Marcus Rashford should stick to football – if only he could

Marcus Rashford should stick to football. And governments should concentrate on alleviating child hunger. Everybody, including the Manchester United forward, would prefer it that way.

It is a sign of a morally bankrupt nation that a 22-year-old sportsman is providing more hope and leadership than Britain’s most senior politicians.

Poverty is not an abstract concept for Rashford.

He has had first-hand experience of hardship, unlike many of his detractors. He was brought up in Wythenshawe and has stark memories of relying on food banks and soup kitchens. His single mother worked full-time for minimum wage.

Those from privileged backgrounds who make up much of the ruling political class often imagine that people require a helping hand because of a flaw in their character or simple laziness.

Rashford knows the opposite is true. In his open letter asking MPs to continue the school dinner voucher programme during the summer holidays, he got to the heart of the problem. “The system was not built for families like mine to succeed, regardless of how hard my mum worked,” he wrote. The lack of opportunity in communities like Wythenshawe leaves even the most industrious fighting for survival.

Sadiq Khan this week wrote in praise of Rashford and the London Mayor joked that, as a Liverpool fan, “it wasn’t easy being complementary” about a United player. Even before his intervention on behalf of hungry children, the Mancunian was easy to admire.

Public perceptions of top-class footballers are often unfair.

Traditionally, their intelligence is downplayed and their conspicuous consumption overstated. They are frequently caricatured as being self-centred and detached from reality. That description could be more readily applied to the government’s front bench than the majority of players.

I have met a significant number of politicians and footballers over the years. Rashford, given his youth when I spoke with him a couple of years ago, was as impressive as any of them.

The interview was set up by one of his sponsors. This sort of event can be onerous to players. They have to discuss things that would not normally be the subject of conversation with strangers. This one involved questions about personal grooming as well as football. They tend to be strictly policed by public relations representatives to ensure nothing controversial is mentioned.

Rashford conducted the conversation with shy charm, responding to inane queries about his image with self-depreciating humour.

Once the list of questions had been completed, he asked a couple of his own. He wanted to know about the great strikers I’d seen: what made them so clinical, why they were so great.

The best I could offer is that most of them struck the ball early. They shot before goalkeepers and defenders could get into position.

Rashford made eye contact, listened and gave the impression that he valued the opinion of someone almost three times his age whose peak playing experience came in the Kirkby League.

He probably forgot about the incident immediately. But he left an impression.

Like London’s mayor, I’m no United fan. Yet every time Rashford gets into a shooting position, I hope he scores. That was even before he became a leading advocate for disadvantaged children.

In many ways his intervention on social issues was no surprise. Just a fleeting hour of watching him engage with a number of strangers and having fun during shooting practice for the cameras showed he had no airs and graces. He treated those with whom he came into contact with consideration and respect, even though there must have been a multitude of other things he would have rather been doing.

Some players ooze arrogance – and that is frequently a positive attribute. Rashford radiated confidence but also humility. It is an impressive combination.

This translates to his game. Especially for England, he has performed roles that do not suit his natural style. He is prepared to subvert his talent for the good of the team.

Rashford has reached the top purely through his own ability. Neither inherited wealth nor nepotism contributed to his success.

His prosperity is self-generated. He is now rich but he will never forget those who are on the breadline. He has been there.

The ‘keep politics out of sport’ contingent miss a crucial point. Rashford should not need to worry that children are not getting enough to eat in a country as affluent as this one.

The Coronavirus emergency has made the situation worse but austerity was blighting lives long before Covid-19 disrupted the economy. It is an indictment of the entire system that the most significant voice against institutional poverty in 2020 is a 22-year-old footballer.

The thing that Rashford would like best is if he could stick to football. That an England striker needs to fight to ensure kids do not go hungry should cause the nation to howl in rage.

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