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Glory, glory Marcus Rashford: Why the 2020s are going to belong to the Manchester United forward

Marcus Rashford
(Image credit: Nick Eagle)

This interview first appeared in the April issue of FourFourTwo. Subscribe to the magazine today and get the first five issues for just a fiver!

‘He believed he could, so he did.’

The words stand proudly next to a framed photograph, from one of Marcus Rashford’s early England appearances. FourFourTwo have been welcomed inside the 22-year-old’s home, and it soon provides a very visible sense of how far belief can take you, in just four years of professional football. 

The young Manchester United forward has already accumulated an eye-boggling number of mementoes from his most important matches: a boot from his triumphant first outing in an FA Cup final, a Europa League winner’s medal, England man-of-the-match prizes and a frankly dazzling number of caps. 

Already, Rashford has represented his country 38 times. If he can make another 12 appearances by the end of March 2021 – England will be playing anything between 15 and 19 internationals prior to that date – then he will become the youngest player ever to earn 50 caps for the Three Lions. 

Already, he is the fourth-youngest player to make 200 outings for Manchester United, behind Ryan Giggs, George Best and Norman Whiteside. He has represented the Red Devils more times than Eric Cantona – admittedly helped by the fact that Rashford has never booted a Crystal Palace supporter in the chest. 

“Real Madrid at Old Trafford – that was the first game I went to,” recalls Rashford. “It was 4-3 and Ronaldo scored a hat-trick. To feel that atmosphere was incredible."

Marcus Rashford

Despite all of that, meeting Rashford at home is a reminder that, vast footballing achievements aside, he is still much like most other 22-year-olds – ready to relax on the sofa after a tiring day at work, wearing the same casual clothes, and sharing the same banter with his siblings.

“Look, if it came down to it and we all had a fight... all right, a grapple... I would win,” he jokes with his two elder brothers, Dwaine and Dane. 

When he is not carefully making a return from a back injury, the United marksman is known to enjoy a kickabout inside the house, too. Just don’t tell his mother. 

“My mum moved out, so I don’t get shouted at for playing in the house any more,” says a smiling Rashford, sat across the sofa from FFT. Since his rise to stardom, he has gifted mum Melanie a plush new place of her own, to thank her for everything she has done for him. So, has the striker ever accidentally broken anything during his impromptu indoor games? 

“Yeah, there’s been a few vases… you’re going to get me in trouble here!” he says, bursting into laughter. “But I think it’s something we all do. Anyone who loves football: when there’s a ball in front of you, it’s hard not to kick it...” 

Rashford loved football from the very start. It’s a passion that has driven him to where he is now. The Wythenshawe-born forward has loved Manchester United from the very start, too, attending his first match at the age of five. And what a match it was. 

Real Madrid at Old Trafford – that was the first game I went to,” recalls Rashford. “It was 4-3 and Ronaldo scored a hat-trick. To feel that atmosphere was incredible.

 

“United have always been my team. When I was about eight or nine, I started going to pretty much every home game. I remember [Dimitar] Berbatov’s hat-trick against Liverpool, and the City game when Wazza [Wayne Rooney] scored that overhead kick.” 

He would watch matches back on YouTube, too. “I enjoyed watching the games I didn’t have the opportunity to go to,” he explains. “The 2008 Champions League semi-final second leg against Barcelona was my favourite – just the atmosphere. I always liked to watch the history of the club.” 

Rashford was only 10 years old when Manchester United won the Champions League that season, so it’s not really a surprise to hear that the team’s two biggest stars became inspirations.

“My idols were Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo,” he reveals. “They would have been my favourite players anyway, but it helped that I could watch them close up and see them grow into the great players they became. I saw their journeys.” 

By then, the youngster had started his own journey. A junior with Fletcher Moss Rangers, he had briefly trained with Manchester City – but once United were keen, he was never going to turn them down. 

“I trained with City for literally about a week,” he admits. “Before I signed for United, I trained with a few different academies and my Sunday League team, but we visited United and I sat down with my brothers and mum afterwards. There was something special about the place. There wasn’t really a decision to be made. 

“The day I joined United, the first team were training at The Cliff. I watched them play for a bit, then we went inside the dome at the training ground and signed. That’s a day I won’t ever forget.”

From there, Rashford’s childhood had a single focus – as outlined in a letter he wrote aged 11, since published on social media. 

“I have one aim in life and that is to be a professional footballer, and hopefully at Manchester United,” he wrote. “I want to make my family proud. I promise I will work my hardest.” Young Rashford had the right attitude. He has carried it with him, too. 

“I remember writing that letter,” he says. “It was a school project – for me, they were the easiest ones because you could just speak about what you were living. From quite a young age, I knew what I wanted to achieve. When I was 11, 12, 13 years old, I knew exactly what I wanted. Then, at United, you are around the training ground and you see how the older lads dedicate themselves, so that wasn’t the hardest thing for me to do, even at a young age. 

“Sir Alex Ferguson would talk to us in the canteen every now and then, too, and say that he hoped we were training hard. Sometimes we would be doing a joga bonito training session in the gym, and he would be watching on the balcony. When you’re a kid, hearing words come out of his mouth used to drive us for the next month or two. 

“My idols were Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo. I could watch them close up and see them grow into the great players they became. I saw their journeys.”

“Family plays a part as well. Throughout the journey you have ups and downs – if you don’t have the right people around you, that can be the end of you playing football. I thank the people around me.” 

They provided competition as well as support. As the youngest of three brothers, Rashford had extra incentive – although he says that even as a kid, his aim wasn’t just to become as good as them. 

“No, I was better than them!” he says, glancing across the room at his siblings. “We’ve always been very competitive. They would be playing football with their friends, and me and a bunch of my mates who were younger would try to beat them.” 

Did that friendly rivalry help to bring the best out of him? “Yeah,” he says, smiling. “You’re challenging yourself. If one of my brothers was playing football with his friends, we’d go and have a kickabout all day. At the time you’re just enjoying yourself, but, without really knowing, it’s standing you in good stead for the future.” 

Louis van Gaal’s press conference was nearly finished, but there was someone he wanted to mention. The date was November 21, 2015, and Manchester United had just won 2-1 at Watford

As Van Gaal met the media at Vicarage Road, most questions revolved around United’s missing strikers – Rooney was absent through illness, while Anthony Martial and James Wilson were injured. 

No one had asked the manager about the unknown 18-year-old he had named on the substitutes’ bench for the first time that day, but he made a point of bringing him up in the conversation. 

“Today I had Rashford, Marcus RRRRashford, on the bench,” he said, dramatically overpronouncing the name in his thick Dutch accent. “Fantastic talent.” 

Rashford had not made his debut that day, and the quote made barely any of the next day’s newspapers, but it was telling. Van Gaal knew. He had known with others in the past as well: others such as Clarence Seedorf, Edgar Davids and Patrick Kluivert; such as Carles Puyol, Xavi and Andres Iniesta. They all made their first-team debuts under Van Gaal, during his spells at Ajax and Barcelona

For the teenage Rashford, that Watford game was his first taste of a first-team fixture – although he had been drafted into a senior training session years earlier, when a group of starlets were called in to assist with a drill.

“My first-ever session was under David Moyes and, to be honest with you, I didn’t even touch the ball!” says Rashford, laughing. “But it was a good experience. I was about 15 at the time. 

“Leading up to the summer before I made my debut, I was excited to go on the pre-season tour, but then I got injured and missed out. As the season got going, I returned to fitness and was able to train with the team a few times. Then I was on the bench.” 

Seven days after United’s win at Watford, Rashford was an unused substitute again in a 1-1 draw at Leicester City. Soon, United’s injury crisis abated, and it would be three months until he was named in the matchday squad again. But Van Gaal had made his admiration very clear. Rashford will always be grateful for the Dutchman’s faith, which would quickly be converted from talk into an unforgettable first-team debut at Old Trafford. 

Marcus Rashford

(Image credit: Nick Eagle)

“It was one thing him saying it, but when he actually gave me my debut, that was the moment,” Rashford recalls to FFT. “Even though you’re young, he trusts you to go out there and do the job.” 

Manchester United were taking on Midtjylland in the last 32 of the Europa League, and trailing 2-1 from the first meeting in Denmark. Rashford was originally named as a substitute, but then Martial got injured in the warm-up and suddenly the 18-year-old was starting. 

Mention the name ‘Midtjylland’ to Rashford, even now, and one emotion is most prominent. 

“Just pride,” he admits. “The manager didn’t say much to me beforehand – he told me to express myself; don’t be any different to how I had been playing in the under-18s. I went out there and tried to enjoy myself. The game went how it went... then everything was different.” 

Rashford ends the sentence with a smile. In the most understated way possible, he has just described the night when his life changed forever. United were 3-2 down on aggregate with 27 minutes of the second leg remaining, when Juan Mata pulled the ball back from the byline and Rashford side-footed home from eight yards in front of the Stretford End. 

Twelve minutes later, he arrived at the back post to sweep in his second goal and put Van Gaal’s side on course for a last-16 showdown with arch rivals Liverpool.

“I was just happy to be on the pitch, wearing a Man United shirt,” he says. “It’s something you dream about, from when you’re six or seven years old. Even if I hadn’t scored two goals, I would have felt proud. The goals were that little bit extra.” 

Such was his impact, Rashford was named in the starting line-up at home to title-chasing Arsenal in the Premier League three days later. Within 32 minutes he had bagged another brace, and the Red Devils held on to win 3-2. Two first-team appearances had brought Rashford four goals. 

Four years later, he tells FFT that, no matter what he achieves from here on in, those will always remain the most special days of his life. “For me, yeah,” he says. “I’ll never forget those four days. Even the goals in those matches – they’re not my favourites, but in terms of what they meant to me, they’re far ahead of the rest.” 

Understandably, his family were bursting with pride. 

“Especially because at the beginning it was a struggle,” he says. “No one drove in my family – we used to get buses up and down to training. My mum would have work, my brother would have work, and my other brother had school, so someone had to be at home when he got back. It was difficult, but we figured it out. 

“Little things like that make the journey sweeter when you finally get to the top.” 

The local lad had gone from being an unknown to a Manchester United hero in a matter of days. 

Few players have ever been thrust towards superstardom so quickly. The foreshortening of hindsight makes it easy to forget that Wayne Rooney’s breakthrough moment, a last-minute 25-yarder against Arsenal, didn’t come until his ninth league appearance for Everton. Lionel Messi scored his first goal for Barcelona a full seven months after his debut. Rashford had netted four goals in his first two outings, both at home, both in important games. Before that, he could walk the streets of Manchester and not be recognised at all. 

“I could do whatever I wanted!” he remembers, laughing. “That changed a lot after those two matches. I remember going into the Trafford Centre – that was when I realised that you can’t really just nip over there any more…” 

The requests for photos and autographs have flooded in thick and fast ever since. From that very first appearance, Rashford was loved by Manchester United supporters.

“That’s a nice feeling,” he says. “As a fan myself, I know how they feel when we win, and I know how they feel when we lose. We have a special connection.” 

Rashford’s stellar first season didn’t end there, either. Less than a month on from his February debut against Midtjylland, he scored a Manchester derby winner at the Etihad Stadium. 

“That was nice,” he says, adding: “There were so many games – everything was moving so fast.” 

Before he knew it, Rashford was winning the FA Cup at Wembley, having started the final against Crystal Palace. “The best way to end the season,” he says. 

Except, for Rashford, the season hadn’t ended yet. Called into Roy Hodgson’s England squad for the first time, he faced Australia six days after the FA Cup final in a friendly at Sunderland’s Stadium of Light. Within 138 seconds of kick-off he had scored, becoming the youngest player ever to net on an England debut. He had ensured his place at Euro 2016, too. Things couldn’t have been going much better if he had written the script himself. 

“The England game was another moment where I just felt proud,” he says. “Looking back, everything happened at the right time that season. That’s credit to Man United, because you have to be ready.” 

Rashford had quickly become one of the most famous footballers in the country, although he still occasionally headed to the park for a kickabout with his pals. “I used to do that until my second season, but then I stopped!” he says, laughing. Unsurprisingly, an increasing number of people would congregate nearby and realise that the lad casually dribbling a ball around the field was actually a Manchester United and England forward. 

“Yeah, that’s what started happening,” recalls Rashford. “At first, it was a little bit of a getaway. Me and my friends used to go there – that was our time when we could relax and do what we’ve always done. But then people started coming over and it sort of ruined the point of it, so I stopped.” 

After the breakthrough debut campaign came a reminder that there would be moments in Rashford’s career when he would need to be patient. Van Gaal was replaced as Manchester United manager by Jose Mourinho, who soon brought a 34-year-old Zlatan Ibrahimovic to Old Trafford. For the opening two games of the 2016-17 season, Rashford was an unused substitute.

Although he bagged United’s stoppage-time winner in their third match of the campaign, coming on as a late substitute away at Hull City, Rashford started only 16 league games that season. And, when Ibrahimovic’s United career was effectively ended by a serious knee injury, Mourinho didn’t wait long before bringing in Romelu Lukaku from Everton. The next season, half of Rashford’s appearances again came as a substitute, although he did reach double figures for goals in both 2016/17 and 2017/18. 

“I just used it as a period to learn,” he explains of that time in his career. “When players like Ibra come in, that’s a big opportunity for me to learn from one of the best that’s ever played the game. Rom helped me a lot as well, especially when we played together. 

Marcus Rashford Old Trafford

(Image credit: PA)

“In Jose’s first year, I learned a lot about myself; what capabilities I have and how far I can push myself. I also understood that I can do much more than what I was showing, so it was a nice period – especially that first season, because it was a huge learning year for me and we managed to win trophies at the same time. That’s the ideal position to be in as a young kid.” 

In Mourinho’s first season, Rashford helped United to League Cup and Europa League glory. In the latter competition, he scored a key goal in the semi-final first leg at Celta Vigo, then started the final – just two days after the Manchester Arena bombing. As a Mancunian himself, the teenager understood the importance of beating Ajax, to lift the morale of a traumatised city. 

“As a team, we spoke about it the day before the game,” he says of United’s 2-0 win in Stockholm. “After what happened, we wanted to put Manchester in a positive light again. We went into that game with the mindset that the result wasn’t going to go any other way. Thankfully, we managed to win, and we were able to shed a bit of light in a dark moment.”

The summer of 2018 provided yet another significant moment in Rashford’s career. He featured in six of England’s seven matches at the World Cup as they reached the semi-finals in Russia. In the last 16 against Colombia, having not long been on the pitch, he stepped up to take England’s second penalty in the shootout and smashed it into the bottom corner. He was still only 20 – had he felt nervous in such a pressurised situation? 

“It was all right, you know,” he insists. Even he sounds surprised. “When I’ve watched World Cups in the past, I remember it being so nerve-wracking during a penalty shootout. Taking one probably wasn’t as bad.” 

In fact, nerves haven’t been an issue for Rashford since he played for England Under-16s in a Victory Shield match. 

“I wasn’t really nervous leading up to that game, but I remember coming on and not feeling like I was in the game,” he says, recalling the distressing experience when his legs turned to jelly. 

“People say, ‘Don’t let the occasion get to your head’ and that was the only time when it did. From then on, that game was in my mind and I never wanted to feel like that again. 

“I think it’s just your state of mind. You have to believe in yourself, the qualities that you bring, and how you can affect the game. Once I thought about that a little bit, I was fine going into future games. But I had to change, because two years before I made my first-team debut, I didn’t have that mentality. 

“That moment definitely helped me.” 

After scoring for England in a World Cup shootout, converting an injury-time spot-kick for Manchester United at Paris Saint-Germain was never going to be a problem. As VAR officials pored over replays, Rashford waited an age to take his decisive penalty at the Parc des Princes in last season’s Champions League last 16. 

“It was a couple of minutes,” he says, nonchalantly. “Looking back, it seems like a really long time, but in the game it didn’t seem like that. I was clear-minded. It was nowhere near as bad as the Victory Shield game – nowhere near! I was just waiting, focusing on putting the ball in the net. When I did, it was a nice feeling. Nobody thought we would go there and win.” 

That goal came during a hot streak for the forward, following the arrival of former United frontman Ole Gunnar Solskjaer as manager. Last summer, Solskjaer allowed Lukaku to join Inter, and Rashford had netted 19 goals in 2019-20 before a back problem sidelined him in mid-January – six more than his previous best haul for a whole campaign. Regular starts clearly helped: he was selected for every Premier League game before injury intervened.

“It’s difficult to compare with other seasons – other than under Van Gaal,” he says. “I think that was 18 matches where I started most of the games, so in that period you have good rhythm. If you miss a chance, you’re not too worried, because you’re confident that if you get another opportunity, you’ll score. If you’re in and out of the team, it’s much harder to get rhythm. But I probably learned in that period, too.” 

Less than four years after his first appearance, Rashford’s 200th game for Manchester United came against Norwich City in January. He marked the occasion with his 63rd and 64th goals for the club. “It has all happened so fast – I didn’t know it was coming that close around the corner,” he admits. 

Four days earlier, he had captained the Red Devils for the first time, in their League Cup semi-final first leg at home to Manchester City. 

Rashford recalls, “The manager told me before the game – I wasn’t expecting it, and it was another one of those moments where you just feel proud going out onto the pitch. Wearing the armband, it’s something I’ll hold with me forever. Hopefully I can put it on a few more times in the future.” 

Rashford has achieved so much in his career already, yet he still has plenty of ambitions for the decade ahead. 

“I know I can do more than I’ve shown, even this season,” he tells FFT. “But it’s not about rushing things. You have to understand that it will happen when it happens. When the timing’s right, everything will click together. Just believe in that process and believe in yourself. If you look at when you play your best football, it’s probably around the age of 26. That’s when you feel you can be the most complete player. Until then, you’re learning every day.” 

And at 26, how many goals does he want to be scoring a season? “God knows... as many as I can!” he says. “It’s more about the team. Whether you score 20 goals or 30, it’s trophies that count.” 

Rashford got a taste for silverware early on in his career, and he is fiercely determined to win more. Even his memories of the dramatic Champions League triumph at PSG were followed up with a telling footnote. “But we didn’t go on to win the competition or reach the final,” he says. “So, in my mind, it doesn’t stand for anything.” 

“Everyone wants to win trophies,” he adds. “As long as the team is successful and we get back to winning titles and trophies, that’s the main thing for me.” That must include fighting for the Premier League title, then? “One hundred per cent. That’s something we all share, every Man United fan: to get those moments back.” 

When asked to describe his ultimate dream for the decade ahead, Rashford reveals he is thinking big. 

“To win the World Cup, and for Man United to win the Champions League,” is his answer. He sampled what the latter experience might be like when he watched idol Cristiano Ronaldo lift the trophy with Real Madrid in Cardiff three years ago. 

“We need to start showing signs that we can be the United of old. Football has changed a lot, so it’s not going to be exactly the same, but we know the club can do it. It’s been difficult, but it’s a period of transition. As long as we stay focused, I don’t see why we can’t turn things around and really improve.” 

Whether or not Rashford wins the Champions League, he has the potential to become a club legend in the years ahead. 

“That’s always the aim,” he insists. “You grow up around so many people who have that United legend status that it becomes part of your dream. When you dream of playing for Man United, you don’t only dream of making your debut; you dream of being like Beckham, Scholes and Giggs. It’s part of the dream as an academy lad.” 

Wayne Rooney was no academy graduate, but Rashford dreamed of being like him, too. The 22-year-old has a long road ahead to get anywhere near his former team-mate’s United record of 253 goals, but while 20 per year for the next decade is clearly a monumental task, it’s not impossible for someone of Rashford’s ability. 

“I don’t know,” he says, smiling. “I don’t pay too much attention to that. If you’re playing your best football, then whatever happens, happens. If I was to get that record but we go into the next decade with no trophies, that’s not going to be the greatest feeling for me. If I don’t get the record but we get lots of trophies and something to look back on, that’s the most important thing.”

It’s the same thinking at international level. He has 13 months to make 12 appearances and become the youngest player to pick up 50 England caps – another Rooney record. This is news to Rashford. 

RASHFORD

How this feature first appeared in FourFourTwo's April 2020 issue (Image credit: FourFourTwo)

“See, people say all these things to me, but it’s not something I’d know leading up to it,” he says. “But now I do know! Everything has happened so fast with England – there was a tournament straight away and before I knew it, I was on 10 caps. It has just kept going.” 

So, Peter Shilton shouldn’t worry about his 125-cap record just yet? 

“No!” replies Rashford with a chuckle. “That’s so difficult. You give it your best shot. As long as you stay fit, play well for your club and keep getting selected, then you never know.” 

What he does know is that the current England side is capable of success within the next decade. “We should definitely win a trophy – at least one,” he says. “If we don’t, it will be disappointing for me, because I believe in the manager and the players. It feels like the right time to win something. We’ll give it our best shot at the Euros. If we’re playing our best football, I don’t see why we can’t win it –that would be up there with one of the best moments of my career.”

It’s a career that has already delivered plenty of special moments, in only four years as a first-team player. Marcus Rashford believed he could, so he did. And, in the decade to come, he has plenty more dreams that he wants to turn into reality.

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