Back to school for rising star Marcus Rashford after blasting Gunners
The morning after Marcus Rashford and Timothy Fosu-Mensah made their Premier League debuts last weekend, they were back at school, chatting to friends, waiting for lessons.
No matter that Rashford had just scored two goals for Manchester United against Arsenal, or that Fosu-Mensah had stepped coolly into defence as a substitute for the injured Marcos Rojo; there was still education to think about.
If the two 18-year-olds showed a remarkable level-headedness amid all the attention they have received over the past week, then their school deserves much credit, too. For nearly two decades, Ashton-on-Mersey School, a few miles from Old Trafford in the town of Sale, has been ensuring that United's young hopefuls back up their football ability with a sound education.
"I walked into the sixth-form common room on Monday morning, before lessons began, and Marcus Rashford was playing pool with one of the other sixth-form boys," said Aidan Moloney, the school's head teacher.
"Marcus and Tim Fosu-Mensah wanted to be at school on Monday. They wanted to be around their friends.
"The staff went over to congratulate Marcus and Tim, and then at 9am, the bell went and they were straight down to lessons."
Having Premier League footballers in class is nothing new at Ashton-on-Mersey; the school has provided education for United's trainees since 1998.
At that time, the school was converting itself into a sports college, and needed a sponsor; United were looking for an establishment where their young players could be educated and get a taste of the normal world.
The partnership suits both parties and continues to thrive in the face of an extensive year-long review of United's youth set-up.
A host of budding players have studied there while on the club's books, including Ireland's Robbie Brady, Barcelona centre-back Gerard Pique, West Brom defender Jonny Evans, Arsenal striker Danny Welbeck and Stoke captain Ryan Shawcross, as well as winger Jesse Lingard, one of the influx of young players given regular games under manager Louis van Gaal this season.
In some ways, it is no ordinary school; it is one of the few in England to have been rated 'outstanding' by British education authorities five times in a row.
Yet those in charge make a point of ensuring that feted young footballers see the ordinary world; it is why United's scholars will study alongside the school's other pupils. Everyone mixes together.
"Marcus arrived at this school when he was 12, so he has grown up with the other pupils here," Moloney said. "I don't believe he wanted a big fuss making of him on Monday.
"And the fact is that Marcus has not achieved anything yet in terms of his football career. He's done very well with an opportunity he has received, and that's as far as it goes at this point.
"We have to make sure the boys have a grounding, and the set-up here is part of that.
"When young players come to Manchester United and then come to us, there's a very strong message they get that they are representing themselves and the club, and that they should be a good role model.
"We set out the standards we expect, because there is the possibility otherwise that a negative type of football culture can be dragged into the school.
"It would be wrong for me to say that there is never any inappropriate behaviour, because boys will be boys, but that behaviour is challenged. The boys are also made aware that they are part of the school and they fit in with that."
United's trainees have classes on Monday mornings and all day on Thursdays, studying for Business and Technician Education Council qualifications - the equivalent of A-levels - in sport or business, with the option to add to that if the football career does not turn out as they hope and they wish to go into further education.
"A football apprenticeship has to have an educational element," Moloney said. "Manchester United wanted to integrate the boys into a school setting.
"Many clubs do the educational element within their own training complex, so we are quite unique. It keeps the boys' feet on the ground. They're coming into a setting that is not a football world.
"The other students here have part-time jobs, and they are struggling to run cars. The Manchester United boys see that, and they become part of the culture here.
"When they go into town, they socialise with the other sixth-formers. Marcus has grown up with them. I am sure they gave him some stick on Monday, but I'm also sure that he expected that."
The young players who receive that grounding seem to appreciate it. Moloney can tell stories of Welbeck returning to the school to give out prizes at an awards night, or of Darren Fletcher, another graduate, coming in to talk to pupils about his experiences.
"Marcus is hot news right now, but when Darren Fletcher made his Champions League debut in 2003, we put him in front of 60 children the next morning to talk to them," Moloney said. "He said he was more nervous than he had been playing in Europe.
"The boys here are really grounded. Jesse Lingard phoned up the school recently and said: 'Can I come in?'
"I asked him why, and he said: 'I want to thank people for what they did for me.' So he went into lessons to talk to the children, and they knew who he was, so they were thrilled to see him. He also gave me his Champions League shirt, which now hangs on my office wall.
"Last year, when Adnan Januzaj was in the first team, he came in to help with our modern foreign-languages classes. He speaks French, so we got our 12-year-olds to ask him some questions, and he answered them in French and then they wrote an article based on his answers."
United's commitment to the project remains strong, as proved by the willingness of senior figures from the club to visit the school.
"Alex Ferguson has come into the school to talk to the pupils about leadership skills," Moloney said. "Nicky Butt, the new head of the Manchester United academy, has been into the school recently. These are all signs that the club value education. They value the work we do with the boys.
"It's refreshing, in an era when there is so much focus on the finances of the Premier League, that a club see the bigger picture. Not every boy is going to make the first team, and they are looking beyond that.
"Some will go on to have very healthy football careers in the Championship or League One, but all the boys leave with a good education." (© Daily Telegraph, London)