In his short life so far Marcus Rashford has already achieved too much to be defined by one kick of a football. In fact, he’s achieved too much to be defined by anything that happens on a football pitch.
At 23 Rashford is a national hero and missing a penalty in England’s European Championship final defeat by Italy won’t alter that. What he has achieved off the pitch in the past 18 months will have a far more meaningful impact on the lives of people in this country than success in Sunday’s final would have done.
But that won’t make the way Sunday night ended any more palatable for the Manchester United forward and the racist abuse that followed was as predictable as it was lamentable. Any attempt to explain that away as coming from overseas or from club rivalries ended the moment Rashford’s mural in Withington was defaced with racist graffiti in the hours after the final ended, but the response of Mancunians has showed the true face of this city.
As the goodwill messages were continuing to cover that mural on Monday night Rashford took to social media to post a searingly honest account of his own feelings, conveying the kind of emotional intelligence that has marked him out as someone United supporters are immensely proud of.
“I’ve had a difficult season, I think that’s been clear for everyone to see and I probably went into that final with a lack of confidence. I’ve always backed myself for a penalty but something didn’t feel quite right,” he said.
“During the long run-up I was saving myself a bit of time and unfortunately the result was not what I wanted. I felt as though I had let my team-mates down. I felt as if I’d let everyone down.
A penalty was all I’d been asked to contribute for the team. I can score penalties in my sleep so why not that one? It’s been playing in my head over and over since I struck the ball and there’s probably not a word to quite describe how it feels. Final. 55 years. One penalty. History. All I can say is sorry. I wish it had gone differently.”
Rashford’s ability to admit that on the back of a difficult campaign his confidence had taken a knock and that he didn’t feel as self-assured as normal over a penalty is the kind of character we’ve come to expect from him. It’s also the kind of character that might just make him a dangerous player next season.
The academy graduate has already been wrapped in the warm embrace of his club and city since Sunday night. He’ll now enjoy three weeks off before returning for pre-season. That break will be vital to rest and recuperate after a season that had been brutal physically before the mental toll that came with missing that penalty.
When he returns Rashford will be desperate to use a good season at United to try and erase as much of that memory as possible. In that, perhaps he can take inspiration from one of his heroes in David Beckham, who enjoyed the season of his life after his own England nightmare in the World Cup in France in 1998.
Beckham drove United towards the treble the season after he was sent-off against Argentina in the quarter-final for a rash kick out at Diego Simeone. He channelled his anger and frustration in the right way.
There are differences between the two. The 90s was a time when England’s villains were just that, especially if they also played for United. Beckham’s treatment was appalling and he was vilified at every away ground he went to. He needed the fierce dressing room spirit at Old Trafford to protect him.
It’s a more sizeable minority that has turned on Rashford. When grounds are full next season he will receive cheers rather than jeers. The narrative around the national team has changed and football supporters appreciate Rashford for what he has done. It’s the best of us, a working-class hero, and nowhere is that more relatable than on the terraces of football stadiums. From Newcastle to Southampton there will be admiration and respect, rather than recriminations, for Rashford.
But the hurt will still be there on a personal level. Rashford had the character to step forward and the character to admit to his vulnerabilities afterwards. He has the character and mental fortitude to have played 271 games for one of the biggest clubs in the world at 23, as well as winning 46 England caps. He also has the character and inner strength to take on the government – and win – over an issue close to his heart. If social media trolls think they can break him then they’ve not been paying attention.
Marcus Rashford is stronger than any of us. Don’t bet against him proving it on the pitch next season. United could benefit from that.