Marcus Rashford, chasing down the greats

Thursday 25 February 2021 12:41

Back in 2018, a 20-year-old Marcus Rashford revealed his three all-time heroes. The names on this brief list would not have surprised anyone, not even those with the vaguest, most fleeting interest in sporting greatness: Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi and Michael Jordan.

But, grouped together, what did those names tell us about that young man? And what do they tell us now about the more mature, 23-year-old Rashford that we cherish and admire today?

Obviously, it uncovered Rashford’s yearning to be recognised as one of the great proponents of his own sport. But what else unites Ronaldo, Messi and Jordan? The qualities that spring to mind immediately are a determination to continually improve, longevity and, last but by no means least, a relentless thirst to win. 

At 36 years old, Ronaldo has recently broken Josef Bican’s tally to become football’s leading goalscorer of all time (even if the Czech FA dispute it). Messi, at 33, is chasing that haul down. Only last summer, he reiterated in the strongest terms possible that his primary concern remains team silverware. Jordan’s deathless drive for basketball glory was legendary, as the many viewers of 2020’s hit Netflix series The Last Dance will attest.

At 23, Rashford has already achieved so much, both off and on the pitch. As the United Kingdom slumped into the misery of the Covid-19 pandemic last spring, Marcus became a hero to millions for his heroic attempts to hold the government to account over the provision of free school meals. In October, he accepted an MBE after being recognised in the Queen’s Birthday Honours list.

Underpasses were admiringly graffitied with his name; T-shirts mocked up hailing him as ‘the leader of the opposition’; supporters of other clubs publicly thanked him for standing up for kids in areas miles away from Manchester. 

Henderson x Rashford: Fledgings to first team Video

Henderson x Rashford: Fledgings to first team

Rashford and Henderson look back on life coming through the ranks together at United...

But Rashford, above everything, remains a footballer, deeply committed to his craft. And five years into his Manchester United career – and almost four and a half since his England debut – he remains on course to carve out a legend of his own that compares with the very best. Greatness is within reach and, if we know anything about this young man, the only question he will be asking himself on a daily, if not hourly basis, is: how do I get there?

Some would say it’s just a matter of continuing down the gilded road Rashford has been on since he dramatically smashed open the doorway to United stardom on this very day in February 2016, by scoring twice on his debut against Midtjylland.

Earlier this month, Rashford surpassed Eric Cantona’s United goals tally (82) by netting in our 9-0 romp versus Southampton. A week later, he made his 250th United appearance during the 1-0 FA Cup win over West Ham. As Opta later confirmed, only three Reds have got there at a younger age. Their names? Norman Whiteside, George Best and Ryan Giggs. 

Though Whiteside and Best’s United careers ended prematurely, for different reasons, they both helped the club win big trophies, with big performances. Best won the 1968 Ballon d’Or. Giggs, of course, is the most decorated player in English football history, and has played more games for Manchester United than anyone. So Rashford is already keeping pace with some of the most outstanding talents in our history. But what can he do over the next five years to cement his status as a great player for both United and England? 
In the interview Rashford gave within the last issue of United Review, the forward was asked for the standout performance (team or individual) during his time with the club thus far. Intriguingly, he identified the 2-1 win over Everton in the 2016 FA Cup semi-final. 

You’d imagine most United players – especially one who has scored in a European semi-final and put our biggest rivals Liverpool and City to the sword – would choose a match where they featured front and centre.

But Rashford did not score in that last-ditch win over Everton. Nor would most supporters remember the team delivering a glorious performance. The match is primarily remembered for a David De Gea penalty save to deny Romelu Lukaku, a goal-line clearance from Wayne Rooney and Anthony Martial’s dramatic late winner. But Rashford said: “That was probably the most enjoyable game and it’s a little bit better because we went on to win the trophy, so that one always stands out in my mind.”
Unseen Goals: Rashford in the Academy Video

Unseen Goals: Rashford in the Academy

Unseen Goals | We raided the MUTV archive to bring your 20 strikes from Marcus Rashford's rise through the Academy...

Winning, clearly, is the thing. Asked recently by The Athletic about his goalscoring heroics in this season’s Champions League – including a first hat-trick in that competition, against RB Leipzig – Marcus responded: “It’s weird speaking about those goals, because they don’t stand for anything. It’s something that has happened but there is nothing to show for it.”

United’s three semi-final disappointments in the Carabao Cup, FA Cup and Europa League last season have been repeatedly highlighted, but along with Bruno Fernandes, Rashford is leading the charge towards an improvement this term. At the time of writing, following our first-leg win against Real Sociedad, he has already beaten his best seasonal tally for assists, with nine in all competitions, and is only five shy of his best total for goals scored (22). No player has scored anywhere near as many during Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s reign as manager.

His steeliness in the biggest moments also bodes well. Among the teams our no.10 has scored most often against are Chelsea (five), Liverpool (four) and City (four), while his two famous late interventions against Paris Saint-Germain have already seeped into United folklore.
The next challenge is to deliver in a final; to power United to a trophy, or towards the Premier League title. But the responsibility is not Marcus’s alone: the team have to provide him with more chances in the biggest games.

The recent FA Cup win over Liverpool proved that the Reds can do it when it matters and, unsurprisingly, the Wythenshawe wonder was at the heart of everything. His staggering, raking pass to Mason Greenwood for our equaliser, from a static position, with little-to-no backlift, showcased that growing ability to plate up opportunities for colleagues. Later on, Greenwood returned the favour by setting his senior team-mate free, and Rashford’s nerveless finish put us ahead, underlining a burgeoning ruthlessness in front of goal. Following that template more regularly in the latter stages of competitions is the next frontier for both Rashford and Ole’s Reds.

There’s also the looming spectre of this summer’s Euros. Due to injury, Rashford may have missed out on a spot in England’s squad had the competition taken place last summer. But in 2021, Gareth Southgate’s men have the chance to assuage the disappointment of their fourth-place finish at the 2018 World Cup by seizing the Three Lions’ first piece of silverware since 1966. 

Despite a memorable, expertly taken penalty in England’s shoot-out success over Colombia in the last 16, Rashford started just one match at that tournament in Russia. But since then, his importance to Southgate’s project has grown, and the England boss is clearly a huge fan: “He’s a player we’ve known was going to be a top talent as soon as we worked with him, not just because of his ability, but because of his mentality and personality. He wants to keep improving, he wants to learn from every situation.” When the postponement of Euro 2020 was announced, Southgate even claimed it could benefit England, citing the availability of Rashford and Harry Kane as a vital component for his team’s chances of success.

Before Rashford turns 28 in October 2025, there will be the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, and another Euros, in Germany. The forward hopes to be a Premier League winner with his boyhood club, by that point. “Every year is an opportunity for us to do it,” he told The Athletic of his club ambitions. “There have been many games this year where we know we’ve underperformed as a team, but we’ve found a way. If we are to win things this season we need to carry that on and even improve it.” 

Carrying on and striving to improve might well be Marcus Rashford’s eternal mantra. Every year, his stats improve. Every season, he shows a willingness to give his all, no matter his position, no matter the circumstances – even playing through injury when the situation demands it. In every respect, he is evincing the qualities shown throughout the superhuman careers delivered by his heroes, Ronaldo, Messi and Jordan. 

At just 23 years old, he has already achieved more than most could hope to accomplish in a dozen lifetimes. It says everything about Rashford, the footballer, that the Mancunian hero won’t be stopping for a second to look back or congratulate himself. Not when greatness is up for grabs.

This feature appears in Thursday's edition of United Review for the Real Sociedad match.