Five incredible years: Marcus Rashford and an unforgettable Manchester United debut

Andy Mitten looks back at the night at Old Trafford in 2016 when a teenage attacker blasted his way into the headlines with two goals against FC Midtjylland in the Europa League

Five years ago today, February 25, Manchester United had problems. Injuries to 13 players meant Louis van Gaal’s squad was cut to the bone ahead of a must win last 32 Europa League first-leg match against Danes Midtjylland.

Must win because the Europa League and the FA Cup offered United’s two chances of a trophy in a season where fortunes had badly diminished.

Never in a title race and knocked out of the Champions League at the group stage after losing at Wolfsburg in the final game, United then lost three consecutive league games and speculation about Van Gaal’s future reached fever pitch.

The Dutchman never recovered his stock with fans who were frustrated at the dull, low scoring football which left United hovering around sixth place – only 49 league goals in 38 matches. Sunderland, in 17th, scored 48.

To compound matters, United lost the first leg 2-1 at Midtjylland, a defeat which left fans fuming – and not just because it was freezing or because the hosts charged £71 per match ticket to stand behind a net.

Even before the Danes’ winner, the 900 travelling fans sang ‘Oh what a night: “Freezing cold on a Thursday night ... and we’re playing...” You can guess the rest. The same fans weighed in with a song about how bad their team was to the tune of 'Viva Ronaldo'.

By February, it was United’s worst season in 26 years and Midtjylland came back to Old Trafford on February 25, 2016. United’s full-backs were Joe Riley and Guillermo Varela, both making only their second first team appearances. Michael Carrick had to play in central defence because of a late injury to Chris Smalling.

David de Gea was out, Wayne Rooney, too. Antonio Valencia had an injured foot, Ashley Young a groin issue. Marouanne Fellaini was out with a muscle problem, Bastian Schweinsteiger with a bad knee. Luke Shaw was recovering from a broken leg, while fringe players such as Adnan Januzaj, Matteo Darmian or Cameron Borthwick Jackson were also not fit, ditto Will Keane, a promising young striker.

And, sure as Manchester United are a football club and water is wet, Phil Jones was on the treatment table. Hence the inclusion of unknowns such as Riley and Varela and Regan Poole, while someone called Marcus Rashford, that few had heard of and who had started the season with the youth team, was even being considered.

In Manchester city centre, one of Rashford’s older brothers Dwaine received a text message from the young footballer to tell him that he was travelling with the first team.

Dwaine, who’d always been hugely supportive to his brother like the rest of his family, saw the opponents, knew the injuries and thought: ‘He’s got a chance here’. Rashford’s family had been getting indicators that he was doing really well in training from United’s coaches.

A measure of how rapid his progress had been was that at the start of the 2015-16 season, Rashford wasn’t even tipped to be in United’s second-string under-23 side. Indeed in September 2015, 17-year-old Marcus had been promoted to the under 19 team to play in the Youth League and was the stand out player in a 3-0 win against PSV in Eindhoven.

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Former United players such as Paddy Crerand and Ruud van Nistelrooy watched in admiration as Rashford scored twice. Van Nistelrooy had no idea that Rashford had been watching videos of him scoring goals in the six-yard area, something which had been causing the youngster frustration, to help him improve.

Rashford was also studying his opponents and then trying to score against them. He was doing so well that, with the injury crisis, he began to appear in Van Gaal’s options for strikers. With a chance of playing in the first team, his brothers wanted to be there.

Dwaine told his boss that he needed to go and watch his brother play football. He didn’t say his name or who for. The boss wasn’t a football fan and reluctantly let him go. He travelled to Old Trafford and met his other brother Dane. They entered the stadium, looked on the pitch to see Marcus with the other United substitutes warming up. He was not there.

Then came a tap on the shoulder from behind in the seats which United give to the players’ families.

“He’s starting,” said a stranger. Anthony Martial’s groin injury in the warm-up meant he would start.

The brothers were excited and Dwaine kept thinking: "Give him a clean shot on goal and he’ll score".

Rashford did not looked overawed. He cut in from the left after 15 minutes, forcing the first save of the game from Mikkel Andersen, but Midtjylland didn’t follow the script. The Danes scored with their first shot on goal, making the aggregate score 3-1 in their favour. The 58,609 crowd groaned. They’d had enough of Van Gaal.

At half-time it was 1-1 and United needed to score otherwise they were facing their biggest European humiliation since Russian side Rotor Volgograd eliminated them from the Uefa Cup in 1995.

Everything changed in the second half when Rashford, who was born 16 months before Midtjylland were formed in 1999, scored after 12 second-half minutes in front of the Stretford End. His debut first team goal came when he took advantage of awful defending to smash the ball into an empty net. Rashford dived into fans to celebrate – then spent a few minutes having a physio mop up a bleeding head wound. United were level in the tie.

After 75 minutes, Rashford ran on to a cross from Varela on the right and side-footed the ball for United’s third of the night. It was Roy of the Rovers stuff, two goals on your Manchester United debut in front of the Stretford End.

In the stands, his brothers went crazy. Mother Melanie couldn’t be there as she had to look after her nephews. The family had no indication that Marcus was even figuring until the afternoon of the game, none that he was starting until minutes before.

United now led 4-3 on aggregate before an Ander Herrera penalty and a strike from Memphis Depay, the game’s best player with Rashford, made it 5-1 and 6-3 on aggregate. The reward was a place in the last 16 and a draw against Liverpool.

“I wasn’t worried about him. I’m always confident for that,” claimed Van Gaal afterwards. “He was the best option.”

Rashford’s older brothers didn’t know what to do after the game or where to wait. The families of regular players had their routines. Many had private boxes and the players would make their way up to them or the families go down to the tunnel area to wait after the game. Rashford’s family knew none of this. So they went home.

“A dream debut, amazing feeling to score twice and contribute to the team,” tweeted Rashford. “Onto the next round.”

A few months later, this writer met Rashford in Beijing after a pre-season game and did a short interview. At the end, he answered some quick-fire questions:

Favourite food Chicken and rice, made by my mum. I’d eat it every day if she made it every day.

Favourite music R&B, plus hip hop. I like Drake, Chris Brown.

Favourite film Fast and Furious.

Best away fans The 3,000 Manchester United fans who go to almost every away game.

Team supported as a youngster Manchester United. I’m a Manchester lad.

Best subject at school Maths.

Worst subject Science.

What frightens you? Nothing.

Favourite sports star Cristiano Ronaldo.

Worst moment in football Being knocked out of the Europa League by Liverpool last season.

Best moment in football My Manchester United debut.

And how had he celebrated that debut when he got home? He’d gone straight to his room. He was happy but there was no celebration. He wanted more and was ready to go again. Besides, he had school in the morning.

Published: February 25, 2021 08:19 AM

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