Feeding a couple of million hungry kids only buys you so much time when people decide you turned your back on a half-chance against Aston Villa. Football has a shorter memory than ever for good things, as Marcus Rashford discovered last week.
Praise turns to indifference, and then resentment, and then hostility, and then abuse, before you have time to blink.
It is not that the work Rashford did during lockdown, pressing a reluctant government to extend the provision of free meals and activities to low-income families during school holidays, should earn him special treatment on the pitch.
The treatment given to Marcus Rashford may be one of Manchester United’s biggest errors
Rashford’s work during lockdown shouldn’t earn him special treatment but he doesn’t deserve to be treated in this manner
Gareth Southgate was right to leave him out of the England squad he named on Thursday. Rashford’s form does not merit a place.
But to witness the opprobrium that has been leveled at him off the pitch in recent weeks and to see it crystallized in a jerky, grainy, ill-lit piece of video footage taken soon after Manchester United’s Champions League defeat by Atletico Madrid last Tuesday, was still an object lesson in how swiftly even the best young players can be thrown to the wolves.
Perhaps you have seen it. Rashford played the last 23 minutes of United’s dismal second-leg loss to Diego Simeone’s side and, an hour or so after the final whistle, emerged from the stadium to walk the short distance to his car.
A crowd had gathered to see the players, ask for selfies, shout insults, all the usual stuff. Rashford was not spared the lash.
For a little while, Rashford ignored what was being shouted at him and then something was said that made him stop abruptly and turn towards his tormentor. It was obvious he was angry. It was obvious something had been said that upset him. He started to walk towards whoever made the comment before security guards persuaded him to turn away.
The fan who abused Rashford should have apologised, not the other way around
Rashford is the kind of player that United should be nurturing instead of marginalizing
It was soon after that that the camera captured him gesturing at one of the fans. He raised his hand and appeared to raise a finger in his direction, to beckon him towards him.
‘Come over and say it to my face?’ Rashford said. And in that moment, even though what he did was close to nothing, the ‘fan’ who had baited him had won. He got the reaction he crave.
This is what happens to players on social media, too. They are baited and baited and sometimes they bite. And when they bite, when they perhaps respond in kind, there is outrage. And then the people who have abused them and insulted them demand an apology and bask in the limelight of their pathetic and empty achievement.
So, guess what, Rashford is not a saint. He was defrocked by a moron calling him names. He issued an apology on social media but, as Ian Wright and others have said subsequently, he didn’t need to. The fan who abused him should have apologized instead. He is the one who should have the spotlight trained on him. Not Rashford. We’ve got it all the wrong way round.
‘For weeks,’ Rashford wrote, ‘I’ve been heckled, threatened, questioned and last night my emotion got the better of me. I’m a human being. Reading and hearing that stuff about yourself every day, it wears you down. I had been heckled from the minute I stepped foot outside the ground, abused not just aimed at my football.
‘People were looking for a reaction from me. Phones were at the ready. Of course I should have walked straight past and ignored it, that’s what we’re supposed to do, right? I’m not entitled. This isn’t ego. I’m upset. I’m disappointed. And in that moment it was silly but I was being human.’
The Man United forward posted a passionate statement to social media after his actions
Ralf Rangnick is the latest manager Rashford has played under during a period of upheaval
What is so dispiriting is that Rashford should be subjected to this kind of treatment in the first place. He was a national hero not so long ago, held up as the best of us for the work he was doing for the under-privileged, hailed as the face of compassion.
A run of bad form might, quite rightly, affect whether he gets picked for club and country but he says a lot about us that he should also open him up to abuse.
There has been a concurrent loss of memory about quite what a precious talent Rashford is, too. Yes, some of the criticism of his performance on the pitch is warranted.
He is out of form. He has not been playing like the man who burst into the United first team from the academy ranks. He has looked desperately short of confidence. His body language speaks of uncertainty and doubt.
But the haste with which he is being written off as a footballer, as well as a man, is startling.
He is still only 24 years old and he has already scored 93 goals for United and made 297 appearances. He was the youngest player at Euro 2016, the youngest scorer in a Manchester derby, the third youngest United player to score 50 Premier League goals, all while battling shoulder, back and foot injuries.
Only Norman Whiteside, George Best and Ryan Giggs reached 250 games for United at a younger age than him. Decent company, I’m sure you would agree, and there are plenty more records like that.
Rashford is a jewel of a player who is going through a lean spell. It happens to the best of them but he has already done more than enough to prove his enduring class.
The United forward is a jewel of a player who is currently going through a lean spell
It is worth remembering, too, that his Old Trafford career has coincided with uninterrupted upheaval at the club. It is not as if he has been playing for a side sweeping all before them as United did for much of the previous two decades before his emergence. His entire career has been spent in the years of post-Ferguson decline.
He has played for Louis van Gaal, Jose Mourinho, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, Michael Carrick and Ralf Rangnick.
He has also been a victim of United’s obsession with trying to camouflage their shortcomings by signing veteran superstar strikers to buy off crowd discontent. His progress has been hindered by managers indulging the waning talents of forwards like Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Cristiano Ronaldo and Edinson Cavani.
It is little wonder, amid the abuse, the uncertainty, the lack of direction at Old Trafford and his loss of form, that there have been suggestions Rashford is considering a future away from the club and that Barcelona and Liverpool have both expressed interest.
Gary Neville observed recently that it would be ‘a failure for United’s football department’ if Rashford leaves and he was right.
Rashford is exactly the kind of star forward that United should be nurturing and promoting, a brilliant player heading towards his prime, a local lad who has risen through the club’s ranks, an England star, a 21st-century role model.
Instead of that, they’re marginalizing him. Even in the context of the myriad mistakes they have made in the last decade, losing Rashford would be one of the biggest.
Glazers might have a better chance with cricket
Avram Glazer went to Dubai last week. He met with Sheikh Mansoor bin Mohammed Al Maktoum, the chairman of the Dubai Sports Council, and Sheikh Mansoor said they discussed the formation of Manchester United cricket club.
It seemed like an absurd idea, the absolute opposite of what one of the owners of United should be doing in the wake of their Champions League defeat by Atletico Madrid. Then the logic of the idea of having a successful cricket team kicked in. Because the way Glazer and his family are running the place, it’s going to be a long time before they win anything at football.
Avram Glazer (centre) discussed the formation of Manchester United cricket club
Journey With Me provided Cheltenham highlight
Rachael Blackmore became the first female rider to win the Cheltenham Gold Cup on Friday but she inadvertently gave me my highlight of the Festival a couple of days earlier.
I was standing near the final hurdle of the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle on Wednesday afternoon, blinking back the pouring rain, when her mount, Journey with Me, crashed to the turf as he disputed the lead. The horse stayed down and officials rushed on and erected screens around him.
I assumed the worst and began to walk away. Then I looked back and saw that they were taking the screens down. Journey with Me was back on his feet, a little winded perhaps, but apart from that, none the worse for wear.
There was a huge cheer from the crowd, as if they had witnessed a miracle. Winning and losing didn’t seem quite as important after that.
Rachael Blackmore’s Journey With Me crashed to the turf but was subsequently okay