Marcus Rashford's quiet brand of leadership shows sport and politics can and should mix

Manchester United star's hat-trick in a cameo against RB Leipzig was matched by his efforts off the pitch to make sure children in the UK do not go hungry

Three goals. Sixteen minutes. 1.03 million signatures. The tweet that Marcus Rashford posted on Wednesday night encapsulated the explosive impact he is having on and off the pitch.

A hat-trick against RB Leipzig made him only the second Manchester United substitute to get at least three goals – the first, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, who struck four against Nottingham Forest in 1999, was the man who sent him on to wreak havoc – and the only one to do so in Europe. He inflicted the heaviest defeat, at 5-0, of the managerial wunderkind Julian Nagelsmann's career.

And yet even a display of ruthlessness was married with an example of altruism. After scoring twice, Rashford was willing to cost himself a first United treble as he allowed Anthony Martial to take a late penalty. The Frenchman’s only goal this season had been an inadvertent one, accidentally finding the net for Paris Saint-Germain. He needed the goal more.

Rashford has demonstrated his ability to recognise what people need. A product of a loving but financially poor family, he grew up getting free school meals. He launched a campaign to get children free school meals during the coronavirus pandemic. It succeeded in the summer and earned him an MBE yet if the honour was intended to stop or silence him, it did not.

Rashford renewed his efforts to extend the scheme; a vote in the House of Commons for free school meals for children from poorer backgrounds during the October and February half-terms and the Christmas holidays was defeated in the House of Commons. Yet Rashford has rallied the country, getting 1 million signatures on a petition to support his case, leading a campaign where big and local businesses, councils and fellow footballers have pledged to provide them. An interactive map of England, showing places where free school meals are provided, is a mass of flags.

In April, the Secretary of State for Health, the hapless Matt Hancock, said Premier League footballers should "play their part" in a pandemic. Rashford has played his, in the process highlighting the ineptitude and moral failings of a government that has somehow contrived to make it policy that they are in favour of child poverty. Rashford has done so with more dignity than many of the Conservative MPs who voted against his proposal. He has brought the best from the British people, rising above party politics, appealing to their decency and their essential sense of right and wrong. He could be voted Sports Personality of the Year, more for his charitable efforts; he feels the most popular figure in the country and, were crowds allowed, it feels possible he would be applauded at normally hostile venues like Elland Road and Anfield.

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But while it is a cliché that sport and politics should not mix, Rashford is an argument of why they should and can. These are early days but he is the Champions League's top scorer, and his goals have come against last season's runners-up and semi-finalists. His winner against Paris Saint-Germain was actually more important than the treble against Leipzig. A common denominator, though, is the ferocity and accuracy of his finishing, which prompted Paul Scholes to compare him to Ruud van Nistelrooy. Leipzig may have played into Rashford's hands by affording a player of his pace room to run into, but they felt as powerless to halt him as the average Conservative MP.

His is a quiet brand of leadership but it is effective. United's response since the 6-1 thrashing by Tottenham has been admirable. Rashford has been a catalyst in a remarkable revival. They were dominant but level at Newcastle United until Rashford released Bruno Fernandes to put them ahead. He scored their fourth himself. They were level, headed for a laudable strike, in Paris until Rashford drilled them into the lead. Then came his cameo against Leipzig; he was the definition of an impact substitute.

He has kicked on again. Last season brought a career-best total of 22 goals. This promises more as Rashford grows more clinical. He represents one of Solskjaer’s success stories, the young Mancunian who understands United’s ethos and the local people. He got the City of Manchester Award this week. The prizes will keep coming; even some, perhaps, for his prowess as a world-class footballer.

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