When we were all young, everything was theoretically possible, but even then you knew, for a variety of reasons, not least that you couldn’t really be bothered, that very little was in fact possible. Youth is entirely overrated, not least because for most it’s a time of crippling anxiety, no money and being sniffed at by those who have been around for a bit longer than you. A time when you’ve barely got anything figured out, don’t appreciate any physical gifts you might have and with the pressure of expectation but not the emotional maturity to deal with it. With that in mind the worst part, by far, by a distance, by a country mile, is that youth is a time when you’re frequently told that these are “the best days of your life”, that you should enjoy it and it’ll never be this good again. The truly terrible, awful, obnoxious people who say those things should, if all things were equal, never talk about anything ever again.
So, with apologies to Marcus Rashford, this column is about to become one of those truly terrible, awful, obnoxious people. Sort of.
This might not be the best time of Rashford’s life: hopefully it isn’t, and there are more years to come, more excellence from this exciting, hugely promising forward, the latest in an impressive group tentatively known as ‘Players That Play In Wayne Rooney’s Position But Are Too Good To Drop, So The Manager Has To Find Somewhere To Shoehorn The Old Boy In’. Hopefully Jose Mourinho doesn’t arrive, sign Zlatan Ibrahimovic and punt Rashford off on loan somewhere because he hates youth so much. Hopefully he’s not a Manc Federico Macheda.
However, no matter how successful Rashford turns out to be, what’s for certain is that this is the golden time. The time when most people think the best of him, where he exists in a bubble of promise. The time when he’s all potential and people either haven’t really spotted his weaknesses, haven’t really exploited them or are just choosing not to discuss them because, quite rightly, that’s a pretty joyless way to go about things.
There’s an optimism around young players, because essentially most people want them to succeed, unless they’ve done something as dastardly as switch clubs for better career prospects. They’re blank slates, 100% promise and optimism, and until they do something to disprove that promise and optimism they remain in that state.
Rashford represents a terrific, rather romantic story too – a local lad who came from basically nowhere, thrust into the first team out of necessity but scored goals immediately, and continued to do so. He channelled the dreams of any supporter and did so with a look of exuberance that seemed to say ‘I know, I can’t believe I’m here either.’ He’s only just old enough to buy a pint, for goodness sake.
The backlash will start at some point, though. It has already started, in a way. A football analytics man on Twitter last week came up with a theory that compared Rashford and Kelechi Iheanacho, crunched the numbers and came to the conclusion that only one had the makings of a star, and it ain’t the lad playing up top for United. This was all based on ‘expected goals’, which if you don’t know/understand you’ll have to go somewhere else for a full explanation, but it boils down to attempting to add some sort of objectivity to the assessment of quality in football. Analytics in football could well be very useful and by all accounts are for many clubs, but this does seem to be a rather joyless exercise when discussing an 18-year-old lad with nine appearances to his name.
This sort of thing will happen again next season, via the more ‘traditional’ route of someone watching Rashford play and declaring him to be no good, or if he punches someone on the pitch, or if he punches someone off the pitch. At the moment, nobody’s really sure if he’s good or not, but everyone thinks or hopes he might be.
And this is the beauty of the youngster and the prospect: like a child, they haven’t been loaded up with the negativity that inevitably comes with playing football for a while. They’re free of cynicism, and our reaction to them is similar, a sort of halfway house or limbo between emergence and assessment. It helps that Rashford has enjoyed a fine start to his career, but at this stage people are basically on his side, because he hasn’t been around for long enough to prove them wrong.
This is Rashford’s time of innocence, when everything he does is essentially a bonus and nobody is really looking for any negatives. Let’s enjoy that while it lasts.