Within a couple of hours of Marcus Rashford completing his day job for Manchester United against Leeds United at Old Trafford, the wider public will be able to pay tribute to his humanitarian work when he receives a special award at the prestigious BBC Sports Personality of the Year show.
For his two very different worlds to converge so quickly is a fitting way to mark Rashford’s remarkable 2020. It is surely one of the most influential calendar years any British sportsman has experienced.
Still only 23, Rashford has become a figure of national importance. His campaign on child poverty during the pandemic reached the highest corridors of power in Government and ensured every youngster was fed.
Marcus Rashford will receive a special award at BBC Sports Personality of the Year on Sunday
Speaking from personal experience of his own hard times growing up, Rashford has ensured it is a tough subject that cannot be brushed away.
The young man from Wythenshawe has also been able to take the lead on important political and social issues without any dip in form or cost to his reputation as one of the most gifted players of his generation.
‘Sometimes you thought, “Will this affect his football?” because he is so young,’ said United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. ‘But he has taken on the responsibility and balanced it really well. It is exceptional.
‘You can see Marcus really cares about people who have had a difficult time or aren’t as privileged as others, or as he is now. As a footballer, he is also talented and grounded and driven enough to be a legend at this club.’
Rashford’s brace against Sheffield United last Thursday took his tally to 19 goals for club and country this year. It is impressive given he missed six months through injury and lockdown. He used that time off well, starting a campaign in June to extend free meals vouchers that has led to the Government pledging to spend £400million to support families in need throughout 2021. He was awarded an MBE in October for services to vulnerable children during Covid-19.
In a documentary Feeding Britain’s Children to be aired on Monday night, Rashford explains his own early struggles as motivation for helping. His mother Mel, who brought him up as a single parent, says: ‘Sometimes we didn’t even have a loaf of bread in the house. But I wouldn’t tell somebody I was struggling, it was embarrassing.’
He’s Manchester United’s star striker and also has done a lot of good with campaigning work
It was United who gave Rashford the opportunity for a new life. He started training at the club aged seven and was allowed to move into digs at 11, earlier than most children because of his home circumstances.
In an interview with the United podcast, he admits being left in tears as a young child because he was not able to get into training. ‘Without guys [at United] like Eamon Mulvey, Tony Whelan and Dave Bushell [United academy coaches], I’d never have managed to get through. It was impossible.
‘There were a few times when I would miss training because my mum had worked late and my brothers were working. My sisters both had babies and there was just no way of me getting there.
‘I remember missing training a few times and I just used to sit at home crying. I used to always stop before Mum came home. One time she came home early and caught me crying in the front room. That’s when I told her and she was the one who said to United, “We are going to need some form of help”.
‘They got drivers for me. They made it possible I could get to training. As a kid that was all that I wanted. At eight, nine years old.
United allowed Rashford to move into digs early. An injury crisis saw Louis van Gaal bring him into the first team aged 17. He scored twice on debut against FC Midtjylland and has not looked back. He only turned 23 in October and already has 79 goals in 230 appearances for United. He has also scored 11 times for England in 40 games.
Manchester United boss Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has been proud of his work on and off the field
But what started as a campaign after the Government insisted it would not provide food vouchers over the summer holidays for 1.3m children in England, quickly exploded. Last month, Prime Minister Boris Johnson made a point of speaking to Rashford directly after being persuaded to introduce a raft of new measures to help the poorest children.
It still says professional footballer on his passport and he is keen to talk about United’s prospects, particularly as they face old rivals Leeds for the first time in the league since 2004, having picked up five wins and a draw in their last six games and rising up the table fast.
‘I believe the team that we have now is capable of winning big trophies. The fact we have been knocked out of the Champions League obviously hurts but we can’t change it now. It’s happened and the only way to respond is winning the next game,’ he says. ‘I feel we are close but not quite there. We just need to make that final push to be a team that can fight for everything.
‘In the big games, we go toe-to-toe with anyone and know we can do it. We have confidence whether it’s Liverpool, City, PSG. Against the big teams we show we can give them a game. There is nothing bigger than winning the Premier League or the Champions League, that is what the dream is.’
Solskjaer was one of the first players to give his proceeds from a testimonial to a worthy cause
Solskjaer was one of the first players to give proceeds from his testimonial to a worthy cause. Seventy thousand packed Old Trafford in 2008, the year after he had retired, and the beneficiaries were school projects in Angola, part of the tie-up the players had with Unicef through United. Now he is the boss and a proud one at that when it comes to Rashford.
‘We saw the true Marcus Rashford as a human being ever since he was a kid. You get shaped by your family, your surroundings and the environment you work in. You see he really cares about people who have had a difficult time. He knows what they are going through.
‘He has a great personal team around him, his brother and other people, so it’s not Marcus doing everything himself [with the campaign]. He wants it to be organised by other people as well so he can balance the two most important things in his life.
Rashford explains his own struggles as the driving force behind his desire to do good work
‘When Unicef asked me to be an ambassador, I was happy to use my position as a role model. It is similar for Marcus now. He is the role model. He can affect and influence so many people.’
And Solskjaer feels the future is in safe hands with Rashford. ‘As a player, his statistics already show his contribution. In and around the dressing room as well, he is a Man United boy through and through. I am absolutely delighted with his contribution. He has the DNA.
‘Of course I try to look after him, try to protect him. You never know in a footballer’s career if you are lucky or unlucky with injuries. He had a back injury last year and it is mine and the staff’s job to make sure we protect him.
‘But everyone really respects him for what he’s done. Some clubs, the response we have had from them and Marcus has had from them has been unbelievable.’
From the Theatre of Dreams at Old Trafford to the BBC television studio in Salford to pay tribute to his work for children, this is going to be Rashford’s day and he is equally at home in both settings.