Show me the child at seven and I will show you the man, the old wisdom says. But in football terms, you never know, not really, which kids are going to make it as players at that age and which are not. Still, looking back at his memories of Marcus Rashford, Dave Horrocks, his first football coach, does remember one thing about him very clearly.
Rashford had first come along to Horrocks’s community club, Fletcher Moss Rangers, as a scrawny five-year-old. From the beginning, Horrocks recalls, he was the kid who left absolutely every atom of energy out on the pitch. Whenever the coach gave him a lift home from training, Rashford would get in the back of the car and – unlike other livewire boys – immediately fall into a deep sleep. When the car pulled up outside his house, Rashford would then jump out, refreshed, pick up a ball, and start practising some more on the patch of grass outside.
Horrocks, who has seen thousands of kids pass through Fletcher Moss over 25 years – including other future England internationals Wes Brown and Danny Welbeck – knows a lot about that fine line between the couple of boys who go on to make it as Premier League millionaires, and those who fall along the way. Talent is not always the deciding factor, and when it comes to the vagaries of fortune, Horrocks quotes former England coach Howard Wilkinson: “I believe luck is where preparation meets opportunity.”
“With Marcus,” he says, “this is exactly the kind of luck he’s had throughout his career. He has been able to take his opportunities – he scored twice on his debut for Manchester Utd and within three minutes in his first match for England – because he’s always been preparing for them. It’s the same with the [charitable] work he is now doing. When the opportunity came he was absolutely ready for it.”
If fate played any part in the transformative campaigning success that the 23-year-old has achieved in the past year, you might point to the misfortune of Rashford being injured last January. He had suffered a double stress fracture in his back that left him unable to train for a couple of months. The intensive ritual and routine of football had been the defining constant in his life, and suddenly he was unmoored.
In a lengthy email exchange, between matches in his crowded Christmas schedule, Rashford explained to me how “the injury prevented me from doing pretty much anything, so I needed to set my mind on something that would turn a negative into a positive and help those who needed it most. I’ve always had a wish to give back to the community that got me to where I am today but the football schedule had never really allowed me to focus on what I wanted to do and how best to go about it.”
It was as if in that enforced pause, Rashford was reminded just how precarious his football life might be – and that seemed to bring all of the buried anxieties of his childhood to the surface. Throw in the pandemic and lockdown and you had the genesis of Rashford’s activism.
“Marcus’s reflex response to hearing news that schools were closing was ‘what are the kids going to eat?’” his representative and confidante Kelly Hogarth recalls. “‘If they’re not at school and breakfast clubs are closed, how are they going to get fed?’” In shorthand, this meant: what would lockdown have meant for me aged seven?
Rashford directed the energy he usually reserved for training into researching that question. In October 2019, he had set up a campaign to supply food boxes for young homeless people in Manchester, but had been frustrated by the limited reach of that effort. Now, he looked for something he could help with at scale and his enquiries kept leading him to the charity FareShare, which distributes meals to 11,000 voluntary and community groups.
When Rashford got in touch, initially to make a substantial donation, Lindsay Boswell, the CEO of FareShare, explained to him how the charity used food, collected at all stages of the supply chain from farm gate to supermarket, as glue for other organisations – knowing that a hot meal at a debt advice centre could bring more struggling families in reach of help, or a good lunch at a holiday football school guaranteed nutrition kids might otherwise lack. The more Rashford heard about this model the more it chimed with his childhood experiences.
“In some charities, a celebrity might be there just to give some oxygen to a campaign,” says Boswell. “In this instance, though, we were all hanging on to Marcus’s coattails trying to keep up with him.”
Boswell was driving down from Scotland having seen an elderly parent when Rashford convened his first regular “food taskforce” call. Sitting with his laptop on his knee, while his wife drove, Boswell watched the CEOs of the major supermarkets listen to Rashford’s call to arms and reply in turn from their Zoom windows, “Yeah, we’ll work together with you on this.”
The impact on FareShare’s pandemic operation was immediate. A £20m fundraising target was reached, and not only from corporate donors. “In previous years, the best we might get is £200,000 of donations from the general public,” Boswell says. “Within a week of Marcus’s involvement, we had half a million pounds, from people in 35 different countries. Pre-Marcus, we were delivering 930,000 meals every week. We’re now consistently exceeding 2 million meals – but sadly, we’re still not keeping up with demand.”
If the campaign began as a classic single-issue protest – no child should go hungry because of lockdown – other things worked in Rashford’s favour to give it impact. One was a government that instinctively provoked culture wars. In one of Matt Hancock’s first Covid briefings he singled out millionaire footballers – rather than, say, bonus-rich management consultants or hedge-fund gamblers – as needing to “take a pay cut and play their part”; in this he once again looked well off the pace.
Football is not only one of the genuinely meritocratic arenas in the country, but local players such as Rashford are taught through clubs’ academies that community responsibilities are indivisible from success. He had seen how friends in his academy teams didn’t make it. He has stayed close to many of them, and never forgotten the value of their teamwork. “My success is their success,” he suggested to me. “As with my community, each of those boys in my academy teams made me the player and man I am today, and I have never taken that for granted. We were on this journey together from six years old and they are still a part of mine.”
That team also includes his local community in Wythenshawe. Rashford needs no reminder that his stardom rested on a multitude of small sacrifices from people around him, the brother who took him to training, the coaches such as Dave Horrocks who gave him somewhere to go and play. His best friends remain the two neighbours with whom he went to school breakfast club. He has a tattoo on his midriff of the terrace house he grew up in on the edge of Northern Moor, once one of the largest council estates in Europe. “Acts of kindness there were common and sometimes unrecognised,” he says; he remembers Sam at his local chippy frequently slipping him a free bag of chips when he looked hungry. “It’s only at my age now that I realise those subtle acts were my community wrapping their arms around me and saying, ‘We have you and we will protect you.’ That’s really special.”
In particular, of course, he had not forgotten the sacrifices made by his mum. Melanie Maynard worked full-time as a cashier at a Ladbrokes betting shop and had two other jobs cleaning commercial premises after hours to try to keep a house for Marcus, his brothers, Dwaine and Dane, and sisters Chantelle and Claire. In his letter to the prime minister petitioning for free school meal provision to extend into the holidays, Rashford wrote: “My story to get here is all too familiar: my mum worked full-time, earning minimum wage to make sure we always had a good evening meal on the table. But it was not enough. The system was not built for families like mine to succeed, regardless of how hard my mum worked. As a family, we relied on breakfast clubs, free school meals… food banks and soup kitchens were not alien to us; I recall very clearly our visits to Northern Moor to collect our Christmas dinners every year.”
Rashford had come of age during the decade of austerity following the banking bailout. In the government narrative of those years, divisive rhetoric was a way to deflect from the reality of in-work food poverty. Chancellor George Osborne spoke of too many people “sleeping off a life on benefits”. Those persistent myths about “shirkers not workers” were collapsed in a few lines of Rashford’s letter.
He knew the story of families like his in the north-west, but he did not know just how far that story extended across the country. “I was blown away and shocked at the numbers suffering from hunger across the UK,” he tells me. “I understood my situation as a child and that of my mum and, in my mind, I hoped that there had been progress made so that no child had to feel like I did. I visited my old primary school a couple of months ago and it was clear that the problem and the numbers of those most in need had only increased and got worse – 4.2 million children were living in poverty even ahead of the pandemic.”
In the spring and summer, through FareShare, Rashford contacted and met many families who were having to rely on food handouts to survive, from Lancashire to Kent. Miranda Kaunang, the development manager at FareShare in the north-west set up some of these meetings. Kaunang lives in Old Trafford and has an allotment near the Manchester United stadium but had no idea who Rashford was to begin with. “I’m just not a football fan,” she says with a laugh. “Obviously, that’s changed for me now.”
At the beginning of the pandemic she was in the middle of a horrible crisis both of need and logistics. Communities had never been more desperate for FareShare’s provision, but many volunteers were shielding. To begin with, Rashford’s awareness campaign offered a bit of hope to those working 14-hour shifts to keep vulnerable people fed. “I’ve been a charity worker for over 30 years,” says Kaunang, who joined FareShare from Save the Children. “When Marcus first put his petition to the government in June, and Boris said they’re not going to do it. I just thought, ‘Here we go again.’ But then Marcus put a note out saying, ‘Let’s not give up.’ And I thought right, OK, if you’re doing that, I’m going to do that too.”
That spirit proved as infectious as any virus. If you want to cheer yourself up about the state of the nation in this bleakest of midwinters, have a look at the messages on Rashford’s Twitter feed. They come from schoolchildren who have raised a few pounds, community centres that have arranged for food drop-offs, councils that have stepped up provision, companies that have got on board.
And if you want to see an antidote to tribal division, look at how the food campaign has cut through the most entrenched of football hostilities. Liverpool supporters and Manchester City supporters have been proud to line up behind the Man Utd player’s campaign. When United visited Everton’s Goodison Park last month, fans put up the message: “Thank you for sticking up for our kids who needed a voice, here on Merseyside and across the country.”
Premier League coaches routinely tell players to keep their heads down when they are not on the pitch. In his earliest interviews Rashford appeared to have taken that instruction literally, with a boyish habit of studying the ground in front of him when he spoke. The more he has channelled that collective spirit in his social media, though, the more confidence he seems to have found in his own voice.
In the BBC documentary about his campaign he was, even so, keen to give his mum centre stage; he insisted that the new FareShare depot in the north-west be named in her honour not his. When he won his Sports Personality special award, he tweeted that Melanie was the real woman of the year. In one telling clip from the documentary he said it had never come naturally to him to open up: “The people who are closest to me obviously knew what me and the family were going through. There were times when there wasn’t any food there and you would just go to sleep. It should never be normal to feel how I felt. When you get to the position I’m in now, I feel like if they are in need, and they don’t have anyone fighting for them, I should be the one that does it really.”
It was hard to listen to that clip, which quickly went viral, without thinking it was storybook stuff. I was trying to remember what it reminded me of, and recalled that passage in The Catcher in the Rye:
“I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around – nobody big, I mean – except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff – I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be.”
It is no surprise that alongside his food campaign Rashford has launched an initiative with the publisher Macmillan to provide books for kids who have none. He is writing his own book for children who are facing similar adversities to those he faced. “Their immediate reaction might be to blame their parents,” Kelly Hogarth says. “I think Marcus wants to equip these children so that they can see the bigger picture.”
Rashford knows enough of Britain to understand that he can expect to be criticised for these efforts. The Daily Mail ran a predictable story about the properties he has bought as investments in Manchester (“campaigning football star has bought five luxury homes worth more than £2m”). As his work goes on he will have to be prepared to face Bono-style scrutiny over his tax arrangements (from Man Utd alone he is earning £10m a year). His reaction so far to any charges of hypocrisy has been a shrug – any criticism he gets is nothing to what he has heard yelled at him on any given Saturday.
Having twice been nutmegged by Rashford in the past year, Boris Johnson’s government is now urgently having to decide which team it is on. In the October parliamentary debate on the second extension of school meal provision, there appeared to be a concerted effort from the Tory backbenches to undermine Rashford. One MP, Brendan Clarke-Smith, called for “less celebrity virtue-signalling on Twitter”. Another, Ben Bradley, claimed that in his Mansfield constituency free school meal vouchers were “effectively” being used to fund “brothels and crack dens”. Bradley later said that his words, posted on Twitter and since deleted, were “totally taken out of context”.
Thinking about that comment in hindsight, Rashford diplomatically suggests to me that “I would just ask that [Bradley], along with others with a similar mindset, meets with families most in need to better understand daily struggle so that effective measures can be put in place to protect our most vulnerable children. Ultimately we all want the same thing so collaboration is important here.” In the evening after the motion to extend free school meal provision had been defeated, Rashford set about seeing exactly how much reach his campaign now had, retweeting reports from around the UK of cafes and local businesses responding to the MPs’ vote by making direct offers of free food to struggling families.
The next day the story of communities stepping up in opposition to government intransigence was leading the news. A week or so later, Johnson made a second humbling U-turn, offering a £400m holiday meal and activity programme to support low-income families in England until the end of 2021. In announcing the current lockdown, it was notable that the prime minister resisted reopening this debate, by announcing free school meal provision as a matter of course.
One of the things that Rashford has discovered in the past year is that food is always an emotive issue. He believes he can use that to make the priority and tone of the recovery from the current crisis very different from the last. On the morning of the government spending review in November, Rashford tweeted @RishiSunak about the £20 boost to universal credit, announced in March alongside the furlough scheme, that is due to end in April this year. “Children cannot be living to deadlines. We have to stabilise these households. 2.5 million will be unemployed in spring.”
By the calculations of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, if the government gets rid of the extra payments, half a million more people, including 200,000 children, will fall into food poverty. The Treasury might blanch at the £6bn annual cost of turning the temporary provision into a permanent increase as Rashford is demanding, but it is nervous too about the tide of public opinion, particularly in “red wall” northern seats, that the footballer can now harness. If “levelling up” is to mean anything, that opinion says, it has to start with food on family tables.
For Lindsay Boswell of FareShare, that could be the ultimate result of Rashford’s extraordinary campaign: “We might finally start to see the major political parties trying to outdo each other in articulating how rapidly they will end food poverty in the UK.”
After a long career hoping for just that kind of change, I wonder how that potential achievement makes him feel?
“It makes me look in the mirror and think: ‘OK, well, I’m 60. What the hell was I doing when I was Marcus’s age?’” he says. “Perhaps one lesson we all need to take from him is: we all need to up our game.”