Though suggesting that Louis van Gaal left Manchester United in a blaze of glory would be something of a stretch, the fact that his final act as United manager was to win the FA Cup (and then wave the thing angrily at a room of bemused journalists) certainly added a touch of gloss to an otherwise forgettable two years at the helm.
In truth, Van Gaal’s time at the club was a huge disappointment. He was supposed to reignite the fire that had been put out by David Moyes yet, save a few brilliant but all too brief flashes in the pan, the flames fizzled out every time, returning to the same grim tedium without fail.
Yet, despite so much that was bad about his miserable tenure, and despite so many players appearing to have their talent snuffed out by the schoolmaster-like Dutchman, it would be wrong to say it was all doom and gloom. For there are bright sparks amid the smoke, and two of those sparks, in particular, burn within the embers with an intensity that hints at a brighter future for this ailing football club.
Van Gaal did a great deal wrong, but he has left Jose Mourinho two quite wonderful gifts, in the shape of Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford.
The stories of these two stars’ improbable rises to prominence could hardly be more different yet, in their own ways, each is as remarkable, inspiring and heartwarming as the other – two more snippets to be added to the tapestry of United folklore, stories to be told in years to come, long after the players themselves have kicked their last ball in the club’s colours.
Martial, just nineteen years old, and with the weight of an obscene price-tag hanging over his head, arriving in a new country, unfamiliar surroundings, an alien culture, unable to speak the language, and with the English press baying for his blood like a pack of hounds at the mouth of a fox’s den, urging him to fail so that they could write of how they told us so.
Remarkable, then, that he should light up his debut with one of the goals of the season, against Liverpool of all teams, in front of a gleeful Stretford End at Old Trafford.
Imagine the myriad emotions he must have felt in that moment. It’s the stuff dreams are made of. Yet, in the earliest indication of his ice-cool temperament, he barely cracked a smile, wheeling away to bask in the adulation of a crowd that had already fallen head over heels in love with him.
As for Rashford, his is a genuinely ‘sliding doors’ tale. What if Martial hadn’t pulled up during the warm-up before the game against Mitjiland? What if Wayne Rooney and even Will Keane, both of whom were ahead of him in the pecking order, hadn’t suffered their own injuries in the preceding weeks? Would Rashford even have made his United debut by the time Van Gaal left, let alone flown to France with England for the Euros?
It’s a truly incredible rise for the youngster, catapulted into our collective consciousness as only the most gifted of young players can be. You always fear the goals will dry up after the initial flourish, yet they kept on coming, each one celebrated with the kind of joy fans can only experience when it’s one of their own putting them away.
It’s not just their goals that set them apart, however. Their pace, silken skills and footballing intelligence way beyond their years, are just as mesmerising and mean that Mourinho, despite unquestionably having work to do to make the squad a real, rounded force once more, has a mouth-watering, double-pronged focal point around which to build.
Rumours of Zlatan Ibrahimovich’s imminent arrival may cause some concern among fans who fear these two young stars’ development may suffer with his arrival. Yet the other side of that coin is that the presence of such a figure, with all his arrogance and self-belief, could spur them on in the same way Eric Cantona influenced the fabled Class of ’92 all those years ago.
That remains to be seen. What is certain in the here and now is that United have, in Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford, two young footballers of exquisite potential who, with the right management and the right teammates around them, could be setting the footballing world alight for years to come. Online soccer odds for United being crowned champions look much better this season than they did last thanks to the emergence of these two.