In 2011, the Class of 92 finally had a rival. A Manchester United youth side, featuring the trio of Paul Pogba, Ravel Morrison and Jesse Lingard seemed destined to finally challenge Scholes, Beckham and Neville as Manchester United’s most storied youth side. The Class of 2011, as they might well have become known, was a promising side with Ryan Tunnicliffe, Michael Keane and his brother Will each adding depth. United might have gone to the effort of poaching Pogba from Le Havre, but Ravel Morrison was the bonafide star. The hype was intense. Morrison was arguably the most anticipated Manchester United starlet since Norman Whiteside or Ryan Giggs.
And it all came to… nothing.
Pogba and Morrison were given first team opportunities in 2011. Tunnicliffe’s father would net £10,000 in 2012 after a long-standing bet that his son would one day play for Manchester United. Yet none of these players made an impact at Old Trafford. There were whispers regarding Paul Pogba’s distribution and Ravel Morrison’s attitude problems. Morrison was in court regarding assault charges and threatening witnesses in a criminal case. Before long, Pogba had agreed to a move to Juventus and Morrison was sold to West Ham.
Fans grew despondent. Ryan Giggs was in his third decade at the club. Paul Scholes had come out of retirement but where was the future? Manchester United are a club built on youth prospects. Wilf Zaha struggled under David Moyes, and was loaned to Cardiff. Moyes promoted Adnan Januzaj, who then struggled under Louis Van Gaal, and was loaned to BVB Dortmund. The Dutchman did set about promoting youth, however. He may even have been accused of promoting too much youth. Jesse Lingard suffered a long term injury in Van Gaal’s first home game, while Paddy McNair and Tyler Blackett failed to make the grade.
By 2016, the fans were disheartened with every aspect of Van Gaal’s Manchester United, including the youth prospects. Drawn in the Europa League against FC Midtjylland, United suffered an injury crisis. Wayne Rooney and Anthony Martial were injured. Will Keane was nominated to start before also suffering an injury. At the last minute, the unknown Marcus Rashford was drafted in. In American Football, he would have been seen as a camp arm. He was never anybody’s first choice. It was real Roy of the Rovers stuff.
Perhaps Rashford should thank Ravel Morrison. He could even thank Paul Pogba. The fans had forgotten the romanticism of a Manchester United youth product making their debut and were not clamouring for Rashford. Unlike with Pogba and Morrison, there was no expectation. No reputation preceded him. It perhaps owed to the lethargy of Manchester United fans with their youth products in 2016 that nobody saw Marcus Rashford coming.
Rashford was an immediate hit. He scored twice against FC Midtjylland and then repeated the feat against Arsenal that weekend. A fortnight later the young attacker scored a game winning goal away to Manchester City.
Sir Alex Ferguson once described how a young Ryan Giggs “…just floated over the ground like a cocker spaniel chasing a piece of silver paper in the wind.” The same could have been said about Rashford. It didn’t hurt that he was from Manchester. It didn’t hurt that he left Demichelis for dead in the derby. He played without fear, merely for the love of the game and clearly relished putting one over on the noisy neighbours. It also didn’t hurt that he possessed a highly desirable skillset either. He was direct in a team that was otherwise ponderous. He added the spark that Van Gaal’s possession football so desperately lacked.
Granted an unlikely opportunity, Marcus Rashford grasped it tightly in a time when United supporters had almost forgotten the joy of home-grown talent. Rashford went to the 2016 European Championships with England and even managed to shine in a team that greatly underwhelmed. England’s early exit harmed some careers but not that of Marcus Rashford.
It should be acknowledged that Marcus Rashford has not produced the same level of terrifying brilliance for Manchester United since José Mourinho took the helm, but he is still only 21 years old with his greatest days still ahead.
The scenery has also changed at Old Trafford since Marcus Rashford debuted. Paul Pogba has returned and Jesse Lingard is now the scorer of an FA Cup winning goal. It took time for both Pogba and Lingard to shine at United and this should be the blueprint for United’s youth. The fact that Marcus Rashford displayed his outstanding pedigree from the beginning should not now be the stick used to beat him.
Prior to their debuts, fans had long heard of Pogba, Lingard and Morrison and it did not help their careers nor translate into immediate success. The supporters in Manchester have been dismayed in the past when youth prospects didn’t immediately flourish. Those same fans never had to wait for Marcus Rashford. He became that near-mythical overnight sensation.
So perhaps the Mancunian has now earned some patience from the fans. He does need to start burying chances like that in the final moments against Juventus. Marcus Rashford was the player Manchester United fans never saw coming. That immediate success was incredible, and supporters should now look forward to seeing him thrive for the Reds once more.