The despair felt around Old Trafford when we learnt that Anthony Martial had injured himself in the warm up was palpable.
Somehow Manchester United had managed to lose 2-1 to Midtjylland away from home so lots still needed to be done to secure our place in the next round of the Europa League. Wayne Rooney was also injured, so United had no option but to promote Marcus Rashford to the starting XI.
Just a few months earlier, at the start of the season, a 17-year-old Rashford had set his sights on nailing down a regular spot in the U-21 team. He had started his season with the U-18s before making the step up, with thoughts of the first team likely years off.
Having been named on the bench for United’s second leg against Midtjylland, minutes before kick-off, Rashford learnt he would be starting. He’d be making his debut for United, the club he had joined as a seven-year-old and had supported all his life.
Rashford struggled to get in to the game in the first half. Balls were played vaguely in to his direction but he wasn’t attacking them. We went in 1-1 at half-time, having missed a penalty, and were just 45 minutes away from being knocked out of Europe’s second rate competition by a poor team.
15 minutes in to the second half, a ball was played back across the face of goal and this time there was no hesitation from Rashford. He raced to the ball and calmly stroked it in. United were ahead. He leapt in the air and ran straight to the fans, hugging them.
10 minutes later, he found space for himself in the box and got on the end of a cross again, putting it away with his first touch. Again, he ran to the supporters.
We had seen the likes of Federico Macheda and James Wilson score on their debuts too, other products of the academy, but their careers amounted to nothing. While it was great to see Rashford score a couple on his debut, we were obviously mindful that it was only the Europa League against Midtjylland and were hopeful Martial would be able to return for the Arsenal game in three days time. But he didn’t and Rashford started again.
Danny Welbeck returned to Old Trafford, a striker we had all hoped would make the grade and lead our line for the next decade, but it wasn’t to be. He was fourth choice when he left as a 23-year-old having failed to show consistently that he was good enough for United.
Welbeck scored against us that day but it mattered little. United won 3-2 thanks to two goals from Rashford in three minutes. He had scored four goals in his first two hours of football in United’s first team. Belief that maybe the goals on his debut weren’t just a fluke began to mount.
Three weeks went by and despite Martial’s return to fitness, Rashford kept his place in the team, forcing the Frenchman out wide to accommodate him. We travelled to the Etihad and it took our young striker just quarter of an hour to get on the scoresheet. United won the game 1-0.
“Rashford is an example of what I think is Manchester United,” said Sir Alex Ferguson. “They are the one club in England who will always identify a Rashford and give a young kid a chance. There is no better club in England at giving young kids a chance. Rashford is a sensation and one of the best in years.”
Rashford went on to score in our 2-1 win away to West Ham in the FA Cup on our way to Wembley, as well as goals in our victories over Aston Villa and Bournemouth. He put in an excellent display in the FA Cup final before going off with an injury and was rewarded for his three months in United’s first team with a place in the England squad for the Euros. By this point, it came as no surprise when he scored three minutes in to his England debut.
After a dream start to his United career, this season has been more testing, but hopefully that will be to his benefit in the years to come. While it’s clear he’s worked hard to get himself to the position he’s at, everything came to him easily last season. He was riding a wave. But that’s not how life works and it’s certainly not how football works. You have to take the rough with the smooth and being played out of position, or not played at all, will strengthen his character and his ability.
“While I’ve been playing out wide, I’ve been watching players playing down the middle and it’s helping me, to watch the role from a different angle,” Rashford said a few weeks ago. “So when I get a chance to go down the middle it’ll be a different feeling and I’ll enjoy it.”
It’s not as though Rashford has been sacrificed for just any old striker either. It’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic! To have a player of his ability and experience in the squad can only benefit Rashford. He’s still a teenager with plenty of years ahead of him.
That’s not to say he’s had a bad season either though. He’s still managed to score seven goals, despite largely being used out wide and as a substitute, and has made all the difference to some games when he’s been brought on. His pace and fearless running at the opposition makes him a great asset to the team, with Jose Mourinho regularly singling him out for praise.
“This is a season of growing up, being stable, strong, physically strong, mentally strong, tactically strong, he is playing in almost every match, sometimes starting and coming from the bench,” Mourinho said. “It’s been a great experience for him. He is a 19-year-old boy and, obviously, he has an amazing future.”
After Rashford’s incredible start, supporters will be hoping for his good fortune to continue. Is it out of the question that he may one day replace Wayne Rooney’s record and become the club’s top scorer? It’s too early to make those predictions, of course, but it’s not too early to dream.
Like Manchester, Rashford is Red.
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