Sir Alex Ferguson, who coached outrageously talented prodigies like Ryan Giggs and Cristiano Ronaldo, calls him “a sensation – and one of the best in years.” Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the A-list striker who has won 13 league titles in four different European leagues, describes him as “the future of England”. Nicky Butt, head of Manchester United’s academy, says if he keeps scoring goals, he’ll be dubbed a “£50million player”. Everybody has good things to say about Marcus Rashford, the shy teenage wonderkid who has electrified the football world with his searing pace, classy composure and match-winning goals. But what makes Rashford so popular – so unusually likeable in an era when success automatically attracts trolls and envy – is how the 18-year-old is responding to his achievements.
After scoring two goals on his Man United debut against FC Midtjylland in the Europa League last February, Rashford sprinted not to the TV cameras but to hug his youth team-mates in the crowd. Following another double on his Premier League debut against Arsenal days later, Rashford was back at Ashton-on-Mersey sixth form the next morning, playing pool in the common room with his school pals before the 9am bell rang and he headed to lessons.
He celebrated winning the FA Cup in May with a quiet trip to the seaside resort of Morecambe. And 24 hours after netting a hat-trick for England Under-21s against Norway in September, he handed over a fiver at the Brian Boys West View Stadium (upping the attendance from 89 to 90) to watch his childhood friends play for Bacup Borough against Charnock Richard in the Hallmark Security League First Division.
Rashford is proof that extraordinary talent doesn’t require an extraordinary ego; that even in the merciless world of modern football, quiet confidence is more powerful than empty bravado. So it is no surprise that while many footballers travel with an entourage of hangers-on, Rashford arrives at the launch of EA SPORTS’ FIFA 17 computer game at the London Stadium accompanied instead by his brothers Dwaine and Dane, and his mother, Melanie. And he accomplishes something few footballers in history have ever achieved at a press event: he arrives early.
“I think all the attention takes a bit of getting used to,” chuckles Rashford, when we sit down in the home changing room to talk. Athletic and lean at 5ft 11in, he looks strikingly young in his red hoodie, but his words are as composed as his finishing. “Once you do get used to it, it is fine really. To be honest, no one at school gave me any hassle or anything after scoring against Arsenal, but then my school friends have known me since I was 11 or 12, so they understood what it means to me. But after I’ve scored a goal, I do get a bit more attention in different ways in Manchester. Some people don’t like to ask [for photos or autographs] – they just give you a little stare.”
Singer Olly Murs isn’t so shy. A few moments before we speak, Murs – another guest at the launch event – was excitedly uploading a selfie with Rashford onto his Twitter account. But the teenager still thinks like a fan himself. He was humbled to receive a signed shirt from David Beckham, and he asked Thierry Henry for a photo
when the pair met in Manchester.
“Yeah, things like that never change,” he says. “Even for the players who have been successful in their careers, they are still fans of football. They still enjoy watching a game of football, whether it’s Premier League, League One or League Two. I think that’s something that is just ingrained in you from your love of the game.”
Rashford clearly still can’t believe he is booting balls about every day with players he used to idolise, and whose posters adorned his bedroom wall in Wythenshawe in south Manchester. “My idols were guys like Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney,” he admits. “I went to every United home game when I was a kid, so those two were the two I used to watch. Thierry Henry is another favourite. I still watch Thierry Henry videos quite often today. They were the three players I wanted to watch the most.
“To be training every day with Zlatan and Rooney, as a young forward… you couldn’t pick any better players, could you? They are the two players that you’d choose, and the two best people I could learn the most from.”
Just as bewildering for Rashford was seeing himself pixelated in the iconic EA Sports game he has played since he was a kid. He was consulted on ‘The Journey’ mode, which allows players to navigate the life of a young pro on and off the pitch. “I’ve always been a big gamer, so I’ve enjoyed being involved. A lot of the lads at United play FIFA, too. I think ‘The Journey’ mode is the best way to play the game, so it’s been nice to offer some help there. It was quite funny when I first got to see myself in the game. Now all my mates have told me they like to play as me, which feels a bit weird.”
Rashford enjoys a quiet life at the home he shares with his mum, brothers and two pet French bulldogs in south-west Manchester. On days off, he has enjoyed a trip to Thorpe Park with his teammate Jesse Lingard, and bounced around at the Jump Nation trampoline centre in Trafford Park. “When I’m not playing football, I play on consoles and stuff like that,” he explains, “and go to the cinema quite often. I guess I’m at home quite a lot. I listen to a lot of R&B and hip-hop and rap music – mainly UK artists. That’s what I like to listen to and always have.”
Rashford’s winning blend of world-class skills and ordinary lifestyle has made him a popular figure at Old Trafford. “As a footballer, Rashford seems to have everything, but he also has a very endearing personality,” says Daniel Harris, United fan and author of Manchester United books On The Road and The Promised Land. “The way he acts on the pitch and in interviews suggests he has a disarming innocence that not every young player has. Giggs was diffident and watchful. Rooney was bullish. Rashford seems to be deriving and providing pure enjoyment. It feels like there is no one who doesn’t like him. He has been well looked after by Warren Joyce (Manchester United’s Under-21 coach) and Nicky Butt, but to make too much of that would be to make too little of who he is and the values he has got from his family.”
Rashford, too, credits his family for keeping him grounded. “Having a close family has definitely been a bonus for me, as it is for a lot of people in football. They are the ones who are closest to me. You know for sure that they just want you to do well, so to have them around me is important.” Today, Dwaine and Dane are patiently watching their younger brother pose for our shoot, but there was a time when it was Marcus doing the observing.
“My first memory of football was watching, not playing,” explains Rashford, who was born on Halloween 1997. “I used to watch my brothers when they were playing outside in the garden with their friends. I think I started going out to play football when I was about five, and I just loved football. I was always playing at home and with the local club.”
He played for Fletcher Moss Rangers, who have developed other footballers including Arsenal’s Danny Welbeck and Rashford’s teammate Jesse Lingard. “I remember him as a five-year-old boy on a Saturday morning and he was very talented,” says Dave Horrocks, academy development officer at Fletcher Moss, which proudly prioritises functional movement, skill development – and fun. “He was a good listener and a good learner, and always willing to try something new. We like to put the best with the best because kids improve each other by playing with the best players. As a five-year-old, Marcus got moved into the under sixes, that was how good he was. As a six-year-old, he got moved into the under sevens. And that has gone on throughout his time with us and at United. I could only dream of doing the things with a ball that he could do at that age. But that is what we’re about here: don’t be afraid of trying something. You’re allowed to get it wrong. That’s how we learn.”
Rashford has fond memories of his time at Fletcher Moss. “A lot of my friends and players have gone on to play for academies and decent teams as well. For us, it was just excellent to see it wasn’t just one person or two people, but four, five or six of us.”
Man City, Liverpool and Everton were reportedly interested in signing Rashford, but he only had eyes for United. “When I got scouted, I was about six years old. There were a lot of teams that wanted me to go to their academy and their facilities, but for me, United was the only option, so that’s where I went. I loved every minute of the training there. It was all about having fun and developing your own skills, and playing games all the time. It was the best scenario I could have imagined.”
Rashford can remember playing ‘cage football’ with older players like Paul Pogba – who would leave the club in 2012 only to return this summer for a world-record £89m transfer fee. “Playing in the cage was good for the skills. I think I was 10 or 11 the first time I went in the cage, and the other lads were 15 or 16. We were at completely different phases of our careers, but it was just to get everyone in mixing. You pick up different skills, so to get young lads mixing with older lads was a brilliant experience.”
One football memory sticks in his mind more than any other. “I always remember watching the 2008 Champions League final (when Manchester United beat Chelsea 6-5 on penalties) at my friend’s house. We were all running around outside after the game was finished and the penalties were over.”
Rashford was quietly impressive in the age-group teams at Man United. He won the Under-16 Milk Cup in 2014, and scored 13 goals in 25 games for the Under-18s in 2014-15. But nobody could have predicted the speed of his rise.
“People knew he could play a bit, but with serious players, especially ones who explode onto the scene like he did, normally everyone is waiting for them,” says Harris. “Everyone knew about Wayne Rooney – he tore everyone apart at youth level – but not Rashford. Then when he scored against Midtjylland he showed nice composure but they were tap-ins. His header against Arsenal was a slightly harder finish, but still, you’d expect him to score. Then he scored that incredible goal in the Manchester derby and at that point you think, OK, this is a player, and then he did it again at West Ham.”
Rashford’s stylish solo winner against Man City last March – when aged 18 years and 141 days he danced past Martin Demichelis and slid the ball under Joe Hart to become the youngest Premier League goalscorer in a Manchester derby – is the teenager’s favourite goal so far. “That was my first goal I had scored away, so it was a bit weird for me,” he smiles. “I couldn’t celebrate with the fans or anything. It was a different experience to the others but I enjoyed it.”
Home-grown players are rare in modern football; home-grown strikers rarer still. “There hasn’t been a proper centre-forward come through at United since Mark Hughes in the ’80s, and the last Mancunian was Brian Kidd,” says Harris. “Effectively you’re just waiting for someone with the potential to be an elite footballer to be born in Manchester, then you just hope he doesn’t go to City, so it takes a unique set of circumstances for something like this to happen.”
Rashford says the FA Cup last year is the highlight of his career so far. “Winning the FA Cup meant we finished the season on a high after something that could have turned out to be a disappointing season. So for us to win that was a bit of a relief, and it meant we could reflect back on the season knowing that there was a positive at the end of it.”
The young striker has simultaneously impressed for England, too. He scored within three minutes of his debut against Australia in May, and produced some explosive cameos at Euro 2016. “I was obviously happy to get selected for the Euros,” he admits, “but obviously I was unhappy with the end result. It was a good experience, though. If we take the lessons on board, we can have a bright future.”
What makes Rashford so enjoyable to watch is his blend of unpredictability and variety. “He is the all-round package,” says Harris. “If you sit deep, he will run at you – and he can go inside or outside. If you give him space, Paul Scholes said he can shoot from outside the box, although we haven’t really seen that yet. And if you squeeze up to leave space in behind and let him run onto it, good luck with that.”
The young striker admits he has become increasingly hungry for goals since breaking into the team. After starting the season on the bench, he quickly forced his way into manager José Mourinho’s mind with three goals in his first four league appearances of 2016-17. “I was always a forward. I always wanted to score goals. But things change. When I was younger, I wasn’t as bothered about goals, whereas I have more of a passion for scoring now and I think it’s good.”
Rashford is so unique that it has become a popular pub debate amongst fans to argue over which player he most reminds them of. “If I had to compare Rashford with another centre-forward at United, the nearest is Andy Cole, who by the end was a brilliant all-round striker,” says Harris. “He didn’t start that way, but by 1999, he could score all kinds of goals and had great movement, awareness and intelligence, and a great touch. But he was not as beautiful a natural mover as Rashford.”
Cole, who scored 121 goals in 275 appearances for Manchester United, says even he was caught out by the speed of Rashford’s progess. “Before he even got in the team, I was asked to have a word with him [by Man United],” he explains, “but before I got to have a word with him, he was in the team doing extremely well. So good job I didn’t have a word with him! How good can he be? How long is a piece of string? You just don’t know. At the moment, he’s started extremely well. Long may it continue. Hopefully he keeps improving. From what I’ve seen so far, he has all the attributes; he’s got great pace, he looks like he’s got good enough movement, he scores goals and he looks like a brave kid as well.”
Despite the hype, Rashford is still a raw talent, and he knows he has to improve. “He’s a young man learning his trade,” says Cole. But Jon Smith, an experienced football agent and the author of The Deal: Inside The World Of A Super-Agent, believes Rashford is destined to reach the top. “He has this innate ability to not be bothered by anything,” says Smith. “You can imagine he’d be brought on with 10 minutes to go in the World Cup final and just treat it like another game of football. And that’s wonderful, you can’t coach that. I think Rashford is the next big superstar.”
There is only one way Rashford will reach his potential and that is to keep working hard and improving. “He happens to be a good-looking lad and seems to have personality, but at the moment, just focus on your football,” says Smith. “He doesn’t need to do anything else that could be a distraction. What is he worth? It’s a hope value at the moment because he hasn’t achieved yet. Man United wouldn’t be a seller, but if they were, you’d have to throw out something in the region of £50million. But it’s a misnomer because Man United aren’t going to sell him.”
With a supportive family, young teammates who are also trusted friends, experienced stars to learn from, and a world-class manager like José Mourinho, Rashford has everything he needs to reach his full potential. “It’s nice to have other young players around as we are going through the same thing at a similar time,” Rashford agrees. “I think it’s good, and it makes us a lot stronger as a group and as individuals as well.” And he admits he has enjoyed learning from Mourinho, too. “He has come here with a different mentality. He wants everything, he wants to win everything, but he wants to win it well. He doesn’t want to win 1-0 or 2-0, he wants everything. So he’s making us more demanding of ourselves and things like that. He can be hard on us sometimes but we have got to take that. We have got to progress and move on.”
Speaking of moving on, our time with Rashford is about to come to an end – he has a FIFA battle against West Ham’s Michail Antonio lined up, then he’ll get the train back to Manchester with his family, ready for training first thing tomorrow morning. Whatever the teenager from Wythenshawe goes on to achieve in his career, it is clear he will do it his own way. “I think that is always one of the main things for me – to enjoy myself on the pitch at United and when I’m at training,” he says. “I started playing football because it was fun, and I think when you try to see football as a game and remember that it should be fun that is when you play at your best.”
Photographer: Paul Cooper
Additional images: Getty/PA