Genius of Ronaldo inspires Rashford’s remarkable rise
The story has been told countless times: On 23 April 2003, Roman Abramovich was in attendance at Old Trafford to witness Manchester United beat Real Madrid 4-3 in the second leg of their Champions League quarter-final tie. It was an encounter full of drama and wonderful attacking play that not only contributed to the Spanish side progressing 6-5 on aggregate but Abramovich falling in love with football. The Russian, captivated and with billions burning in his back pocket, paid £140m for Chelsea three months later and changed the game in this country.
What is less known is that there was someone else watching on at Old Trafford that spring evening who would go on to have an impact on English football, less significantly but in its own way also an absorbing tale. He was five at the time, a United supporter who while disappointed by his team’s defeat was left elated and fascinated by what he had just seen, in particular by the contribution of Ronaldo (the original one), who scored a hat-trick and played with such verve and ruthlessness that he received a standing ovation from the majority of the crowd upon being substituted on 67 minutes. The five-year-old was on his feet, too. His name? Marcus Rashford.
“My first ever game that I saw live, he [Ronaldo] was playing in it,” says the striker. “I always remember it; it was in 2003 and he scored a hat-trick. I was only young, but he was my brother’s favourite player, so I’ve grown up watching so much of him.”
That will come as little surprise to anyone who has observed Rashford develop since he gripped the national consciousness by scoring twice on his United debut in a 5-1 victory against FC Midtjylland in the Europa League some 21 months ago. His rise to ascendancy has been rapid ever since, with his attacking style built around clever movement and quick, confident, adventurous running.
Rashford has clearly been inspired by Ronaldo and it therefore means a lot to the 20-year-old ahead of England’s friendly with Brazil at Wembley tomorrow night, when he is expected to start for Gareth Southgate’s side, that the legendary No9 also sees a lot of himself in Rashford, saying as much last year before describing the forward as “courageous”, “fast” and “very good with the ball”.
Rashford says: “He was a top player who won a lot of things, so when he’s saying good things about you it really stands out. When you’re young you
Marcus Rashford, in action against Germany, has been praised by Ronaldo, whom the England forward watched live in 2003 Toby Melville/Reuters; Andreas Rentz/ Bongarts/Getty Images
watch clips of the best players in the world and try to emulate them. With Ronaldo, I liked how he always played free. No matter where he was playing, he went out there and expressed himself. When you do that, that’s when you play your best football.”
It is debatable whether or not Rashford is playing his best football right now. The striker has scored eight times in 23 appearances for club and country this season and not at all in his last five. However, there have been mitigating circumstances. Since the previous international break last month, Rashford has started only four of United’s seven games and on one of those occasions was deployed in an unfamiliar wide-left role, while on the other three he was tasked with what is nowadays the unusual responsibility of operating in a two-man attack. It should also be noted that in his one outing for England since the national team’s 1-0 victory against Lithuania on 8 October – the goalless draw with Germany last Friday – Rashford only featured for half an hour, having come on as a secondhalf substitute.
It has all been a little disjointed for him, and so it says much about his talent and temperament that he has still shone, including during United’s recent win against Tottenham Hotspur at Old Trafford when Rashford performed with such menace that a notable section of the home supporters booed José Mourinho’s decision to withdraw him on 70 minutes. Rashford lined up alongside Romelu Lukaku that afternoon and it bodes well for the player’s prospects at international level that he appears comfortable in a two-man frontline. Southgate deployed Jamie Vardy and Tammy Abraham as a forward pair against Germany and given England suddenly appear to have an encouraging number of strikers to select from, with Harry Kane, Daniel Sturridge and Rashford among those also in contention, it could be a formation the head coach perseveres with as he looks to reconfigure and refresh his team ahead of next summer’s World Cup.
“It’s a bit different but like anything new it takes a bit of getting used to,” says Rashford. “The more we do it the better we’ll become at it, so it’s just about familiarising ourselves with positions and responsibilities. Playing in a two is easier. It’s just about understanding each other’s games and building those relationships, which you can do off the pitch as well.”
Rashford’s next chance to stake his claim as an England regular comes against the nation that sits second in Fifa’s world rankings and has won the World Cup on a record five occasions. Ronaldo scored eight times as Brazil secured the most recent of those triumphs in 2002 and no doubt one of world football’s latest exciting young goalscorers will be hoping is watching on and admiring his talents once again.
It was my first live game - I loved how he always played with freedom