It’s rather ironic that one of the most exciting and wondrous things to happen at Manchester United in years took place during one of the dullest periods in the club’s history. But isn’t that often the way? As with love, for example, these rare, life-affirming, inspirational events creep up on you and happen when you least expect them, when you’re not looking for them, and when you most need them. Prayers answered despite being unuttered, hopes fulfilled when all seems hopeless.
All a bit over the top, you may feel, given that we’re talking about the emergence of a footballer but, when you love the game and you love your club and it’s been such a huge part of your life for the whole of your life, that’s just how it is.
The dark days of Manchester United’s Louis van Gaal period got pretty dark. A different kind of darkness to that experienced under David Moyes but, in its own way, just as profound. Whereas it felt, from day one, like the fatal crash was always coming with Moyes, the end constantly in sight, the Van Gaal era felt like it would last forever, time appearing to stand still, the entire club gripped by a strange stasis that hung in the air like a thick, cloying smog.
And the very feeling that hearing Marcus Rashford’s name for the first time instilled in most of us has only increased his magnificence. For there were very few United fans rejoicing when they heard the news that Anthony Martial – the season’s shining light up to that point – would not be able to play against FC Midtjylland, who already had a 1-0 lead from the first leg of the clubs’ Europa League clash.
Hearts sank and fans were left cursing Van Gaal for having sent James Wilson on loan and for having relied upon Wayne Rooney, a player who tends to have one bad injury a year and who had been in decline for some time, to lead the line, and cursing our bad luck for Will Keane’s injury a few days earlier.
Ever since that night, however, Rashford has made our hearts soar, his name on the team-sheet bringing hope and expectation. Still now, all these months on, you keep expecting him to fall from grace, to tail off, for his story is so like a fairytale that it cannot possibly continue. Yet, far from diminishing, his stature at the club continues to rise. Already he has forced his way into Jose Mourinho’s consciousness, his talent, attitude and impact impossible for the Portuguese to ignore, having initially seemed reluctant to play him.
Wayne Rooney’s stomach must have been in knots as he felt Rashford’s hot breath on the back of his neck during those early days of this season and it always felt like only a matter of time before the new replaced the old. Rashford brings the kind of energy and goal-scoring prowess that Rooney once possessed but there is so much more to his game than simply finding the back of the net.
He appears to have it all – blistering pace, sublime skill, great intelligence, a keen eye for a pass, expert positional sense and the finishing of a master. During those early days of his breakthrough into the first team, there was a sense that he was riding the crest of a wave of good fortune, that his luck would eventually run out and that opposition managers were simply unable to deal with such an unknown quantity. Yet, months later, he continues to terrorise defences and few are still suggesting that this is just a flash in the pan.
Unusually for one so young, nothing seems to phase him. Every challenge is met with icy calm and the broad smile of a young man living a dream that so many of us experienced when we ourselves were young. Who among us didn’t imagine, as children, playing for the club we supported, scoring on our debuts, wheeling away in delight in the derby, hearing our name sung by adoring fans?
And therein lies the key to why United fans have fallen so completely in love with Marcus Rashford. We are witnessing the blossoming of a rare talent to which we can all relate. He is one of us, the human embodiment of our childhood dreams, our hopes and ambitions encapsulated in every wonderful first touch, every rampaging run, every goal, every celebration, every time he pulls on the shirt.
Marcus Rashford was an unexpected beacon of light when we needed one most and, with him continuing to soar, he remains a beacon of hope for the future.