A year ago this week, when an 18-year-old Marcus Rashford had started six straight Premier League games as Louis van Gaal’s Manchester United battled for a top-four place, it seemed that only the calendar had prevented him from being on the shortlist for the PFA Young Player of the Year. The voting had taken place back in February when Rashford was purely on Europa League duty, back when the Europa League was the ugly sister of the Premier League for United.
I can’t wait to see if Marcus Rashford is challenging for that award next season,’ wrote Jamie Redknapp that weekend. Well this season is here and not only is Rashford nowhere near the voting, but there was barely a dissenting voice after his omission. We could not even find a place for him when we knocked two years off the criteria.
A month ago, his manager said he had seen this coming: “I knew that it would be a very difficult season for him after the season of the surprise. The season without pressure, the season where nobody demands, that nobody knows him, he comes in and makes an impact, he feels free. He is just a kid that is enjoying his football.”
Everything was there – the positivity, the trickery, the dynamism on and off the ball – that made Rashford such a revelation in ‘the season of the surprise’. Anderlecht right-back Dennis Appiah might not have been surprised, but he was helpless as Rashford teased and twisted. His ball from the left led to Jesse Lingard hitting the post and his shot could only be parried to Henrikh Mkhitaryan as United made the breakthrough.
Every time the ball reached his feet, Rashford appeared to be two or three touches ahead, playing in that spellbinding place where instinct meets intelligence. He was far too tricky for Appiah and then far too quick for Ivan Obradovic, who picked up a yellow card not long after Rashford switched to the right.
And yet, this was not simply the performance of a precocious teenager; this was Rashford playing like a Mourinho winger, chasing back, covering his full-back, using his pace to protect as well as probe. It was telling that Anderlecht’s equaliser came from a cross delivered from the flank he had not long vacated, Mkhitaryan’s lazy leg doing no justice to Rashford’s earlier efforts.“I think the third season is going to be the good one again. The third season is one with more maturity,” continued Mourinho, and at that time it felt like a fanciful claim. His stock had fallen so far that national newspapers thought him a safe target for accusations that his obsession with bling was costing him his form.
One Belgian swallow does not make a summer but against Anderlecht there were signs that next April’s lists may well include the name of a young man from Wythenshawe with fire in his feet.