“I’m starving!” declares Marcus Rashford on arriving ravenous — and a half-hour late — for our lunch at The Gilbert Scott restaurant in the St Pancras Renaissance Hotel.
Rather than sitting in the grand neo-Gothic dining hall, we’re shuffled into a drab private room. Rashford is trying to keep a low profile. At 22 he is accustomed to being recognised as a multi-millionaire star striker for Manchester United, one of the glitziest football clubs on the planet. Yet even the fervour of crowds in the world’s favourite sport, he says, has been no match for “a different kind of spotlight, a different kind of attention” in recent weeks.
Rashford has emerged as one of the unlikely, unifying heroes of the pandemic in the UK. This summer, he launched a food poverty campaign so effective that it forced a policy U-turn from Boris Johnson, who, as per Rashford’s wishes, allocated £120m to pay for meals for impoverished children across the country. It was a stunning show of player power that Rashford repeatedly refers to as “mad”. Our lunch follows a morning spent filming a documentary across London to promote his campaign. In the afternoon, Rashford has a meeting with chief executives of major businesses to seek further support for his goals.
“It’s crazy to believe, like, how far it actually went,” he says. “At the beginning I had an idea and I just tweeted it.”
Young footballers are used to making headlines for different reasons, the tabloids gleefully chronicling their sex lives and chastising any personal excesses. Just this month, Rashford’s club teammate Mason Greenwood and Manchester City player Phil Foden apologised after being sent home while playing for the England national team in Iceland, after it emerged the pair had invited women back to the team hotel in contravention of quarantine rules.
Rashford’s example cuts against the stereotype of the feckless, testosterone-fuelled sportsman. Indeed, as our conversation unfolds, Rashford comes across as a young man with an old head. For now, he’s exalted alongside a generation of global athletes, such as Megan Rapinoe, Raheem Sterling and LeBron James, each advocating for social justice. But Rashford is wary of a political and media class ready to tear down sporting heroes for any perceived indiscretions. In recent days, rightwing commentators, critical of his campaigning motives, have begun targeting him on social media.
“I’ve seen people’s situations change very quickly,” he says in a gentle Mancunian accent, before reaching for a footballing analogy to explain the vagaries of life, sport and celebrity. “If you’re in good form, everything can be going your way. Then the next game, the ball will just not go in the net.”
Before all that, Rashford wants to eat. A waitress had warned me that he had pre-ordered. I express disappointment that despite going off menu, the choice is unimaginative. “Pasta?,” he says as we sit down at a white-linened table. “I need energy. Carbs. Seriously.” Yet, when I select grilled hake, he returns to the menu: “Wait, they do salmon?”
Rashford adds it as a starter, inspiring me to opt for tuna tartare as well. Bleary-eyed after snoozing during a long taxi ride, he also orders a Coke as a pick-me-up. No match for Rashford’s slender, muscular physique, I opt for a Diet Coke (even while imagining the disapproval of the FT’s more bibulous readers).
THE GILBERT SCOTT
St Pancras Renaissance Hotel, Euston Rd, London NW1 2AR
Tuna tartare, coriander, finger lime, chilli, sesame cracker £22
Cured salmon, crème fraîche, lemon, chive £10.50
Pasta special (off menu) £20
Brown butter poached hake, chicory, hollandaise £24
Nocellara del Belice olives £4.50
Bread basket £3.50
Still Water £4
Coke x 2 £7.50
Diet Coke £3.50
Service charge £14.93
Total (inc tax) £114.43
He appreciates, probably more than most Lunchers with the FT, the lavish meal we order. Rashford is the youngest of five siblings from a single-parent household in Wythenshawe, a working-class district in the south of Manchester. His mother Melanie worked in minimum-wage jobs but sometimes found it was not enough to feed the family. They occasionally visited local food banks and soup kitchens. At school, he relied on state-funded free breakfasts and lunches given to underprivileged kids. Better-off classmates helped to supplement those meals.
“I remember certain things from their packed lunches that I used to like,” he says of one childhood friend. “I don’t know why it sticks with me. It was always those little Milky Way yoghurts, I remember always asking
his parents to put in one extra one, so at lunchtime, I could steal one off him.”
Our starters arrive quickly. My tuna tartare is chewy rather than succulent. Rashford pushes chives to one side before neatly arranging thinly cut strips of cured salmon on his fork.
Rashford was six and already a prodigious goalscoring talent for a local team, when he was spotted by a Manchester United scout. His mother convinced the club to accept him on to its training programme aged 10, a year earlier than most children. She argued his nutritional needs were better served by boarding at the club’s lodgings for talented youngsters. He went on to become the latest academy graduate to don the club’s famous red shirt. At 18, he scored on his debut for the senior team and would become the youngest player to score on debut for the England national side.
An ever-present in United’s first team squad for the past four seasons, the coronavirus hiatus was, he says, the first time his mind shifted from football. “My head was all over the place. I needed to channel my brain to concentrate on, to try to achieve something.”
Reflecting on his tough upbringing, he wondered how many kids would go hungry with schools shut. Research suggested that 1.3m children qualified for free meals in England, a quarter of whom had not received any additional financial support during lockdown. “A massive amount of children,” he says. “It’s crazy.”
A tweet asking for further information about the problem led to a collaboration with FareShare, a charity with which he helped to raise £20m to distribute 3m meals a day to vulnerable people across the country.
Then, in June, he released an emotional open letter addressed to the government. “Political affiliations aside, can we not all agree that no child should be going to bed hungry?,” wrote Rashford. “Food poverty in England is a pandemic that could span generations if we don’t course correct now.”
Rashford reckons his back-story provided the moral standing required to gain wider public support. “When it’s someone that’s been through it, people connect straight away because they know that it’s genuine,” he says. After the footballer’s idea received bipartisan support from MPs, Johnson extended the free school meals programme across the summer break.
Suddenly at the head of a movement against child poverty, Rashford has new demands. These include extending free school meals across holiday periods and for any child whose household is on Universal Credit, a welfare scheme for those on low incomes, as well as expanding food voucher programmes for poor families. (In the days after our lunch, Rashford launched a “task force” with corporate leaders who pledge support for these measures. Downing Street said it will consider the proposals.)
How much will this cost the taxpayer? Rashford admits he doesn’t know, but says the price of inaction is incalculable. “The system is broken — and it needs to change. Otherwise, it’s just a cycle. And you repeat the cycle.”
Starters dispatched, the mains follow quickly. Rashford sprinkles cheese on to conchiglioni pasta shells soaked in a creamy tomato sauce. My hake, poached in butter, lies on an artery-clogging lake of hollandaise. Rashford, with fewer qualms about piling on the calories, orders a second coke.
Is all this activism quixotic? The message needs to convert politicians and commentators who often express solidarity with the needy, yet depict many on welfare as spongers. I point out that, two years before Rashford was born, the prime minister, then a newspaper columnist, wrote in The Spectator that single mothers were producing a generation of “ill-raised, ignorant, aggressive and illegitimate children”.
Rashford is forgiving. “[Johnson] didn’t have to change his mind [on free school meals],” he says. “And he did. I was on the phone to him and I just thanked him. It takes a lot for someone to openly say, ‘OK, I was wrong about that and we’re gonna change and do the right thing’ . . . whatever he said before, [the U-turn is what] mattered most”.
Not all politicians are given a similar pass, though. When matches were suspended in March, Premier League players resisted their clubs’ demand to take a 30 per cent cut to a salary bill worth a vast £2.9bn in total a year.
Julian Knight, chair of parliament’s digital, culture, media and sport committee, decried the sport’s “moral vacuum”. (Before entering politics, Knight was a personal finance journalist who wrote a book offering tips on tax avoidance.) UK health secretary Matt Hancock, while fielding questions on the government’s handling of the pandemic, argued that footballers should “take a pay cut and play their part”.
The squabble dissipated when Premier League players agreed a large donation to the NHS, a move that also ensured that billionaire club owners did not benefit. Rashford insists the players did not need the public pressure to make a financial sacrifice. Given the circumstances, he says, “we would have done that anyway”. Still, the argument has left an aftertaste.
“Opening a conversation about player wages during a period like that, when you should be focusing on things like mental health,” he says with a shake of the head. “I think football is just an easy target. It’s an easy talking point. It’s a media attraction.”
Rashford acknowledges a cameo role in the football’s latest tabloid circus. In the week before our lunch, he was on holiday on the Greek island of Mykonos and pictured at a party with fellow Manchester United player Harry Maguire.
Days later, Maguire and two friends were involved in an altercation with plain-clothed police. At a quickly convened trial, the footballer was given a suspended prison sentence after being found guilty of aggravated assault, resisting arrest and attempted bribery. Maguire has appealed against the ruling, arguing he thought he was being kidnapped by the men before realising they were officers.
My attempt to draw an opinion on Maguire’s conduct draws a blank, but Rashford says wild speculation around the case only reflects an unhealthy fascination with his trade. “I’ve seen stories like I was there [during Maguire’s arrest]” he says. “It’s just crazy. That I had seen what happened . . . I was in bed! I just don’t understand how so many people can have such big opinions on it when we don’t know the story.”
Rashford, who as a boy watched matches at United’s famous Old Trafford stadium, represents a rare link to the club’s local community. The 142-year-old institution, acquired by the US billionaire Glazer family in 2005, is typical of the League in that its team is largely made up of foreign players.
His bond with the fans has not exempted Rashford from criticism of the side’s decline since legendary former manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, retired in 2013 after winning 38 major trophies in a glorious 26-year tenure. Since then, the club has not come close to winning the Premier League.
Rashford says the extended season, in which matches were played without spectators, left the players exhausted. “I know it sounds stupid but with no fans, not having them behind you, it’s so difficult to keep on going,” he says. “It shows us not to take the fans for granted. We all just want them back.”
Not that he tries to take too much notice of supporters, either. Having gathered 8.7m followers on Instagram and 3.3m on Twitter, Rashford tries not to read responses to his feed after matches. “Social media is just good comment, bad comment, good comment, bad comment,” he says. “Your head will be all over the place. It’s easier not to read it all . . . ”
Rashford knows too well how passion for the beautiful game spills into ugly abuse. Alongside other Premier League players last season, he has knelt before matches in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. That move came after incidents of players reporting racial abuse from supporters at Premier League games, and black England players subjected to monkey taunts in games in Bulgaria and Montenegro.
Rashford is exasperated, but admits to having few practical answers. “Everybody speaks about [racism in the game],” he says. “And then it won’t happen for a little bit. And then it will happen again. People need to do something to make it stop.”
I’ve torn through my hake, but Rashford remains only halfway through his dish. Having spent so long discussing the more troubled aspects of the sport, I ask Rashford to reminisce on its glories, his greatest matches, his most illustrious opponents.
Brought up on the rough-and-tumble streets of south Manchester, Rashford says he was always “watching” others in an effort to stay out of trouble. This instinct is an asset in football too, he says. Take, for example, FC Barcelona’s Lionel Messi, arguably the world’s best player, who spends the first few minutes of a match doing little more than prowling around the opposition defence to identify their weaknesses.
“The way [Messi] finds spaces, he’s unbelievable,” Rashford says. “When I played against him for the first time, that’s what I said to Jesse [Lingard, a teammate] at half time. He doesn’t move, but he’s everywhere, because he lets everybody else move.”
Winning the FA Cup in 2016, the first senior trophy Rashford won with the club, is his best memory in a short career. I tell him my favourite moment came last year, when he stepped up to take a penalty in the last minute of a vital European match against Paris Saint-Germain. A thin smile widens as he recalls the scene. A floodlit stadium at night. One kick to win the game. Smashing the ball into the top corner. These are the occasions why he still loves the game “100 per cent”.
“When I speak about taking responsibility, that was probably one of the first times where . . . I did not just let moments go by. When the opportunity came, my teammates trusted me.”
There’s a knock on the door; our time is up. “OK, OK,” says Rashford, scooping up the last of his pasta and waving an apologetic goodbye. Having become one of his team’s leaders, he leaves to take charge of bigger matters off the pitch.
Murad Ahmed is the FT’s sports editor
Follow @FTLifeArts on Twitter to find out about our latest stories first
Highlights from FT Weekend
Will the UK’s love for the NHS survive the pandemic?
The service is enjoying a newly enhanced status but its structural flaws have been brutally exposed by coronavirus
The future of the university in the age of Covid
As students start a term like no other, higher education is being reinvented for the post-pandemic world