UTD Unscripted title image featuring Marcus Rashford

UTD Unscripted: A diamond from Wythenshawe

Monday 31 October 2022 12:59

When I was playing in America, back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, I used to travel a lot with my teams up and down the country, playing matches all over.

We used to get to the airport and there were two magazines we’d regularly read on the flight over: US News & World Report and Time. There was always somebody interesting on the front of Time, someone incredibly famous, or occasionally infamous, who’d done something particularly noteworthy. JFK, Muhammad Ali, the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, the Beatles, Nelson Mandela… just incredible people who had made an unbelievable impact on the world. I loved reading about them.

So, it was a surreal experience for me recently to be running around various shops in Manchester trying to pick up a copy of Time, because I knew the young man who was on the cover of the latest issue. A young man who grew up in the same part of Manchester as me. A young man who – only six years earlier – I’d been regularly picking up and dropping off at home before and after training.

This was before he was Dr Marcus Rashford, MBE, of course.

I’d heard about Marcus before I first saw him play. One of my fellow coaches, Eamon Mulvey, was the head coach of his age group and he was raving about him all the time to me. “This kid Marcus…” It was constant. I always trusted Eamon’s judgement too, so I realised that this lad must have some talent.

When I first saw Marcus play, not long afterwards, he was only eight or nine years of age but straight away I understood why Eamon had been chewing my ear about him. We had a four v four programme and Marcus was involved in that. Now, four v four is the type of programme where any technical ability will immediately show, and it certainly did when I saw him play. He had a very precocious talent. Even at that age, you could see that he had something special about him. He had the X-factor.

His technical ability was what stood out. His ability to control a ball, receive it, pass it, shoot, head, and he had a natural understanding of the game, where to go. At that age you can’t project forward too much, but we knew that the challenge for us was to support him and get his development right. If this young man wasn’t going to get to where he wanted to go, it was probably going to be because we were doing something wrong ourselves. That’s how good he was. We could only mess this up.
Tony Whelan on Marcus Rashford says

"He had a very precocious talent... something special about him. He had the X-factor."

I don’t have some special vision that nobody else can see, by the way. If you ask most people about when they first saw Marcus at a young age, they’d all make similar comments to what I’m saying now. A kid like that doesn’t come along often. I call them the diamonds. These diamonds appear from nowhere and if you look at our Academy’s history, we’ve been blessed to have several of those players come through. Duncan Edwards, Sir Bobby Charlton, George Best, Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs and so many more, and Marcus is following in their footsteps. It’s one thing to have precocious talent, it’s quite another to develop it and make sure that potential is maximised. Marcus is evidence that it’s still going on at the football club, which is good news for everybody here. 

If you can be a mature nine-year-old, that was Marcus. He was just in love with football, absorbed in it, and it was his whole life – that was very evident from the beginning. It was all he wanted to do and it came naturally to him. Obviously we’ve found out in retrospect that it was potentially an escape for him, as well. He’s telling the world now about how things were for him then, and I think football was an escape from that at the time. These young boys come into us and it takes us a little while to learn about their home lives and so on, and we started to get a sense of Marcus’s situation later on when he joined our full-time Manchester United Schoolboys Scholarship programme. This was a programme for development where we were taking boys full-time and putting them into our partner school, Ashton-on-Mersey, and that’s when we started to find out more about his background.

Eamon, Colin Little, myself and other coaches used to pick him up from home and take him back there. Of course, we were introduced to his mum, Melanie, who’s just a wonderful character. You were always on your toes when you were around her because she was always supporting her son, always. She wanted the best possible things for her son and she’d ask for them, always in a nice, respectful way and it was hard to say no to her. In fact, I don’t think we ever said no to her! 

She’d clearly done a great job with Marcus, who was just a lovely boy, always respectful, always hard-working, always wanting to learn and that was a major asset. He was always asking questions. He always wanted to be better, always wanted to improve himself, not just technically but tactically too, with his running off the ball, the timing of his movement and so on. At that early stage he wasn’t really ready to digest it all at once, but he had the patience, resilience and fortitude to hang in there and cross that bridge, which isn’t easy. You don’t just get to where Marcus has got in a straight line. You have peaks and valleys, you have difficulties in life as you grow up and go through puberty.

When he was in the full-time programme, I was in contact with Marcus pretty much every day. His group came out of school in the afternoon and came to Carrington for coaching sessions, they had coaching sessions in the school once a week on a Wednesday morning at a silly hour. The kids would get off the bus goggle-eyed at that time, but Marcus was always motivated. He was ready for the session at 8.30am and always wanted to do more, never wanted to go in, then at Carrington he’d come in, do his training and do his chores in the dressing room. Dave Bushell – our youth development officer at the time – made sure the education was right.
There are so many people who have made a contribution to his journey and I think Marcus himself would acknowledge that. The coaches tend to get recognition because they deal directly with the football, but there are staff at Ashton-on-Mersey school that supported him in many ways. There’s his landlady, Maria Kelly, a wonderful lady who has worked with us for many years looking after our players. She must take immense credit because she was dealing with him every day. Although he was in Manchester, he was away from home, living in a household with a second parent, and the way she managed and supported him. People like that are key figures. Drivers like Dave Price and Chris Roberts who are picking the lads up every day, dropping them home, giving them lifts… these people are gold dust.

Brian McClair and Les Kershaw were very supportive when Marcus was a young boy and we were bringing him into the full-time programme and I remember Eamon, who takes an awful lot of credit, was telling me: “Tony, this kid is ready to go into full-time,” and I was thinking: he’s a first year, he’s primary school age, it’s such a long journey. I was trying to bat him back and slow things down, give it another year, but Eamon stuck at it. “He’s ready.”

In the end he convinced me and I went along with it, had conversations with Les and Brian and they were very supportive. They trusted our judgment and let us get on with it. You take little risks here and there, not knowing which way you’re going to go, stopping to reflect, going again, never being quite sure, but it’s always the young people themselves that make that decision for you, in the end. The way they react to goals and challenges that you set them. In Marcus’s case, it was quite easy, because he settled into his accommodation easily, into his school easily, it never affected his football at that age. He just came in, got on with it and had a real quiet confidence about himself that I think we always knew, deep down, all of us, that he was going to be a footballer at a good level. I can’t say that we knew then that he’d achieve what he’s already achieved in his career, but we knew he was going to be there or thereabouts in the first team. We just had a sense, an instinct about him. 

For any young player looking to break into senior football, you have to take your chance when it comes. My word, did Marcus take his. I was at the Midtjylland game when he made his debut. We had a club function that day and a meeting at Old Trafford before the game, then we sat down for the game itself. Then we heard that Anthony had been injured in the warm-up and Marcus would be starting. The way he took his chance tells you a lot about Marcus. Two goals, a great performance and he was the hero of the night.

Now, there’s this notion of an overnight success, where a player like Marcus bursts onto the scene without any warning, but there’s no such thing. What about all the other nights? What do you do with the not great nights? What are you doing to turn it around? Are you showing resilience? Are you showing patience? Are you digging in? These are all characteristics that Marcus has shown and that he still possesses. It’s not just about the good days, it’s how you deal with the bad days and not getting things right, maybe struggling in training or having an injury like he did in his late teens. It’s what you do with it that matters. Do you get back at it or do you just sulk in a corner? He never did that. If he had, he wouldn’t be where he is now. There are never any overnight sensations. Ask his landlady, his driver, his school teachers, his coaches.

It was a fantastic feeling for everybody in the Academy and at the football club, for a young lad to make his debut and score in a European game, because you know the background, you know the work that’s gone into it, all the people who have been involved. It’s something to celebrate, isn’t it? Something to rejoice in, not just at the moment, but in the time that follows. 

It isn’t easy to be a professional footballer at any level. To play at any level is a wonderful achievement, but to achieve the level of such a special footballer at such a young age and achieve what he has at just 23 is quite astonishing. That’s just as a footballer alone – never mind all the other things that have been going on in Marcus’s life over the last couple of years. Purely as a footballer alone, his achievements are astonishing. Over 250 games, 85 goals, the fourth or fifth youngest player ever to achieve that landmark for Manchester United, then 40-plus England caps. Unbelievable.
Tony Whelan says

"I think we always knew, deep down, all of us, that Marcus was going to be a footballer at a good level."

He’s given us a lot of happy memories. We’re indebted to him, and he keeps doing it on the field as well as off it. He’s quite extraordinary. I remember watching the PSG game a couple of years ago on the telly. At the time, I was just thinking about when he scored in the penalty shootout against Colombia in the World Cup. He was so composed and calm for England, just stuck it in the corner, so I felt good about it. 

He’s just going to do that again. That’s Marcus. 

It didn’t enter my mind that he wouldn’t score. 

That doesn’t detract from the wonderful feeling that everybody got when he scored, though. What a moment it was to see the ball hit the net. To think he’d scored such an important goal for his club, for himself, for his family and so on, in such a highly pressurised situation… transcendent would be the word.

The way he handled that situation was typical of Marcus, and a perfect example for how any young player should approach pressurised situations. Of course, he sets a good example off the field as well. 

It’s a given that we want to provide outstanding footballers for our first team, and Marcus is an example of that, but we also want to produce outstanding citizens of the future; that’s key as well. We want to produce decent human beings with good social consciousness, and also have attributes they can take away with them when they leave the game of football.
Tony Whelan says

"It’s a given that we want to provide outstanding footballers but we also want to produce outstanding citizens, Marcus is an example of that."

In terms of our academy, Marcus is an exemplar. What he has achieved off the field in the last couple of years… he’s got a gift from above in terms of what he’s achieved in that area. He’s a humanitarian of world renown, a humanitarian par excellence. He's got something within him. These humanitarians are really, really special people who don't come around often in our lifetimes, and also he happens to be an exceptional player at our football club at this moment in time, and we're witnessing it. It's something to tell the grandchildren. In that sense it's not just a story about football, it's a story about humanity, and he has a deep, deep sense of humanity. It's almost spiritual, dare I say. There's a depth about the way he is and the things that he does that's quite profound and moving. It's very humbling to have had the privilege of crossing his path. I have the deepest respect for him as both a footballer and a humanitarian.

He's genuinely one of my heroes now. I’d never have thought, 40 years ago, that somebody that I knew, someone I’d worked with, would be on the front cover of Time. Alongside all these luminaries who have been on the cover, a young man from Wythenshawe – where I also grew up – has appeared there too. 

So when I got my copy, I took it home, sat at the table, thumbed through it and then I had this internal debate:

I’ve got to get this signed. Surely I’ve got a decent shot at getting Marcus to sign it. Hang on, I’m 68. This is what I did when I was 12 or 13, going to Old Trafford or sneaking down to the Cliff. 

So I can thank Marcus for taking me back to my childhood again. But this is who he is now; he doesn’t just inspire kids who like football, he inspires people in all generations and all walks of life all around the world.

What a role model he is to players at this football club, both on and off the field. Not only is he an outstanding international footballer with an unbelievable amount of experience and achievements to his name, he’s also a young man from an impoverished background who has successfully taken on the government, had the bravery to brush off criticism and made a positive difference to millions of lives. He’s Dr Rashford, MBE. He’s an icon and he’s a credit to us all. 

When you look at his story, it’s not just worthy of Time magazine, it’s more like a fairytale.

This article was first published in March 2021.

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