On 23 October 1937, Manchester United hosted Sheffield Wednesday at Old Trafford as the clubs contested a routine Division Two tie. The occasion that followed was in almost every way unremarkable. United won as expected, 1-0, courtesy of a Ron Ferrier goal, and the fixture was swiftly committed to the sport’s annals with few reasons to turn back to it in remembrance; fond, outraged, or otherwise.
Yet as the weeks, months and eventually years passed, that particular match would come to acquire an ever-growing significance. Though it was of little consequence on the day, that match proved to be the last occasion Manchester United would name a senior matchday squad without a member of their club’s youth academy among it to this very day.
In the ensuing 80 years, as the baton passed to and between a vast array of varyingly worthy hands, graduates of United’s revered youth setup have continued to find reputable representation in every one of their team’s senior matchday squads since, crafting an incredible succession now almost 4,000 matches strong. And of the many dozens to have featured for the Red Devils since that day in 1937, no single prospect, not one of the Busby Babes, the Class of ‘92 or any other vintage squad, can lay claim to as rapid or remarkable a rise into the Manchester United first team as Marcus Rashford.
One morning in late February 2016, Rashford awoke and set about his daily duties unaware that hours later he was to be plucked fresh from the academy and thrust to the very forefront of his club’s ever expectant attack where the eyes of the world would be firmly trained upon him.
The teenager clutched the opportunity with both hands, his fight or flight reflex instinctively switched in the direction of the former option, and played like his life depended on it. He shattered goalscoring records as though it were simply another day at the office and embraced the challenge with every strained sinew as he hurtled headfirst toward a resplendent new reality.
To dispense with the hyperbole for a moment, Marcus Rashford did not, of course, appear from nowhere. Prior to his first-team debut, the Wythenshawe-born forward had spent close to a decade learning the ropes at the Manchester United academy, which he joined at the age of seven, and had caught the eye of more than a couple of coaches over the years. The knowledgeable folk down at the Trafford Training Centre had high hopes for young Marcus. Nevertheless, not they nor the player himself could feasibly have expected his debut to arrive at home to FC Midtjylland on 25 February 2016 in the second leg of a Europa League tie his team found themselves trailing.
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Rashford had played his way into the peripheral view of then-United manager Louis van Gaal by evidencing a startling prolificacy in front of goal for the club’s under-18s. In September 2015 alone Rashford struck eight goals in six games and the youth coaches witnessing his every stellar showing had almost begun to feel bad for pestering Van Gaal about the boy.
In late November, the Dutch manager named Rashford among his bench for the first time, for a Premier League game against Watford. The following weekend he graced the bench again as his side took on Leicester. His inclusion in these squad, however minor his role, told Rashford: keep it up.
Three months on, by way of a schadenfreude-laced helping of serendipity, on the eve of their tie with Midtjylland, Rashford’s name crept a little closer to the team-sheet when injury struck youth teammate Will Keane and ruled him out of contention. There was more to come. In the game’s warm-up, Van Gaal’s prefered wide forward Anthony Martial was also crocked, downed by a recurring hamstring injury, and his loss immediately became Rashford’s gain. With barely half an hour before kick-off, the teenager was told he would be named in the starting team.
The game began disastrously as the Danes struck first, swathes of the Old Trafford faithful fell silent as Pione Sisto added to his team’s aggregate lead, but an own goal from centre-back Nikolay Bodurov lessened the deficit, settled a few nerves, and gave United hope. Then, as the rhythm returned to the game while the second half progressed, Rashford assumed centre stage.
On 63 minutes, Juan Mata sprinted after a deep cross and wrapped his left boot around it, hoping to find a player with his quick cut-back. The ball’s path intersected with Rashford’s who arrived on the scene in a flash and gleefully slammed the ball home. The youngster threw his hands out and kept running, onwards and into the crowd who mobbed him. Just 12 minutes later an almost identical scenario played out once more as Rashford grabbed his second in front of the Stretford End, another confident first-time finish from a hopeful cross, and again he ran to the fans to whom his name was swiftly becoming known.
Come the game’s end, United had hit five in response to Midtjylland’s early strike and were safely through to the next round of the competition. Rashford, meanwhile, having used his opening bow to depose George Best from one of his many thrones in becoming his club’s youngest ever goalscorer in European competition, had ensured his name would remain unmoved from the team-sheet for his side’s following fixture. United’s next quest for victory came against at home to Arsenal.
“Youngsters often play well in the first match,” Van Gaal reflected during the press conference that followed his team’s win against Arsenal; Rashford’s second start for Manchester United. “The second is different.”
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What the Dutchman was supposing to reference was the comedown that precedes many a young player’s second game. The first flashes by like a fever dream while the protagonist glides across the turf with eyes widened, adrenaline coursing through their veins, the sound of their heart thumping in their ears. Their second game is often a limp imitation, lacking the spark of the first; a second ride on the very same rollercoaster; a second kiss.
Rashford, however, was beginning to make a habit of defying expectation. Few questioned the boy’s inclusion in the team. When a player grasps the opportunity of a first-team debut in the manner he did, scoring twice and not for a moment appearing intimidated by the occasion, allowing Rashford to retain his place in the team constituted the least generous course of action. But few imagined he would prove capable of continuing his customary two-goal taking against Arsenal. Rashford would take great pleasure in proving them wrong.
As the half-hour mark approached the game remained goalless. A breathless encounter, undoubtedly, but one that still lacked a moment of magic. Caressed into a wide position, the ball made its way to full-back Guillermo Varela who swiftly sent it swirling into the box. His cross evaded the attempted headed clearance of Laurent Koscielny before squirming under the splayed legs of his fellow centre-back Gabriel. Instantly the ball was sent up and over the extended arms of Petr Čech and into the gaping net by the right boot of Rashford. While others thought and pondered, Rashford took action. One-nil Manchester United.
Scarcely three minutes later Rashford was at it again. Jesse Lingard tossed the ball into the Arsenal area, intending for it to fall upon the perimeter of the six-yard box. There it found Rashford, who had stolen space the Gunners’ backline would rue affording him, and flicked a neat header goalwards, beating Čech at his far post. Two for United; two for Rashford.
Time enough remained for the game’s impetus to swing back and forth, to allow the chewing of many more fingernails, the straining of many more nerves. Danny Welbeck grabbed a goal back for Arsenal. Rashford then turned provider as he assisted Ander Herrera’s strike from the box’s edge. The away side grabbed another consolation, through Mesut Özil, but ultimately the points would stay in Manchester. The game ceased at 3-2.
Following a second brace in two games, in as little as three days, United’s number 39 was named Man of the Match. Having almost single-handedly sunk the Gunners, the youngster was certified as Old Trafford’s latest hero and his formal introduction was complete. Marcus Rashford, the world; the world, Marcus Rashford. And then, the very next day, he was back at school.
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“I walked into the sixth-form common room on Monday morning, before lessons began, and Marcus Rashford was playing pool with one of the other sixth-form boys,” recalled Aidan Moloney, headteacher at Rashford’s secondary school, in conversation with The Telegraph. “The staff went over to congratulate Marcus and then, at 9am, the bell went and they were straight down to lessons.”
Not only did Rashford begin his burgeoning career at the famous Fletcher Moss Rangers team, for whom the likes of Welbeck, Lingard, Ravel Morrison and before them Wes Brown once played, but he also received his mainstream education at the Ashton on Mersey school where, since 1998, the majority of Manchester United’s youth prospects have been taught. Such is the club’s ethos, Rashford may have downed Arsenal with a double on Sunday but he’d still be in class come Monday. This was all in the name of, as they put it, “grounding” the youngsters.
This grounding would prove vital. Almost overnight, the name Rashford had entered the country’s footballing lexicon and it seemed almost everybody knew exactly who he was with the click of his fingers. This naturally included his team’s next opponents: Manchester City.
Though few knew him intimately, his inclusion could no longer catch anybody cold. Should he score against any team in the league, from here to the season’s end, no opponent would be allowed to excuse their inadequacies on account of Rashford’s surprise inclusion. Put simply, United would be mad not to play him.
It was reasoned that knowledge would be power, that just as admitting an issue is the first step in tackling it, Manchester City would be capable of shackling the young forward because they could see him coming. That plan, however, worked far better in theory than in practice. The City defence kept Rashford quiet for all of 16 minutes.
Marauding through the heart of the City midfield, Juan Mata exchanged a neat one-two with Morgan Schneiderlin before feeding a simple pass into the feet of Rashford. The forward took the ball into his stride, sized up the mighty frame of Martín Demichelis and chuckled. In one adept sweep, Rashford flicked the ball beyond the centre-back’s aimless interception and left the creaking Argentine on the turf, swinging at thin air and gawking despairingly over his shoulder. With his very next touch, his body now opened up and the instep of his right boot primed, Rashford tucked the ball under the advancing Joe Hart and gifted his half, the red half, of Manchester the lead. It would prove to be the winning goal.
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In doing so Rashford not only added the Manchester derby to his growing list of debut day scalps but, at just 18 years and 141 days, became the youngest player ever to do so. “He’s scored,” commentator Martin Tyler called out from his lofty vantage point, “the fairytale has another chapter!” There would be plenty more to come.
Over the course of the following five months, Rashford would write a further three chapters under the ‘debuts’ subheading of his career’s early memoirs. After making the expedited journey to the spearhead of his country’s attack, where he volleyed in his first England goal just 138 seconds after entering the pitch against Australia, Rashford obliged with a sublime hat-trick on his first run out for the under-21s against their Norwegian counterparts. For posterity, having scored on his debuts in the Europa League and Premier League, his inaugural derby, and for both club and country, it seemed only right Rashford add the EFL Cup to his CV. A goal against Northampton completed his sixth scoring debut.
When the dust finally settled on his maiden senior campaign, Rashford had recorded eight goals in 18 appearances for his club, reinvigorating the team he loved along with the partisan sections of his proud city. He had led the line in a triumphant FA Cup final against Crystal Palace, after which he lifted his first major trophy, earned a handsome new contract as reward for his endeavours, collected the Jimmy Murphy Young Player of the Year award, and signed off on the kind of debut season children adorned in devil red jerseys dream of. The kind of season he himself had dreamed of.
A kid like Rashford had no right to affect his many debuts in the manner he did. Had he been overawed by the immensity of the opposition, shackled by the immediacy and enormity of the ensuing tasks, few would have thought to chastise the youngster or question his quality. It is likely many would have simply pointed toward his tender age or lack of experience and claim that perhaps a little the time to mature would be needed before such an experiment is worth conducting again.
Instead, Rashford took to the pitch with reckless abandon, slalomed between a pair of towering centre-backs named doubt and pessimism, scoffing at their stature as he sped by, before finishing with typical aplomb and a smile on his face. In truth, thrilling thought those days were, they’re now consigned to the past and Rashford cannot remain there with them. He built for himself a dazzling platform with his early performances and now upon those he must hope to construct an unforgettable career.
He will always be able to recall the thrill of those very first occasions, the memories of an introduction almost too good to be true, and relive the records set by his incomparable impact in the starting line-up of his boyhood club. But from here until his retirement, likely many years from now, the challenge will remain for Rashford to adhere to the soaring standards he set for himself from the inception of his United career. Just how far he can go, and where exactly he’ll rank among the pantheon of legends at Old Trafford, is entirely up to him.
By Will Sharp @shillwarp