A version of this article was first published in June
Marcus Rashford has long had a habit of making himself heard. His mum, Melanie, has probably lost count of the number of times she would hear a crash as her young son put a ball through yet another window. Outside the family home, there would be the familiar rattle of Rashford spending hours chipping a ball into a bin. Even the Manchester United coaches who would swing by his house to pick him up for training usually found him knocking a ball on to a garage roof and trying to control it as it came down. He had to put a stop to that, though, after breaking one too many tiles in the process.
In recent days, though, Rashford has been making a different kind of noise. The sort that can filter all the way up to the top of the Government and force change. The sort that can improve lives. The sort that can mobilise a generation. The sort a 22-year-old footballer could easily have not bothered to make.
Earlier this summer, Boris Johnson bowed to public and political pressure by confirming he would extend free school meals over the summer holidays following a campaign by Rashford to ease the plight of the country’s most vulnerable children. Twenty four hours after the Prime Minister had said ‘No’ to a U-turn, Rashford merely redoubled his efforts to unpick Tory defences like he might Premier League back lines.
Already one of the nation’s best footballers, the United and England striker has risen to become one of its most influential voices; an inspiration on and off the pitch; a young, black man proud of his inner-city Manchester roots but not a system “designed to fail low-income families” as he so eloquently argued in his emotional open letter to MPs.
Rashford’s journey from shy, disadvantaged kid to world star and symbol of a new wave of political activism is a triumph in the face of adversity. The motives behind his fight against food poverty are indelibly linked to his own experiences growing up in Northern Moor and neighbouring Wythenshawe as one of five children to a loving mother who worked full-time on minimum wage.
Rashford’s talent for football was first spotted on the Mersey Bank playing fields with local club, Fletcher Moss Rangers, and brought him to the attention of United, whose academy he joined at eight. Few go on to make it to the top, and even fewer stay there, but for Rashford pressure was always relative. The pressure to perform, for example, doubtless paled next to the pressure of not knowing if he would have enough food for the day.
He recalls days when, as a family, they would plot how much money they had to spend at Poundworld that week and the luxury of buying seven yoghurts — one for each day. Melanie worked long hours but it was not enough. The family were reliant on food banks, soup kitchens, the generosity of neighbours who would feed Rashford on those occasions when there was not an evening meal on the table and, of course, free school meals. It came with a stigma that he recalls being unable to understand but “breakfast club” was a blessing because it offered a guarantee of porridge, eggs, toast and orange juice. Of his group of five closest friends, three would eat packed lunches and Rashford told The New York Times that he can remember asking one of them to “get his dad to put an extra biscuit in for me”.
Rashford was 11 when he was sent to live in digs with United, a year younger than usual, but the heartbreak of sending her son away at such a young age was offset for his mum by the knowledge that it came with catered accommodation, and a new school. Indeed, Melanie’s concerns extended beyond just feeding her children. One of Manchester’s toughest districts, Wythenshawe was and is no stranger to drugs, crime and gang culture and she was adamant they would not succumb to those pitfalls.
Those who know Rashford best were unsurprised by the way he handled his sudden ascent with United. The day after scoring twice on his debut against FC Midtjylland in February 2016 he was back at school, studying. Four years later, he is the club’s talisman, and a key figure in Gareth Southgate’s England team. Rashford shares the same drive and determination as his mother and, when he sets his mind to something, a stubborn refusal to give in. His elder brothers, Dane and Dwaine, with whom he is very close, talk about him going into a “focus bubble” before matches and there has been a similar, single-minded approach to his fight to alleviate child hunger.
Rashford had already been busy in the community through, among other things, his ‘In The Box’ campaign, which has provided food and supplies for Manchester’s homeless. But the Covid-19 crisis left Rashford and his family reflecting on how drastically the pandemic and lockdown would have affected their lives a decade or more ago, when they were encountering many of the same hardships facing deprived families now. It was from there that his partnership with FareShare, the food distribution charity, was born, since when he has helped to raise more than £20 million to feed three million vulnerable people every week - and shame the Government into coughing up a £120m summer food fund.
It is a long way from breaking all those windows and roof tiles.