Ge­nius of Ron­aldo in­spires Rash­ford’s re­mark­able rise

Sachin Nakrani

The Guardian - Sport - - Football England V Brazil -

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

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