“A Triumph Of Humanity”: Mr Marcus Rashford, By The People Who Know Him Best
Decorating the left side of Mr Marcus Rashford’s abdomen is a tattoo that offers a clue as to why the 23-year-old spends his downtime trying to change the world. It depicts the Manchester United forward as a young boy, standing over a ball in the front garden of his family home in Wythenshawe, south Manchester.
On the surface, the art is an ode to a kid whose dream of becoming a professional footballer has been realised, and then some, powering the attack of one of the game’s biggest clubs, scoring goals against pedigreed opposition in the Champions League and holding the status of England’s youngest ever player at a European Championships. But the symbolism runs much deeper than that.
For Mr Rashford, it is about remembering who he is and where he comes from, no matter the heights he scales. As early as his seventh birthday, he noticed things were tough for his family. His mother, Melanie, struggled to provide food for him and his brothers, despite working 14-hour shifts. The player, the person and the driving force behind a campaign to improve the lives of more than a million British schoolchildren this year would not exist without the breakfast clubs and free school meals he relied on growing up.
We have all heard how he used his considerable reach (he has a combined 13 million followers on Twitter and Instagram) to force the Conservative government into an embarrassing U-turn on their free school meals policy earlier this year. How Mr Rashford, who was awarded an MBE in October, secured a £400m support package for less privileged families, quite a feat for a sportsman whose fans prefer the players to do their talking on the pitch.
But what about the man himself? What motivates his continued tireless work with charities such as FareShare and, more recently, with the publisher Macmillan to help children experience the “escapism of reading”?
From the England football manager Mr Gareth Southgate to a mother from Moss Side, Manchester, we spoke to people who know him or have experienced his kindness to find out more about the personality behind the activism.
Mr Paul McGuinness, former Manchester United Academy coach, now national developer at the Football Association
The first thing I noticed about Marcus was his smooth movement. He was athletic and so in love with the ball. When he was 11 or 12, he came to train at the main ground, Carrington, and I started to learn more about the kid behind the talent.
He was always very polite and reserved, but a bright young boy. He was a joy to be around. Every Monday, we would mix the age groups – at 12, he’d be training with lads older than him, all the way up to 18, Paul Pogba and the like.
That is where we saw his personality. He was right in the middle among it all. He was quiet off the pitch, but his enthusiasm to improve spoke volumes. He was very conscientious, a real student of the game. When he was 16, we started to change him from a winger to a striker. He was hooked on getting it right and would text while watching Champions League games and say, “Did you see the striker make that diagonal run?”
Jim Ryan, the director of youth at [Manchester] United, used to say to the boys, “Right is might.” You have more power the more right you do in life, and that’s what Marcus has done. I’m pretty emotional thinking about how that polite kid has grown into a young man who is changing the lives of millions, who took on the government and hasn’t forgotten his own experiences.
I couldn’t be prouder of him. What he is doing is huge, but it is not surprising. He has always had a big heart and a really good support system. His mother has been a rock for him. She’s such a strong woman – straight thinking, straight talking and a great role model. You hear about success stories in football, but this is way bigger than that. It’s a triumph of humanity.
Ms Erica Roberts, mother of two boys, aged seven and nine, from Moss Side in Manchester
In March, I lost my job as a floor manager and I was in bits. The uncertainty of the pandemic was hard enough to try and work through as a single mum, but losing employment felt like I had lost all safety and foundations.
I had anxiety, fear and wondered how I was going to give my boys what they needed while also having to explain to them why their world had suddenly become so different. Food was my biggest headache, but I know I speak for so many parents when I say Marcus Rashford wiped the tears from my eyes and lifted the weight off my shoulders. He gave families like mine a voice and he has inspired my boys so much. They were already Manchester United mad, but now they don’t just want to grow up to be footballers, they want to be “a good, kind human like Rashford”.
Mr Gareth Southgate, England manager
This year has been his best year for goals scored, which is a significant lift for him as a forward player. And it’s even more important to note that because, of course, there’s so much attention on what he’s done off the field, quite rightly so.
His contribution to wider society in a number of areas has been hugely impressive. He’s a fabulous boy to work with. He’s a credit to his family, whom I’ve met, and I know they’ll be very proud of what he’s done. We hope that in a football sense, 2021 can be even more productive and exciting for him. But it will be hard to top what he’s done off the field in any of the years to come, although I’m sure he’ll keep at this. I’m hugely proud of him.
Ms Alison McGovern, shadow sports minister
What did Marcus Rashford do to make people listen? Well, it wasn’t just that he campaigned, it was the way he did it. He spoke of his own experience and said his family had been there, too. He campaigned not from a position of offering charity, but from a position of solidarity. This makes all the difference.
Footballers have a lot more cultural power than politicians do. When they choose to speak out, people are interested in what they have to say. But Marcus engaged with politics with an approach that many politicians fail on. He has looked to work with anyone who believes in the cause of ending child hunger. Even those who disagree with him get a polite and thoughtful response.
The policies Marcus has campaigned for have been worked through properly. Rashford is clearly an intelligent person on and off the pitch. That is why he has been able to get the government to change their mind.
As a Liverpool supporter, and like many others, I’ll be applauding him next time he comes to Anfield. He may play for one of our biggest rivals, but when it comes to ending child poverty, I am happy to be on his team.
Mr Jofra Archer, England cricketer, Manchester United fan and friend
He is very inspirational. It gives me butterflies to see him doing amazing work that’s touched so many lives and will continue to touch so many more. He’s only 23. Who knows what he’ll have achieved by the time he’s 30? I’m so excited to see what else is in store for him on the pitch and off it. He’s such a chilled guy. It’s so hard to remember he’s still so young. You’d never be able to tell [his age] from conversations with him.
Marcus got in touch with a mutual friend to ask me to follow him after the Cricket World Cup last year. We clicked in a big way when we worked at an event together and then we both got similar stress fractures. We kept in touch from there and he invited me to watch the Manchester derby with him in his box. He’s such a gifted footballer, but also a blessing as a person.
Mr Ian Byrne, co-founder of Fans Supporting Foodbanks
Marcus has used his platform as one of the finest footballers of his generation for supreme good, based on his personal experiences of having lived through poverty and needing school dinners.
And I think the authenticity and the clarity with which he spoke has created a powerful pressure group to force government into better policy. He will for ever be remembered for what he’s done. He has encouraged the public to get involved in fighting food poverty and we’ve seen more and more people who want to help Fans Supporting Foodbanks.
Marcus has put food poverty at the top of the agenda. There’s a massive structural imbalance in the country, which is why Fans Supporting Foodbanks and many other agencies will be pushing the right to food into legislation. If it succeeds, many of the policies that have contributed massively to child food poverty, including the five-week wait for Universal Credit, will be challenged.
I can’t speak highly enough of the man. I can’t speak highly enough of his campaign. I can’t speak highly enough of him as a footballer as well, to be honest. He’s just done a brilliant job all round.
Illustrations by Ms Oriana Fenwick
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