Marcus Rashford doesn’t turn 21 until the end of this month but he is already one of the most experienced heads in an England squad that is being continually tweaked, remodelled and improved by manager Gareth Southgate.
The Manchester United forward is already a veteran of 27 caps – and two international tournaments – following his rapid rise from prospect to established professional.
It’s barely two and a half years since Rashford made his name, being thrust into a Europa League game against FC Midtjylland by Louis van Gaal after an injury in the warm-up to Anthony Martial.
Rashford had fought his way through the United ranks from the age of seven; his talent so great that he was given the opportunity to train with higher age groups where he mixed it with Paul Pogba, Ravel Morrison and his friend Jesse Lingard.
“I remember at first there were 40 or 45 of us and I’d say the real step up was when we got to maybe 10 or 11 [years old] and that number dropped down to about 20 and it started to get a bit more serious,” he tells Goal.
“Around that age, there were players coming from all over the world, so it got a bit more difficult.
“From the age of about 11 or 12, training with them more regularly was a massive part of my development and the other kids’ development as well.
“Training with your own age, there’s a certain amount that you can learn. But when you have the chance to train with older players, the level of learning, it goes up.
“You’re learning the same thing as what 18 and 19-year-olds are learning. So that was massive, a big learning curve for us all.”
The goals flowed early and abundantly; few English players could be said to have enjoyed such a meteoric rise as Rashford did.
A place at Euro 2016 under previous England managerial incumbent Roy Hodgson followed where the side were eliminated in humiliating fashion by Iceland in the first knockout round.
The Sam Allardyce regime was aborted quickly, and it seemed the national team was at its lowest ebb. But the pieces were picked up by Southgate who created one of the most promising young England squads ever to go to an international tournament.
The World Cup ended with semi-final defeat to Croatia after extra-time and it means England and Rashford have unfinished business heading into Friday’s UEFA Nations League match in Zagreb.
But what the Russian adventure also did was help re-establish a meaningful connection between the playing squad and the supporters, something that is still keenly felt by the players when they go on international duty.
“I think the timing was very good,” he says. “I think we needed something big to give the country some hope that we can win something in the near future.
“We didn’t get all the way in the tournament, but we definitely planted that seed where people can see that we’re growing and what we’re aspiring to be.
“The biggest thing is with the fans. I think it’s been a journey that none of us will forget for both players and fans that were watching all over the country. Back home was crazy.”
Now, they believe, it is time to go one further. The World Cup demonstrated that England had the mettle to win shootouts – with Rashford notching one of the successful penalties in the second round against Colombia – and the confidence to win knockout matches but their downfall again was an inability to put away teams in the upper reaches of the FIFA World Ranking.
That’s why Rashford sees the games against Croatia and Spain – to come on Monday – as an opportunity for the squad to take that crucial final stage of their development and vanquish top class opponents.
“These are very tough games, but this is the final step that we are at now – getting over the line against the biggest teams in the world.
“There’s no added incentive than other going there and beating them and that’s what we’ll feed off and that’s what will take us to the next level.”
They will be doing so with as many as seven players in the squad without so much as a single international cap between them. Another two of the selection have only one each.
Rashford already has a good working knowledge of the talents of the likes of James Maddison, Mason Mount and Jadon Sancho having studied their game extensively.
“I’ve seen a lot of the younger players when they’ve been playing not only first team football but academy football as well. I think we all know their quality and the talent they have. It’s just about nourishing it to get the best out of them for our game.
“That’s the enjoyment in football, there’s always people ready to come in. Just by their selection, that shows the strength in depth we have throughout the nation.
“Hopefully we can go into these two games and I hope that they do well.”
Rashford ranks Liverpool right-back Trent Alexander-Arnold among the leading young talents in world football having got regular game time at Anfield under Jurgen Klopp.
“Trent has played quite a lot of games for his age. He’s performed well throughout his time.
“Consistency is the biggest thing so if you’re getting consistent minutes you improve and that’s what really separates as they get a little bit older. There’s a lot of talent and we have a lot of them here.”
Rashford had long been marked out as an emerging talent – even at primary school – before joining the elite Fletcher Moss Rangers club which also bred talents like Wes Brown, Danny Welbeck, Jesse Lingard, Ravel Morrison and Tyler Blackett.
His teams were beneficiaries of Football Foundation funding. The Football Foundation has delivered £1.5 billion worth of community projects since launching in 2000 – and has become the official sponsor of the England senior men’s team for the upcoming UEFA Nations League games against Croatia and Spain.
“In terms of what you envision in the future, going to Fletcher Moss you’ve seen people do it before you, you’re sort of following in the footsteps of those players.
“That is important at that age. You have to be able to see your vision, see what your dreams are made of and definitely at Fletcher Moss they give you that platform.
“Of course, the facilities have to be in place for you to be able to do that and thankfully it was in place at the time and we had no issues.”
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