Comment: Man United must be patient with Marcus Rashford or risk burnout like Owen and Rooney
Marcus Rashford will make his 22nd senior appearance for Manchester United on Thursday when Jose Mourinho’s team dip their toes into the murky waters of the Europa League against Feyenoord in Rotterdam.
By the time he celebrates his 19th birthday on Halloween, the United forward may just have hit the 30 mark in terms of first-team outings – a remarkable statistic considering he only made his debut as an unknown rookie against FC Midtjylland on February 25.
Since then, there have been eighteen starts for United, nine goals and elevation to the full England team, including a place in the Euro 2016, and the hat-trick for the England Under-21s last week following his surprising demotion from the seniors by Sam Allardyce.
Mourinho has admitted that keeping ‘the kid’,’ as he calls Rashford, away from the starting line-up is proving increasingly difficult, particularly in the wake of his impressive performance as a substitute during the derby defeat against Manchester City at the weekend.
So he will be in the starting XI when United begin their Europa League journey in De Kuip against Feyenoord and, if he does well once again, will probably start against Watford at Vicarage Road in the Premier League on Sunday.
There is an understandable frenzy around this young Mancunian, whose incredible grace, athleticism, vision and eye for goal are evident with every performance, to become a first-team regular under Mourinho and Allardyce immediately.
Forget the potential, Rashford is ready now, so throw him in. That is the pervading view and it has its merits considering that he has delivered, and then some, virtually every time he has played.
But unless Rashford is fortunate enough to possess the same genetic golden ticket that enabled Ryan Giggs to perform at the highest level from 17 to 40 for United without a serious injury along the way, there may be a need to put the brakes on in order to safeguard his future.
Giggs was a freak of nature, but even he had to alter his game from flying winger to midfield playmaker as he approached his thirties.
Michael Owen and Robbie Fowler were denied that luxury, having built their careers on their goalscoring instincts, while Wayne Rooney is now discovering that, at the age of 30, mastering a new role is no easy task when it does not come naturally.
Rashford is too young to concern himself with what he will be in ten years’ time, but Mourinho and Allardyce should have his well-being at the forefront of their minds because the way he is managed now will define how he shapes up in the peak years of his career.
Fowler had made 30 first-team appearances for Liverpool by his nineteenth birthday, going on to make 139 senior outings for the club by the time he was 21.
Owen, another teenage sensation, had racked up 70 appearances by the time he was 19, but was only at the 100 mark by his 21st birthday.
Rooney, having made 77 appearances as a teenager for Everton, hit the 82 mark before his 19th birthday following his £27m move to United in August 2004. Rooney added another 100 senior games for United by the time he was 21.
Each of Fowler, Owen and Rooney – the Rashfords of their day – had sustained at least one serious injury before their 21st birthday and all of them suffered the consequences as they approached their late-20s.
Fowler was sidelined with a broken leg at 18, Owen tore his hamstring at 19 and Rooney broke his metatarsal twice before hitting 21.
Injuries sustained while the body is still growing are those which can have the most serious long-term implications and all three players will wonder whether over-exposure as carefree teenagers led to their sharp decline in later years.
Owen, who scored the final hat-trick of his career for United just a week before his 30th birthday, has claimed that his refusal to accept being rested as a teenager damaged his career.
“Many of my highlights were early on in my career and I can only wonder what more I would have achieved had my body been able to withstand the demands that I was making of it,” Owen has admitted. “My hamstring gave way in a game at Leeds at the age of 19 and from that moment on, my career as a professional footballer was compromised.
“I cringe when I look back on a quote I came out with after Gerard Houllier 'rested' me for a game. ‘I will rest when I'm 40' I muttered in an interview.’
“How wrong could I be? You can't force nature and nature certainly forced me to "rest" far more than I would have wanted in the second half of my career.”
Just like Owen, Fowler was well past his best by the time he reached 30, while Rooney has also lost the zip and energy of his youth.
Injuries and over-work as teenagers ultimately haunted all three of them just as they should have been hitting their prime.
So far, Rashford has been fortunate to avoid injury, but if he continues at his current rate of appearances, he will be up there with Rooney and Fowler by the time he is 21 and that should set alarm bells ringing for United and England.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Rashford’s Old Trafford team-mate, is 35 next month and currently sits joint-top of the Premier League scoring charts, so the Swede clearly knows a thing or two about managing a career.
So perhaps it is apt that Zlatan should have the final word on Rashford.
“There is no need to rush, to push him, and put him in the heat zone and put a lot of pressure on him because that can have the opposite effect,” he said. “Time by time, he will take over everything. It’s about having patience."
Independent News Service