Marcus Rashford’s complicated England relationship could be at turning point

Gareth Southgate admits the Man Utd forward isn’t the easiest person to read but a breakthrough may be coming

Richard Jolly
Senior Football Correspondent
Monday 19 June 2023 07:35 BST
Marcus Rashford’s England history is complicated
Marcus Rashford’s England history is complicated (Action Images via REUTERS)

David Beckham did it but Bobby Charlton never did. Wayne Rooney did but Bryan Robson didn’t. Marcus Rashford, along with Harry Maguire and Luke Shaw, is likely to join a select group of Manchester United players, those who have represented England at Old Trafford. Face North Macedonia on Monday and for Rashford, like Gary Neville before him, it could be a still more special occasion, for a Mancunian and a United fan.

It feels a fitting place for Rashford’s season of renaissance to end. His revival gathered pace at the World Cup when, after going 16 months without representing England, he scored 49 seconds after coming on against Iran and scored three goals in only 137 minutes. Twenty of his career-best total of 30 club goals came at Old Trafford. England’s first game on his home turf for 16 years feels well-timed for the recent recipient of United’s Sir Matt Busby award as their player of the year.

And yet Rashford’s relationship with his country feels more complicated. He has an unwanted reputation for pulling out of squads for friendlies and went on holiday to New York in March when injured; Gareth Southgate had no problem with that and does not question his commitment. “He does love playing for England, he’s very proud to play for England and I’m sure an England game at Old Trafford will be a special moment for him,” he said.

As Southgate noted, Rashford had reported for an England camp before Euro 2020 when injured, as Jude Bellingham has now. His own history with Rashford is a long one. It dates back seven years. Rashford’s sole hat-trick in his country’s colours was for Southgate, but in his old job. After his meteoric rise, the teenager had gone to Euro 2016. When Sam Allardyce named what proved his only England squad, Rashford was a notable omission. He instead dropped down to the Under-21s, then managed by Southgate, and scored a hat-trick in a 6-1 thrashing of Norway in Colchester.

“I’ve had him since he was in the Under 21s really,” Southgate said. “He had been up with Roy [Hodgson] and then had one game back with us. We’ve always had good communication. I know him as well as anybody is going to know him. He’s not always easy to read.” It was a quietly revealing comment: Rashford is not an open book.

Marcus Rashford and Gareth Southgate have a long history (PA Wire)

Nor is his England career a straightforward tale. He has spent a spell out of Southgate’s squad, a time as a substitute. Raheem Sterling and Harry Kane long felt the two automatic choices for spots in his forward line. Rashford has only actually featured 14 times since the start of 2020 and 10 of those were as a substitute. Injuries are a factor, and not merely those that necessitated his absence: Rashford was at Euro 2020 but below full fitness, his tournament reaching an unfortunate ending when Southgate brought him on as an auxiliary right-back and specialist penalty taker in the final against Italy and his spot-kick struck the inside of the post.

His international exile followed, partly due to injury, partly because Rashford had the worst season of his career, scoring a mere five goals. Yet he returned in Qatar and Southgate said: “He had the World Cup with us and we were constantly talking through that period.”

Perhaps Southgate erred by only giving Rashford five minutes in the quarter-final exit to France. It was the last time he drew a blank for a while: he scored in his next seven games for United, starting a run of 16 in 17. Southgate enjoyed the transformation, the sight of Rashford becoming more clinical and the impact Erik ten Hag made.

“The obvious thing is the goals,” he said. “I think when he has had chances this season, you expect him to score as the season has gone on. Maybe in previous seasons that was a little bit less of a certainty. I think, in working with Erik, he has had to work a bit differently without the ball.”

Marcus Rashford’s performances for Man Utd this season have delighted Gareth Southgate (PA Wire)

It raises questions about where he can feature for England. If Kane were ever to be injured, Rashford could be a compelling alternative. “At the moment I still think he’s better from the left than as a No. 9 but he’s definitely made progress as a 9 this year and had a bigger impact,” Southgate said.

Often, however, has been held in reserve: 30 of his 52 caps have come as a replacement, but 11 of his 14 goals have been as a starter. “I always think he’s a good player as a sub, his mentality is always good when he comes on as a sub but nobody wants to be seen as a good sub, you want to start the games,” Southgate reflected.

Rashford has the misfortune to operate in an area where England have most competition for places. But if Sterling’s regression may afford an opening, with him and Mason Mount out of the current squad, Bukayo Saka, James Maddison, Jack Grealish and Phil Foden still offer alternative options on the flanks. Grealish is a treble winner, Rashford the man who has shown greater potency. Join Rooney and Beckham in the group of United players to score for England at Old Trafford and, after a breakthrough for club, he may be nearer one for country, too.

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