The thrill for Marcus Rashford as he turns 20 is where the rest of his career might take him.
In 18 months the boy who ceases to be a teenager on Halloween has claimed FA Cup, Europa League and EFL Cup winners’ medals for Manchester United. He has made his England bow, played at Euro 2016 and scored on his senior, Premier League, FA Cup, EFL Cup, Champions League and international debuts. This is a young star who, each time opportunity knocks, smashes down the door to grab it.
The United trainee’s rise has been so rapid it seems barely credible that his first appearance came in February of last year. Then, Rashford seized his chance against FC Midtylland at Old Trafford, scoring twice in a Europa League last‑32 second leg as Louis van Gaal’s side won 5-1. Rashford started only because Anthony Martial limped out of the warm-up and Will Keane, who should have been among the replacements, was also injured.
“You can’t predict what the outcome, the reaction will be when somebody goes out in front of 75,000,” says Kenny Swain, Rashford’s England Under-16 manager. “When you do like Marcus did, it gives the coaching staff such a thrill. You see his performance, how well he did, and think: ‘Wow! I wouldn’t have predicted that, he’s just played out of his skin.’ It is almost like an out-of-body experience – that’s what Marcus did.”
As a junior footballer Rashford possessed glittering potential but lagged behind peers in physical development. A first taste of the big time came when Van Gaal chose him as a substitute for the Premier League match at Watford on 21 October 2015. Rashford was 10 days from turning 18 and, alongside him, was Sean Goss, two years his senior.
Goss, a midfielder who left for Queens Park Rangers in January, says: “We’d been training the week building up – the first team had a problem with all the strikers getting injured and people automatically thought the older lads would be on the bench. We trained and Marcus did really well, better than the older lads, so he got his chance and me as well, which ended up in us going to Watford.
“We got told on the Friday afternoon by Ryan Giggs [Van Gaal’s assistant]. Marcus wasn’t in our changing room because he was in the youth team then. I got told and the other two lads who had been training with us were with me in the reserve changing room but didn’t get told anything. We all naturally thought it would be one of them. Then on the bus on the way to the airport Marcus came on and was buzzing. He hasn’t looked back since, has he?
There has been scant time to. Swain, who selected Rashford for two under-16 matches in 2012, describes the youthful Rashford in glowing terms. “Pure technical – wonderful balance,” says the 65-year-old, a league and European Cup winner with Aston Villa. “He was always at one with the ball; he could roll it, stroke it about. The best talent I’ve seen have usually got that. People would talk about George Best in his day and he was such a wonderful mover on the ball. Marcus had that, h. He was very graceful, the way he moves.
“Things like power, strength, acceleration don’t come until a bit later. He’s acquired those now, he’s picked up tremendous pace, and is much stronger.”
Rashford would have featured more for Swain’s under-16s but United were careful to protect a lad who has been theirs since the age of seven. Swain says: “Marcus was a late developer. He was a talented boy, no doubt. I’d seen him play for Man United a couple of times, he came into the training camp and only played two Victory Shield games. He was way underdeveloped compared with others of his age.
“In terms of his limited appearances that was down to an understanding I had with the United coaches. His progress was carefully plotted and [the view was] exposure with England would’ve been too much at that stage. I understood that, so his chances were limited at under-16.”
Rashford’s 53 appearances under José Mourinho last season were the side’s most. The manager often uses him in a wide role, though his breakthrough came at centre-forward, his preferred position.
Goss witnessed how much Rashford, a captain of United’s under-19s, wanted to make it. “He’s always had a little something; he maybe wasn’t fully grown into his body then,” Goss says. “You could just tell there was still a lot to come but he definitely had that part where he could change the game in an instant. He works his nuts off in training and outside of it. He’s one of those who absolutely loves football. I’m sure he could train all day and would want to go home and play football. That’s the way it is – whether it’s five-a-side with his mates, skills in his living room, he’s got that passion.”
Goss still talks with Rashford regularly and says success has not affected a player for whom the bidding would start at £80m-plus. “He really is mature for his age, down to earth. Nothing’s changed him, which has really helped in some ways, because he’s not got ahead of himself and he’s always looking to improve. He knows who his friends are; he wouldn’t get sucked into any bad eggs – he keeps himself to himself. It is the maturity thing. He’s always hung around with people older than him, which has pushed him because he’s been competing against people who are older.”
Rashford’s 2015-16 campaign ended with eight goals in 18 United appearances, plus one in three for England. Last season’s 53 games yielded 11 goals, plus five more international caps, with Mourinho arguing that Rashford’s third term would prove a step-change in development and form.
So far the Portuguese is correct: in 15 matches the return is seven goals (plus one in four for England) and the 6ft 1in Rashford continues to impress with his game-breaking blend of directness, dribbling and pace.
Mourinho’s trust will again be illustrated by choosing Rashford to replace Romelu Lukaku should the Belgian be rested for Tuesday night’s visit of Benfica for the fourth Champions League Group A match. If so, Rashford will calmly expect he can turn in another scintillating display for his boyhood team.
Goss says: “It’s definitely a dream for him – he was at the academy from a young age. And he’s only going to get better as well. He’s not going to take his foot off the gas. He will always work hard. I do believe that he will get far better as a player. He has got that mental edge that can take you so far and whenever he’s playing he truly thinks: ‘Right, I’m better than you, I’m going to try my tricks.’ He thrives off the big occasions. He’ll want to do something special to get his team a goal or get his team a win, which with a player that age is massive.”
Rashford has always been focused on what can push him on. “Marcus, even though he lived in Manchester, moved out young,” Goss says. “He went into digs, did the same as all the other lads, training with the older age groups. As much as at the time you probably don’t like it, don’t think it’s the best for you, in the long run it will help.”
If Rashford’s nascent career has been glittering, his future could be whatever he wishes. As Goss adds: “He’ll never settle for not being the best.”
The Guardian Sport