A lot has happened to Marcus Rashford in the 13 months since Manchester United’s teenage striker dumped Martín Demichelis on his backside and ghosted through on goal to settle last season’s derby at the Etihad Stadium, but he remains largely unchanged.
His instincts are sharper, his footballing brain more cultivated after a season working with that master manager Jose Mourinho, the biceps a little bigger, and his reputation as one of Europe’s brightest young stars is firmly entrenched. With Zlatan Ibrahimovic injured, he is the player Manchester City will fear most when United return to the Etihad on Thusday evening in a potentially make-or-break game for the top-four hopes of both clubs.
At heart, though, Rashford is still the boy whom United’s coaches would frequently find knocking a ball on to a garage roof and trying to control it as it came down whenever they drove round to his house to pick him up for training.
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“No one in my family used to drive when I was younger, so we used to have a coach from the club pick us up from Northern Moor,” Rashford explains, smiling at the recollection. “I didn’t know they were there watching but, yeah, before they came I’d be throwing the ball up on to the roof, then turn around and wait for it to drop down. But we had to stop because the tiles kept falling off the roof."
Along with Tottenham’s Dele Alli, Rashford may be the most gifted player England has produced since another street footballer by the name of Wayne Rooney burst on to the scene as a 16-year-old with Everton, plucked the ball out of the sky and crashed a 25-yard strike into the top corner to beat Arsenal 2-1 in stoppage time. Rooney celebrated into the small hours that night by having a kickabout with mates near the garages outside the home of his then-girlfriend, Coleen. Rashford seems baffled that anyone would think that unusual.
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“But that’s what you do,” he says. “It’s what you’ve always done. You want to play football all the time. Why change? One hundred per cent I view myself as a street footballer. We used to play everywhere when I was a kid. Parking lots over the road, the number of times we got told to come off the school field when school wasn’t open …
I’d be throwing the ball up on to the roof, then turn around and wait for it to drop down. But we had to stop because the tiles kept falling off the roof
“If we could we’d still do all those same things, but it’s a bit more difficult now. We still go to a quiet field every now and then, though, but the opportunities are a little less. Even at home I’m always getting that urge to go out and play football. Playing with my brothers, in the garden, in the house, anywhere.” Is he always breaking things? “Yeah,” Rashford admits. “And my mum always shouts.”
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Few could have a better understanding than Rooney of what Rashford is going through. Of how dramatically the 19-year-old’s life has changed since he was parachuted into United’s starting XI for a Europa League tie against Midtjylland in February last year, scored twice to spare Louis van Gaal more embarrassment after conceding a 2-1 first-leg deficit to the Danish club, and followed that up with two goals on his league debut against Arsenal.
So, has he leaned on Rooney for advice about how to cope with so much pressure so young?
“I’ve not had to ask him that because I think I’m coping well with it, but I’m sure if he thought that I wasn’t then he’d be the first one to have a chat with me about it,” Rashford says. “I think his way of letting me learn is go and do it, but if there’s something wrong he’ll get involved and say, ‘Well, you could have done this at this moment in time’.”
This is Rashford’s first interview with a national newspaper since he was thrust into the national consciousness. The values and impeccable manners drilled into him by his mother, Melanie, are clear to see.
There have been plenty of role models down the years at Old Trafford, but also others whose career trajectories Rashford has no intention of following. His friends remain those he grew up with in the inner city neighbourhoods of Withington and Wythenshawe.
J’s Rhythm, a Caribbean takeaway on Button Lane, was a popular hang-out. “I used to live opposite those shops,” Rashford says. “It’s changed now. It is not the same workers as when I was there.”
The bond with his older brothers, Dane and Dwaine, who also acts as his agent, is strong. That Rashford is so level-headed owes much to their guidance.
“My group is quite closed,” he says. “I don’t bring new people in, maybe that is a bad thing, but I don’t leave myself open to giving anyone an opportunity to tarnish me. The same lads I have been with since I was seven, eight, nine, 10 are the same friends now.
“Whatever you want to happen is going to happen. If you want to throw it all away and start messing around then nobody is controlling you. People can advise you and do what they can to try and help, but at the end of the day it is down to you. You know what is right and wrong.
“You see it more often now with young players after they first get into the first team. There are a lot of distractions all over but, especially at United, we have a lot of examples of people ignoring all that and sticking to their football.”
There are a lot of distractions all over but, especially at United, we have a lot of examples of people ignoring all that and sticking to their football
It might be a small thing but, in an age when black boots almost seem antiquated, they remain Rashford’s choice of colour. No luminous pink for him. “Growing up here at United there was a black-boot-only policy, I think it might have only just gone, but from being a kid here at nine years old there has always been that,” Rashford said. “At the start you don’t really buy into it, but by the end you learn to love it as well. I will probably always wear them. Nowadays with sponsorships it is a case of, ‘There is the boot, you wear it’ and there is not much you can do about it. However, if it was my choice, it would always be black.”
Perhaps because he has been used primarily in a wide position by Mourinho, the misconception is that Rashford has not played that much this season when, in fact, only Ibrahimovic and Paul Pogba have made more appearances than his 45. Rashford believes he is a far more rounded player for the experience, even if the task of leading the line now falls to him with Ibrahimovic out for the season with a cruciate knee ligament injury, mention of which elicits huge sympathy from the teenager.
Rashford went more than six months without scoring in the league before a goal at Sunderland prompted a run of three in his past five matches but he felt he was developing all the time.
“His influence on the younger players, especially, is fantastic,” Rashford said. “We want that to continue because he is making us into better players. Now, when I go to the left or right, I see it differently to how I pictured it last season. They are things I didn’t have naturally inside me. I didn’t feel uncomfortable in the wide role, but when something is different it takes a while to get used to it. For me the development has been going great all the way through. Next season I think I will have come across most situations that are going to occur.”
Rashford reveres the wingers who morphed into complete forwards, such as Gareth Bale, Neymar and Cristiano Ronaldo. “You look at all the strikers in the world now, I can only think of two, three who are No 9s – Kane, Lewandowski, Suárez,” Rashford said. “Agüero? You could play him deeper as a No 10. The qualities a striker needs now are different to what they used to be. When you look in the first team here and there are players who have won 15, 20 trophies, you want to try and live up to that and even exceed what they have done.”
Mourinho aside, Rashford talks gushingly about what he has gleaned from Ibrahimovic. “You will see the benefits in years to come,” he said. “What I have learnt from him is irreplaceable.”
As cruel a blow as the Swede’s absence is for United, Rashford’s performance in the 2-0 win against Chelsea, and the way in which he grabbed the game by the scruff of the neck against Anderlecht to score a stunning winner in extra time and drag United into the Europa League semi-finals, underlined his own big-game mentality.
“The Anderlecht game was new for me – 120 minutes,” he said. “That’s a limit that my body has never been to before, and once you’ve done it’s the best feeling because you know if you need to do it again, you can. You can be there, fighting for it.”