanchez. How would he and Martial react? Well, while one appeared to be non-plussed to be generous, the other did not ever express any dissatisfied emotion.
Admittedly, for a season or so – particularly in the last year under Jose Mourinho, which was difficult for all – one wondered what ceiling Rashford would have in the game. There was a moment in time where it became natural to look at United’s track record of bringing through genuine strikers from the youth team, to look at Rashford’s path to the first team, and wonder if the inconsistency was to be expected from here on out.
Then Lukaku and Sanchez were sold by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Rashford – who had already shown great character with a late penalty in Paris, despite never having taken a penalty at senior level before – was now not only given a starting berth, he was entrusted with the responsibility of being the main man for Manchester United.
It was a responsibility he definitely took on. Last season was mixed, for a number of reasons, but let us not forget first the physical work he did to bulk up. It was reminiscent of Cristiano Ronaldo. It was not the only thing that was. Rashford delivered goals in quantity and quality. His startling free-kick at Chelsea was the goal of the season and was part of a run of 10 goals in 11 games. In the last two of those, Rashford led the line in crucial victories over Spurs and Manchester City that probably kept Solskjaer in a job at a time when Ed Woodward was tempted to send ‘I Choo Choo Choose you’ cards to the recently-unemployed Mauricio Pochettino.
Rashford had taken on the mantle and stepped up to it. His form was exceptional and, coupled with his physical development, it started to feel as if United genuinely had one of the most exciting talents in world football on their books.
A back injury stopped him in his tracks and ruled him out for the rest of the season – but then, the rest of the season was postponed due to the pandemic, and when it resumed in June, he was able to participate.
Of course by that time Marcus Rashford the footballer had become Marcus Rashford the social justice warrior. Four days before football resumed Rashford called out the government to help him end child poverty in the UK. They responded positively. In recognition of his contribution, Rashford was awarded the MBE. He used the moment to inform the country he was not resting on his laurels, and started a renewed push on his larger mission to eradicate poverty once and for all.
That was met with resistance by the government – and, it has to be said, some cynical supporters, who might be right wing, might even be left wing. There are plenty who agreed with Rashford’s message but were tired of seeing it. Others who felt – strangely – that it was ‘virtue signalling’.
Of course, the majority saw it for what it was, an heroic – and I use that word pointedly – campaign to keep pushing for change at a moment where he and the country might have been tempted to rest on its laurels and pretend that it was a job well done because it made a difference at a difficult time. No, Rashford has been committed to his goal of absolutely ending poverty for children in the country.
In doing so, with such a simple message that has transcended the boundary of politicking – it’s just doing what’s right – Rashford has done much to transform the public spirit with a message that should cross over to every aspect of life. Just do good by your fellow man. It is not out of your capability to do that.
Rashford’s campaign will continue and I have every confidence that he could well succeed in his absolute goal.
…then comes the football. And, whilst my tweet was tongue-in-cheek, there are plenty of people who say he should concentrate on his football. They are usually the same people who say footballers have got too much free time on their hands anyway.
Look, there are imperfections. Aren’t there with most footballers? Most will concede that a back injury like Rashford had was much more difficult to simply get over. It takes time and possibly some economical readjustment to his game.
Maybe there are still elements of inconsistency to overcome, although it does feel as though there is a growing case to say he should play through the middle (again, maybe a living allegorical reference to the way he has straddled the political line) considering the impact he has made in that area.
Supporters have more right than ever to feel disenfranchised with the game. Even before March there were strong enough reasons. The pandemic only seems to have brought even more distance. It has emphasised the way money rules the game.
Okay, it’s not the authorities’ fault that fans can’t attend games. But PPV at £15? European Super Leagues? Using the pandemic as a reason to not strengthen the squad, but then take out £20m in dividends? Three new shirts at £70 a pop? Maybe Marcus’ next battle should be a stand against modern football. He’d probably win.
Against the backdrop of this, Rashford’s humanity means even more. It’s a greater connection than ever. Every supporter has their favourite player but it’s a fair argument that Rashford has jumped up the pecking order if he wasn’t already there on the top of the perch at number one.
There are certain players in Manchester United history that transcend (that word again) the sport for a certain reason. George Best was one because of his physical representation of the era he played in. Eric Cantona was another because of his cult status and David Beckham another because of his sheer celebrity.
Rashford has some way to go to match the playing side of what those three players did for the club or to even come close but there is no denying that he has become the face of this generation for what he has done on and off the pitch in the last 12 months. That’s because his message is bigger than football and bigger than even Manchester United.
He has given this cynical football supporter a connection to the team he thought he would never rekindle.
My favourite moment last night was not the hat-trick. Of course, that was up there.
But it was the goal that almost was; the passage of play where you knew he was floating on air, on top of the world, dancing around everyone – and then one more – overplaying it slightly to the frustration of absolutely nobody, because it was just sheer joy to see a player move in such fashion. No goal on that occasion, but the sort of move you yearn to see more of. Obviously, it helps when they go in. Maybe next time.
As the full-time whistle blew, and Rashford trudged off the pitch, you got the feeling that Solskjaer was telling the youngster that he did well, but reminding him that he once went one better, at Nottingham Forest in February 1999. That he went one better as a substitute in the Champions League final with a goal that was worth only one of the three Rashford got last night but spiritually much more. And you know that if Solskjaer did make such jokes, Rashford would see it as a challenge to aspire to.
It was the sort of performance that deserved an audience. A crowd to tell Marcus Rashford how proud we are that he plays for our club.
Is it too late to give him a knighthood?