'Boris wants to talk’: How Marcus Rashford kept the former prime minister waiting in 2020

Marcus Rashford and Boris Johnson in 2020
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Marcus Rashford made the UK government sit up and take notice in 2020, the Manchester United forward's food poverty campaign culminating in a phone call with then-prime minister Boris Johnson. 

After being appointed Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) in October that year, Rashford began a petition to end child food poverty, with demands made for expansion of the free school meals programme. 

His petition soon passed one million signatures. The phone call to Manchester United came from Boris Johnson’s personal secretary, with the world paralysed by pandemic back in November 2020. 

“Boris wants to talk to Marcus now," Johnson's secretary said. 

“He’s training,” Manchester United responded. 

“Well, you’ll need to get him from training, because Boris wants to talk to him now.” 

“Sorry, but he can’t, he’s training.”

The UK’s Prime Minister and one of the UK’s top forwards did eventually talk, after the Red Devils had played Everton behind closed doors. 

The Goodison Park scoreboard that day showed an image of Rashford along with the words: “Thank you for sticking up for our kids who needed a voice, here on Merseyside and across the country.”

There’s very little that unites Manchester and Liverpool, but Rashford managed it. 

Sadly, no one was fortunate enough to be a fly on the wall for the conversation between Rashford and Johnson, but it was reported that Rashford, awarded an MBE a month previously, was “overwhelmed with pride” at the progress of his campaign to fight child food poverty. 

In a government U-turn, ministers announced a £170 million winter grant scheme, aimed at helping low income families struggling because of COVID. A banner soon appeared underneath the ‘Welcome to Wythenshawe’ sign, close to where Rashford spent some of his childhood, declaring: “Rashford 1 Boris 0.” 

The one-time bed sheet now hangs in the National Football Museum in Manchester, alongside artwork that was commissioned by the enduringly anti-establishment Eric Cantona. 

A major success in government, Rashford’s free school meals campaign was also a successful PR effort. 

“One of the more comprehensive and extensive marketing jobs that has been done around an athlete,” a high-level PR specialist told FourFourTwo. “But it was well done and it did a lot of good. 

“Marcus became more comfortable with the messaging over time because he was intimately involved, but Kelly Hogarth [his then PR] was driving it and she did a very good job of it. Both for him and for what they achieved. He bought into it at the top level. He agreed to it, he pushed it.” 

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Andy Mitten
Editor at Large

Andy Mitten is Editor at Large of FourFourTwo, interviewing the likes of Lionel Messi, Eric Cantona, Sir Alex Ferguson and Diego Maradona for the magazine. He also founded and is editor of United We Stand, the Manchester United fanzine, and contributes to a number of publications, including GQ, the BBC and The Athletic.

With contributions from