Imagine being Marcus Rashford. You’re just going about your business, playing football for Manchester United and England, being an everyday sporting superstar. Then you put out a Twitter thread suggesting that the country’s poorest children need to be supported better in the pandemic, and it’s the government’s responsibility to help them. And the tweets go viral. And the public agrees with you. And suddenly you’re no longer just a footballing hero, you’re a leader, a sage, Mahatma Rashford, Marcus Mandela, a footballing messiah. Just imagine being Marcus Rashford, a supremely successful footballer, a shy young man who has never really shared an opinion publicly before, and you’re now dictating government policy. How profoundly must it change you?
Ordinarily, after all, footballers are interviewed about football. And yet today we’re meeting to talk about child literacy, Rashford’s latest passion. He tells me he didn’t start reading properly till he was 17 (which, let’s remember, is only six years ago). Once he started, he couldn’t stop. He mentions his favourite book, Relentless by Tim Grover, the personal trainer who took some of the world’s greatest athletes, including Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan, and made them even better. Relentless is a self-help book about how to maximise your potential. Its subtitle is From Good To Great To Unstoppable. And unstoppable is what Rashford aims to be – not just in football, but in all walks of life.
Rashford has not read Relentless once or twice, but again and again. “Every time I read it, I analyse it and highlight things in a certain colour. Then the next time I read it, I’ll highlight things in a different colour, and I’ll compare what I learned that time with the previous time,” he says. Grover has helped him deal with what he calls the “hero one week, zero the next” nature of his job: “Balancing my mood and emotion. Never getting too high, so that the low feels even lower. Just keeping that consistency and that stability.” It’s not the fact that he has read this book, but the way he has that tells you something about Rashford; about his ambition, his dedication, and his relentless pursuit of the possible.
In January, Rashford was named the most valuable footballer in Europe (and effectively the world) with a transfer value of £150m, according to the research group CIES Football Observatory. Even Manchester United fans might disagree with the ranking, but not with the sense that he is on a relentless upward trajectory. Since making his debut with the club in 2016, he has played more than 260 games for them, 40 games for England and has scored 99 goals in the process. And that, of course, is not the half of it.
It’s 14 months since the Twitter thread that resulted in Rashford becoming even more notable for his work off the pitch than on it. He has gone from the back pages of newspapers to the front pages, twice forcing the government to reverse policy on free school meals for the country’s most disadvantaged children. He applied himself to campaigning against food poverty with the same discipline he does to football. In October 2020, he was awarded an MBE in recognition of his services to vulnerable children in the UK during the pandemic.
Now he is turning his attention to the estimated 383,000 children in the UK who have never owned a book. Rashford knows exactly how they feel: he was one of them. How times change; not only is he a reader these days, he is also a published author. You Are A Champion, written with football journalist Carl Anka, is a self-help book for children. Like Relentless, it is about overcoming demons and unlocking potential. The message is simple: if someone from my background can become one of the best footballers in the world, you can also follow, and hopefully fulfil, your dream. The book combines sound commonsense advice (work hard, listen, keep out of trouble, be kind, stretch yourself, believe) with stories from Rashford’s life by way of illustration. “That bit of self-belief can lead to us becoming much, much stronger people,” he says. “Sometimes you only need a little nudge to become something you could have never imagined. Hopefully this book will provide that push for a lot of young people.” He has also launched a book club along with publisher Macmillan Children’s Books, which will donate 50,000 fiction titles to 850 primary schools across England and Scotland through children’s food charity Magic Breakfast. The books will also be distributed to pupil referral units and special educational needs schools.
Rashford is Zooming from his home in Manchester. When we talk, he is just back from training, and lying on the sofa. He looks done in. “You OK? Sorry for being late,” he says in a sleepy Mancunian monotone. There’s something sweet and old-fashioned about him – not least his politeness. As soon as he starts talking about books, he springs to life. “Reading triggered something in me. I read a lot of books about mentality, because I wanted to play in Manchester United’s first team and I knew that to get there and to stay there I’d have to be mentally as tough as I can be. I learned about myself from books.”
I ask him what he thinks is the strength of You Are A Champion. “Everything I speak about is stuff that I’ve been through.” He’s right – it rings true because it is real. The same can be said about him. There is nothing fake about Rashford. He still sounds like the enthusiastic kid from the Wythenshawe estate never seen without a football.
As far as football goes, he says there is only one time he has ever been nervous: aged 14 playing for the England under-16s. Even then, it was only for the first half. After that, he promised himself he would never be betrayed by nerves again. Off the pitch, there was only one thing that regularly made him nervous as a child: being asked to read aloud to the class in primary school. He struggled, hated it, was embarrassed by his stilted delivery. For a while he became phobic about it. “I got caught in a loop where my fear of being embarrassed led to me being more embarrassed,” he writes in the book.
There is a lovely dedication at the beginning of You Are A Champion: “To every young person who is trying to find their way. To my mum, for helping me believe that dreams can come true.” Rashford’s mother, Mel, is at the heart of the book and his life. He is the youngest of five siblings, and, by the time he came on the scene, Melanie Rashford was a single mother. She worked every hour she could, holding down three jobs: as a cashier at Ladbrokes, returning there after her shift ended to start another as a cleaner, and washing pots at the weekends. And still it wasn’t enough. Mel was loving, self-sacrificing and often absent because she was working day and night.
Did she tell Rashford she was struggling? “No, you would have never known the situation we were in from her. At home everything was happy, but sometimes she wouldn’t eat. She’d still be sat there, smiling, as if she had eaten, and she’d cook dinner and there would only be enough for me and my brothers and sisters. She wouldn’t eat that night, but you wouldn’t be able to tell.” Because she was always out working, she could say she had eaten earlier.
His mother was heroic throughout, he says. “My values come from my household; the rules and the respect we had for each other. For my whole upbringing, she was the leader in that. Seeing someone living through difficult situations every single day, but waking up the next morning and giving it her best go again – nothing can really top that.”
While so many adults told him to dream small, or not dream at all, Rashford’s mother told him anything was possible. “When you’re a kid, a lot of the time you’re being told you can’t do something, and I always used to ask myself: why not? What makes me any different from people who have done it?” What kind of things did people say it would be impossible to do? “Play for United,” he says. But it must have been obvious to everybody how talented you were? That was irrelevant, he says: “In my area, there were so many unbelievably talented street footballers but we were always told, ‘Yeah, you’re good but you can’t make it in the Premier League or you can’t play for Manchester United, you can’t play for your country, it’s just not reachable.’” Why not? “The size of the club means that if they want a talented footballer, they can just buy one, so in my area it doesn’t really happen for kids like me.”
Over the years, Rashford’s two-word mantra simply got stronger. Whenever he heard no, he asked himself: why not? “I’d never turn it into an argument or anything, but I’d think, why not? In the back of my mind, it would be bugging me for days: why can this person do it, and why’s he saying that I can’t do it?”
Rashford joined the United academy at seven – young even for football. At 11, he went to live in digs provided by the club, when Mel reluctantly concluded that the club could meet his needs better than she could. He says it was only after he left home, and won sponsorship from Nike, that he began to understand how much the family struggled. “I didn’t need the money, so I just used to give it to Mum. I got a lump sum from Nike once a year and she would buy me something out of the money, and I’d be more than happy with that. Seeing her relax sometimes was the most important thing for me, because I’d only ever seen her rushing about. The situation back then had been way more difficult than I’d realised.”
Few players have had Rashford’s instant impact. In February 2016, at the age of 18, he scored two goals on his debut against Danish club Midtjylland in the Uefa Europa League, becoming the youngest Manchester United player to score in European competition. Three days later, he made his Premier League debut against Arsenal, scoring two and making the other goal in a 3-2 victory. On it went. In May 2016, he made his first appearance for the senior England team against Australia, becoming the youngest player to score for England on his debut, after just three minutes.
When Rashford started to campaign against child poverty, he returned to his old mantra: “Why not?” This clarity of vision stands out against the waffle of politicians; he points out what is wrong, and asks why it can’t be better. “The first time we had a conversation, there were two or three times I laughed, because he looked at things in such a simple way,” says his co-author Anka. “There is a kindness and good-naturedness to him that can make complex situations seem simple. He looks at things like a 10-year-old would – and I mean that in the nicest way. He simplifies stuff. He will look at the obstacles and see if he can tick them off so he can do the thing he wishes to do.”
It has made him an extraordinarily effective campaigner. On 19 March 2020, a day after it was announced that schools would be closing across the UK because of the pandemic, Rashford tweeted that many children relied on free schools meals, and that he was working with the charity FareShare to help fill the gap. “To anyone reading who can spare a few £s, you could make a big difference… And to the food industry, we know it’s a challenging time, but we ask you to please send any product you can… ”
The tone of the tweet was mature and considered. Rashford had obviously done his research, taken advice from his team (he is represented by Roc Nation, the global agency founded by rapper and self-made billionaire Jay-Z), and collaborated with the leading charity on the issue of food poverty.
In April, he announced that his partnership with FareShare had raised £20m. Two months later, he wrote to MPs asking them to reconsider their decision to cancel the food voucher scheme over the summer holidays. It was, he explained in his letter, personal. “The system was not built for families like mine to succeed, regardless of how hard my mum worked. As a family, we relied on breakfast clubs, free school meals, and the kind actions of neighbours and coaches. Food banks and soup kitchens were not alien to us.”
A day later, the government announced the implementation of the Covid summer food fund, ensuring around 1.3 million children in England would receive meal vouchers over the holidays. Did his success change him? Rashford was certainly elated, and put out the following tweet: “I don’t even know what to say. Just look at what we can do when we come together, THIS is England in 2020.” The tone was celebratory – but it was celebrating the power of the collective. Later that day, he issued a more Rashfordian statement – calm, down to earth, reminding everybody that this was just the start. “I stand proud today knowing that we have listened, and we have done what is right. There is still a long way to go but I am thankful to you all that we have given these families just one less thing to worry about tonight.”
In early October, it was announced that Rashford was to be awarded the MBE. Critics said he had been bought off by the government; five days later he launched a petition to end child food poverty and extend out-of-term free school meals to all children from a household on universal credit or the equivalent until Easter 2021. Within two weeks, more than a million people had signed it. The government refused to budge, and parliament rejected the motion to extend the provision of free school meals by 322 votes to 261.
When Rashford pointed out it was now half-term and that many children would be going hungry, the response was astonishing. From the smallest cafes to the biggest supermarkets there were offers of free meals and food to people in need. As Rashford retweeted the pledges, he gave a voice to the generosity of people all over the country, in stark contrast to the government.
By now Rashford was both the most celebrated and trolled footballer on social media. Almost a third of comments about him were negative. One said his mother “shouldn’t have five kids if you can’t afford to bring them up”, while another dismissed his crusade as “a few cheap words without having any responsibility for them by a rich privileged footballer”. Rashford said he expected personal attacks, that the rewards outweighed the risks, and continued the fight.
Eventually, and inevitably, there was another government U-turn. Rashford had just returned home from a match when he received the news. In the documentary Feeding Britain’s Children, he is filmed taking the call from Boris Johnson. He talks to the prime minister as he would to anybody: “Yeah man, yeah, yeah, yeah, go on can you just say that again please… yeah, that will be the perfect situation for me… Thank you on behalf of the families. They’ll really appreciate it. Speak to you soon.” Far from being in awe of Johnson, Rashford sees him as somebody who can help him do what needs to be done.
I ask Rashford if he regards himself as political. “No, not at all. I’m just a young person who was in a difficult situation and managed to find a way out, and now I’m in a position where I can help others.” Perhaps not being political has helped you, I say, because you’re not seen as having an agenda. “Yeah, maybe it has, because where I’m actually coming from is the exact place I’m trying to help. Everything I’ve spoken about is factual – things I’ve been through or that other people are going through.” Rashford is comfortable using social media to speak up about what he believes in. After the murder of George Floyd, he said: “At a time I’ve been asking people to come together, work together and be united, we appear to me more divided than ever. People are hurting and people need answers. Black lives matter. Black culture matters. Black communities matter. We matter.”
Mel Rashford brought up her children as practising Christians. I ask him if he is religious. “Yeah, definitely. My mum is very religious. It’s not that we practise it all the time, but sometimes the faith we have in God is shown by the people that we are. For me and my family, that’s definitely the case. If you could see our lives 15-20 years ago to where we are now, it’s impossible not to have faith in God and all he does for us.”
When I talk to Rashford about “campaigning” against child poverty, he says he doesn’t like the word. “This is something I was always passionate about, and when you’re passionate about something it never really stops, does it? That’s why I don’t call it a campaign, because I feel a campaign has a beginning and an end.” Is he surprised that so many people have listened to him? Again, he pushes back: “I was only spreading messages I heard from the families I spoke to. I want to get people to understand that something like this could be possible without my voice in it, if everybody worked together and just voiced what it is they’re going through.”
But the reality is that most people don’t have a voice, I say. “I understand that, but that’s one of the problems. Why do you need a platform to be listened to? Because, the way I look at it, my voice is exactly the same as any other voice in the country.”
Rashford may not consider himself political, but he is in the vanguard of a generation of outspoken footballers. Until recently top British footballers were wage slaves – albeit fantastically well-paid ones. They took their money, and rarely raised a voice against management or club owners, let alone government or poverty. But Rashford’s generation, with more players from minority backgrounds than ever, grew up in the years of Tory austerity and experienced the cuts first-hand. Many of them are determined to talk about poverty and racism, and in social media have the perfect platform to do so. Rashford, for example, has 4.4 million followers on Twitter, and 9.9 million on Instagram. This audience also makes him a super brand; the more Rashford effects change, the more marketable he becomes; the more marketable he becomes, the more he can effect change.
Last year, Rashford’s mother came across a note he had written at school about his ambitions, which he later tweeted. I read it out to him. “I hope my future is very bright in and out of school, especially in my career as a footballer. I want to have a different lifestyle and make my family and others proud of me.” What was the different lifestyle he wanted? “I didn’t often watch TV, but when I did, those people looked comfortable – they didn’t have any stress. They looked happy, and that’s what I deemed a different lifestyle. I wrote that when I was 10 or 11.”
He smiles. He has got a lovely smile – gentle, generous, bashful. “To be honest with you, I didn’t understand that football can change your life in that sense. Thankfully, it has managed to do that for me, and I’ve managed to give the younger people in my family – my nieces and nephews – different opportunities from the ones that I and my older brothers and sisters had. Hopefully it changes things for generations for my family. It’s important to do the right thing; to bring others with you along the way.”
Does Mel still work? “She no longer works at what she did. But she’ll never stop working, because it’s just inside her. She runs my fanclub. Because we were fans of United, she wants to give the fans as close an experience as they can get to me. There’s so much fanmail. If I was doing it on my own, I’d find it impossible. But she finds a way to schedule it and give as many of the fans as possible whatever they want.”
Even now, Rashford’s detractors say he should focus on his football and improve his goal-scoring record (his strike rate of roughly one in every three games is not great). But there is also plenty of support from within the game. United teammate Juan Mata recently said: “Some people say Marcus should stick to playing football but I disagree, because he can do both, as he is showing.” Last June, United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer said: “He has changed the lives of so many kids… which is more important than any game of football he will probably play.”
Rashford tells me his next task is learning Spanish and Italian – slowly, patiently, word by word. The better he can communicate with other players, the rationale goes, the better his football will be. “When I was growing up, learning a language wasn’t deemed important in school. There wasn’t that expectation on you. Football has given me the opportunity to travel to different countries, and you have certain countries you like and want to learn more about, and learning a language is definitely a part of that.”
Would he like to play abroad? “ I would never say no.” What would be his ideal club? “Other than United? I’m a big fan of Real Madrid and Barcelona, because they’ve always had great players and played attractive football.” He apologises for giving what he thinks is an obvious answer: “Everybody watches Real Madrid and Barcelona.”
There have been plenty of comments on social media saying he should go into politics, or proclaiming: “Rashford for PM!” “Yeah, but being PM is not something I’ve ever aspired to be,” he replies earnestly. “For me, it’s simply that I’m doing what I think is right to help people who need it. I just want to keep the ball moving and go in the right direction.” Rashford never seems interested in praise, just the end result. Take his attitude to his book: “For me, the power in a book was life-changing. So, hopefully, I can give people a little start into becoming successful adults.”
Is he surprised to find himself doing this? Absolutely, he says. “Everything is out of my comfort zone.” As a boy, he says, he wasn’t outspoken. So why is he doing it now? “I wouldn’t call it a responsibility, but if it’s something I can help with, I should at least try to make a change. This is only the beginning. I expect to push a lot further than where we are now.”
So what’s next? He mentions the youth centres he used to attend, and how many of them were axed under austerity measures. Last year, a YMCA report revealed that youth services in the UK had been cut by 70% in less than a decade, from £1.4bn in 2010-11 to just under £429m in 2018-19. If the government won’t provide community spaces for young people, he will do it himself, Rashford says with that same childlike refusal to see anything as impossible. “I want to build something similar to the youth centres I went to, so kids can learn to cope, learn to sing and play instruments, play sport, cook, do as many things as they might want to do.” He pauses. There’s nothing sleepy about him now. “I think you’ll see that everything I do fits together.”
‘Which United player would you live with?’: Button Lane pupils grill Rashford
‘Do you remember your teachers at Button Lane?’ Lucy, 11
Of course – they were brilliant. They always looked out for us and believed in us when we didn’t really have a lot. I still go back and see them now and again.
‘What hobbies do you enjoy?’ Zora, 11
Reading and walking my dogs. Nothing too adventurous, I’m afraid.
‘Who taught you your skills?’ Justin, 11
In the beginning I taught myself, practising for hours on the patch of grass outside the house. But I’d say I learned something different from everyone I spent time with as a child; even today, I’m still learning.
‘If you had to live with one Manchester United player, who would it be’ Libby, 11
None of them! I love them all, but I really enjoy my private time at home with my family and my childhood friends.
‘What is the best thing you have done?’ Austin, 10
I used my first paycheck to pay off my mum’s mortgage. Seeing her relief when she knew she didn’t need to work three jobs to make those monthly payments was amazing.
‘Who got you into football?’ Elouise, 11
My brothers. They played a lot, and I wanted to be around them all the time. I wasn’t good enough in their eyes to play outfield (I was tiny back then), so they shoved me in the net.
‘What inspired you to play football?’ Lilly-Belle, 11
I never knew football could be a job. I just loved the game and the feeling of togetherness it brought. That gave me the drive to succeed.
‘What is the biggest achievement in your career?’ Evie, 11
I haven’t achieved it yet.
• You Are A Champion: How To Be The Best You Can Be is published on 27 May by Macmillan Children’s Books at £9.99; to buy a copy for £4.49 at whsmith.co.uk, enter 60173775 in the promo code box (voucher valid from 24-27 May). WH Smith will gift a copy to a disadvantaged child for every book sold.