After his hat-trick for the England Under-21 side, the buzz about Marcus Rashford has escalated again ahead of the Manchester derby. The youngster is being managed carefully by club and country, but Adam Bate wonders whether the time has come to unleash him.
It’s less than six months since Gareth Southgate deigned to omit Marcus Rashford from his England side on the grounds that “it was a bit early for him exposure-wise to be with the Under-21s”. So it raised a laugh as well as a smile to see the Manchester United forward suggest on his debut against Norway that he’s already too good for that level of football.
Surpassing expectations seems to be Rashford’s calling card. Roy Hodgson spoke of him not having “an awful lot of experience playing in that system” when used in a wide role in his first game for the senior England side in May. He’d volleyed one home within three minutes.
Rashford’s own academy coach at United, Nicky Butt, said it was “too soon” for the player to go to Euro 2016, only for the 18-year-old to leave the country convinced his involvement in France actually came too late. One cam Even some of Rashford’s old coaches at Fletcher Moss Rangers have become uneasy about the attention on the teenager, despite their own understandable urge to shine a spotlight on the club. Protecting the player is the priority and it’s undoubtedly a noble one.
Hype is always the great worry where young English players are concerned. Familiar fears about destroyed careers begin to emerge, and it’s worth noting that there are those who’ll feel Rashford’s rise is a testament to how well his progress has been managed.
It’d be wrong, for example, to style this hat-trick as having proven Sam Allardyce wrong. Not including Rashford in his starting line-up in Slovakia wasn’t too controversial given that he’d played only 40 minutes so far this season. Better perhaps to get 90 minutes and three goals.
But it’s that time on the pitch that really matters here. Letting players play is the key and if Hodgson was “not surprised” when Rashford scored on his England debut and Southgate was “not surprised” when he hit a hat-trick, it’s a clue that he’s ready for bigger things.
There’s been much ‘sliding doors’ talk since Rashford seized his unexpected chance against Midtjylland – by the way, at least Louis van Gaal had the grace to call the brace that followed “unbelievable” – and it does raise questions about pathways for young players.
But where this particular youngster is concerned, the genius is already out of the bottle. So while it’s right to be wary about burdening him with expectations, it would be wrong to underestimate a player who has shown he can cope with every challenge put to him.
This is no child. Manchester United supporters will not need reminding that Wayne Rooney became the club’s £30m record signing after starring for England at a European Championships. He was 18 at the time. Rashford turns 19 next month.
There comes a point when handling a man with kid gloves feels silly. Given that Southgate said the decision to keep Rashford in the Under-20s was to “take a little bit of the heat away” just days after he’d scored in a Manchester derby, it’s likely we’re already there.
Six months on and another derby looms. Old Trafford will be a cauldron of noise, tension and anticipation. It’s Jose Mourinho versus Pep Guardiola. Stakes high, pressure higher. The United boss will need men he can trust to handle it. And that shouldn’t discount Rashford.
“If the quality is very good, you forget about the passport,” said Mourinho when asked about Rashford last month. “He has the perfect head for an 18-year-old, very stable, not in the moon, so I think he has everything.” Maybe the time has come for United and England to really let him show it