Manchester United forward Marcus Rashford deserves recognition on the United Kingdom's honours list for his charity work, Kick It Out's Troy Townsend says.
Rashford has been widely praised for his effort to ensure vulnerable young people have access to free meals during the coronavirus pandemic.
The 22-year-old partnered with FareShare and helped to raise £20million to provide three million free meals to those in need before turning his focus onto a similar problem in UK schools.
Thanks to his campaigning on social media and direct appeal to MPs, the government decided to go back on their decision not to extend the scheme for free school meals for underprivileged children into the summer months and committed to spending £120m to ensure those vouchers would stay available.
Townsend, who was a teacher with first-hand experience of the importance of work like Rashford's before he joined anti-discrimination body Kick it Out, is proud of the way footballers have responded during the COVID-19 crisis to raise money and awareness for valuable causes.
He now wants Rashford's efforts to be recognised in the right way.
"What I like is the maturity in the way he talks," Townsend, who is Kick It Out's head of development, told Stats Perform News. "You can put statements out and you can write tweets and you can think, 'Well, someone's done that for him', and that's been labelled at players in the past.
"But when you hear him talking about this issue, his understanding is from what he lived. He's an old head on young shoulders: the innocence is still there because he's a 22-year-old who is developing into his life, but the maturity and the way he talks, because of this experience, has been amazing.
"I've been tweeting for the last three or four days – there's got to be a knighthood coming along here, or whatever it is. We question our sports people, individuals, not just football but predominantly football because of the status it has, we question them, we question them. This man has stepped up to the plate and then some. I don't think he wants the plaudits that maybe he's getting, but the least we can do is recognise that when the honours list comes back around.
"What this period of time has, I hope, really taught the players is that there is a lot of strength and power behind them, not just with what Marcus Rashford is doing but with what a number of players were doing, how they've collectively come together and made sure their money that they have donated is going to the right and relevant people, that they want it to go to. Marcus is the standout story among many stories. At the start of this pandemic, they were instantly painted with a bad brush and it was unfair because they were already working behind the scenes, seeing all the contributions the players make anyway, but wow, what a response."
Rashford was initially met with opposition from the government over his free school meals drive, but his persistence in generating support online eventually forced a policy U-turn.
Townsend thinks the cutthroat nature of professional football is what gives someone like Rashford that sort of determination, especially when fighting for a cause from which he benefitted as a child.
"It's instilled in footballers," he said. "If you make it in this game, somewhere along the line you've been released, you've been rejected, you've been told you're not good enough or you've suffered a long-term injury, and that perseverance to get back up and running and to the levels you were at before – without a doubt, you've either got it or you haven’t, and that determination, that will to win, that desire to better yourself is instilled in all footballers, bar none.
"Some fall by the wayside unfortunately because it's a big industry and it's very harsh and critical at times, and some grow. This has happened as a period of time when Marcus could devote a lot of his attention to it, particularly when the players were not back in training and were doing their little bits, but also a focus that he's driven by because of his experience and because of what he would have had to have gone through as a young lad going through the educational system.
"It's quite easy to say, 'Oh, look what he's done', and I've seen some comments and I can't understand people who talk about, 'Yeah, you've got the financial power to do it'. He's driving things on in his own way."