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Sunday, June 23, 2024

Marcus Rashford is testing the patience of fans who fear his talent could be wasted

The reputation of Marcus Rashford as a Manchester United player is hanging by a thread.

Many supporters would appear to have had enough: 75 to 96 per cent would sell him now, according to surveys on United We Stand and Reissued. He’s not playing well, not scoring and breaking club rules, for which he has “taken responsibility”.

Fans can change their tune, mind. On August 6, 2013, I couldn’t find a single United fan who wanted Wayne Rooney to stay, at a time when he was being linked with a move to Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea. United wouldn’t sell him and Rooney remained, initially booed at games but then cheered as he responded by being United’s best player in an awful season under their new manager David Moyes.

This season, so far at least, is noticeably worse than that Moyes one of 2013-14. After 21 games in the Premier League, United have 32 points — compared to 37 then. United were also in the Champions League at this stage of the season a decade ago. And the league goal difference was plus 11 against the minus five of today.

Rooney’s performances were seldom the issue; those of Rashford are and Manchester United have a problem. Rashford is the club’s biggest asset and one of the best-paid stars on a new contract signed after he scored 30 goals last season, which was awarded in recognition of his status. This is a player with 127 United goals.

Rashford’s a Manc, a Red, an academy graduate and he should be in his career prime at 26. Yet fans can often be harder on their own — something Alan Shearer explained well on The Athletic last month.

His local hero status brings credit. Flags hung from motorways near where he grew up in Wythenshawe celebrated how he forced the government to face up to child food poverty by providing free school meals during the summer holidays — but that societal saviour status adds pressure and brings more scrutiny.

His life isn’t one based on family and being miles from his homeland such as, say, Bruno Fernandes, but one of a single lad who wants to lead as normal a life as possible in the city where he grew up; a city full of potential hangers-on and traps to snare him.

United hope that by promptly dealing with his latest issue, they can move on. They need their best players to try to turn this awful season around and, in theory, Rashford is one of them.

In reality, the way Rashord has played this season — he has scored only four goals — and acted off the field has agitated fans and coaches. He went out for his birthday in Manchester after the team lost 3-0 at home to City in the derby. He apologised then and appears to have accepted responsibility for this latest misdemeanour: a night out in Belfast on Thursday before reporting ill and missing training the following day.

Former players have done far worse, but they benefitted from living in a pre-social-media world when only the paparazzi had cameras — and usually by playing well in great teams when they stepped out of line.

United fans have been patient and supportive with Rashford. There’s almost no criticism of him at games and people want him to do well, to come good again and be the player who has thrilled them. So when he made that hand gesture at Old Trafford after scoring against Tottenham Hotspur recently (his first goal at Old Trafford since May) in response to the criticism he has faced, fans wondered what planet he was on.

He’s been supported, not criticised, by those inside Old Trafford.

It’s hard to work out who Marcus Rashford is. A social warrior made an MBE who was “overwhelmed with pride” at the progress of his campaign to fight child food poverty? A PR construct at the centre of a skilled campaign for holding the British government to account? An elite footballer? Or someone struggling to live up to the expectations that come with being put on a pedestal? Or perhaps a combination of all of the above?

In the past, Pep Guardiola had told one United legend that Rashford was the only player from across the city he would take for his own team. Years earlier, City had sent senior officials to Rashford’s house when he was still a youth player to try to sign him, but were met with a “no thanks”. He was a United fan.

In the spring of 2019, Barcelona tried to tempt him to Spain in their search for a long-term successor to Luis Suarez. Barca knew they were pushing their luck, but did so because they were told by Rashford’s camp that he had doubts about signing his United contract. And in 2022, Barcelona went back in for Rashford again — as again, they were led to believe there was a chance he wanted to leave United.

When Rashford was praised by Barack Obama and his social-media popularity went past that of NFL’s Odell Beckham Junior — a man Rashford marvelled at when he met him at Nike HQ in Oregan in 2018 — some at Old Trafford wondered whether Manchester United were becoming part of the Marcus Rashford story when they felt no one was bigger than the club.

And was it affecting his football? Rashford came back from the European Championship in 2021 in a bad place. Coaches felt he was down — understandably affected by the racism directed at him following a penalty miss in the final.

Rashford misses his penalty against Italy at Wembley (Andy Rain – Pool/Getty Images)

What followed was a niggling shoulder injury and a disrupted pre-season that meant he missed United’s first 10 games for 2021-22. He lost his place in the England team and wouldn’t be selected by Gareth Southgate until the 2022 World Cup finals in Qatar.

On and off the field, his career has been one of ups and downs, with several changes in the PR team around him. As a result, the messages can become mixed. He may score well in PR campaigns but he has often cut an unhappy figure around the club for years. Maybe that’s just his way, as it was for Andy Cole, who was hardly seen as a barrel of laughs by the media when the reality was he was shy and private.

There is clearly an issue, or issues, with Rashford. He needs discipline and sacrifice in his short career — not nights out in Belfast hours before training. Yet he’s also entitled to a private life, which is impossible if he goes out in Manchester, where everyone is judging him, making a note of what he’s doing and who he’s talking to.

Some people who have known Rashford for years — and who are not financially beholden to him (enough are) — speak very well of him. They say he’s misunderstood and a loyal friend. Viewed another way, Rashford making the effort to travel to Belfast to see former team-mate Ro-Shaun Williams shows that loyalty. And while he was in Larne, so many fans met him and only had positive things to say about him.

But the issue was going out late and then missing training because he was “ill”. Perception matters; the optics are framed by how well he’s playing and how United are doing.

What Rashford has done is not an end-of-the-world matter. There have been players in recent years who have been selected for games and simply not turned up. Players who have been offered the United captaincy and turned it down. Dredge through United’s past and there is worse; Rashford is clean-living in comparison, but he looks lost in his world, struggling with the fame and fortune he is supposed to enjoy.

The radiance has gone compared to October 2021, when he was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Manchester for “his ongoing charity work and campaign against child poverty off the field, as well as his outstanding sporting achievements on the pitch”. He was 23 and the youngest recipient of an honorary degree in the university’s history. Rashford invited five staff members, plus players and Sir Alex Ferguson. Tony Whelan, one of those staff members, said: “You see someone you’ve coached when he was eight who becomes your hero for his social work.”

You’ll struggle to find a bad word said about him from his former teachers or coaches, people such as Brian McClair and Paul McGuinness. You cannot say the same about other youth graduates who’ve made United’s first team. His football wasn’t as effortless as it was for Ravel Morrison. He wasn’t a prodigy in the mould of Mason Greenwood. At 14, Rashford had a confidence crisis. Rashford wanted to be a holding midfielder — he talked about wanting to be on the ball more — and coaches spoke to his mother and brothers.

He came through it all — as well as Osgood-Schlatter disease, which meant he couldn’t run for a time — and made the first team. The coaches were sympathetic about him playing at the club during continual change and turmoil. They wished for a Ferguson-type figure as his manager.

“That’s not easy for a young player adapting to different managers who all come with different ideas and change four or five players,” McGuinness said last season.

“The training changes: (there were) huge differences between (Louis) van Gaal, Moyes and Mourinho. It affects players. Football is so complex and the development of all the young players will have been stifled. Van Gaal had a logical step-by-step style of football with few combinations and dribbling — the stuff Marcus had been brought up on.

“When you have a stable team, you start to get connections and passes with the players you’ve worked closely with. People just think that if you bring a new player in then it’ll click. It doesn’t usually happen (like that).”

This season, it’s not easy to be a goalscorer playing for a team that struggles to score goals, but some of that is on the players who are paid to score goals.

United play at Wolves on Thursday. Last time at Molineux, he was dropped to the bench for sleeping in and turning up late for a meeting (and that wasn’t the first time it happened last season). He came off the bench and scored the winner. That should have been a one-off.

Now, patience has worn thin with Rashford from those who help pay his wages. It hasn’t completely run out, though — as it has with Anthony Martial — but it’s hanging on by a thread.

Unlike the injured Martial or the loaned-out Jadon Sancho, Rashford will have more chances. It’s not like there are other proven United forwards waiting to shine.

(Top photo: Michael Regan/Getty Images)

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