Mourinho holds key to unlocking Rashford's talent
As Gareth Southgate said "goodbye" to Marcus Rashford at Colchester's Community Stadium on Tuesday night, he admitted that he was tempted to add, "it's been nice working with you".
Rashford's immediate trajectory straight back into the senior England squad felt like a formality after Tuesday's hat-trick but, for all the excitement at a talent whose every appearance only seems to enhance comparisons with the very best teenage prodigies, the simple truth is that his trajectory will now largely be defined by one man - Jose Mourinho.
And the narrative of that particular relationship will be one of the most fascinating of the season. Mourinho has clearly been irked by the suggestion that youth development has been one of the flaws in his management career.
He even came armed at his introductory press conference at Manchester United with a list of 49 young players he had promoted from various academies. It rather backfired, however, when a rudimentary examination of his list showed that only 14 of those players subsequently made more than five appearances under him.
So while Mourinho might again be proving himself the ultimate guarantor of an immediate upward impact at a football club, Rashford represents both an opportunity and a risk to his longer-term reputation. After all, there could be no better way to silence the critics than to nurture such an exceptional young talent as Rashford, and perhaps also Luke Shaw and Jesse Lingard, in the same way as Alex Ferguson with the famed 'Class of 92'. Equally, should Rashford go the way of Romelu Lukaku and Kevin De Bruyne at Chelsea in being discarded after limited opportunity, the case against Mourinho will mount .
Although Mourinho is yet to start Rashford, his involvement so far need not provoke any alarm. The counter-danger is excessive exposure and the fate that seemed to befall Jack Wilshere. The 54 games Wilshere played in his breakthrough season of 2010-11 must still make Arsene Wenger wince. As Michael Owen, who made a similarly spectacular impact at the age of 18 has suggested, now should be the pressure-free first phase for Rashford when nothing feels complicated and the prospect of any sort of dip seems remote. Owen, who announced himself in spectacular fashion at the 1998 World Cup, was asked what might be going through Rashford's head.
"Nothing," he said. "He won't be really excited or pinching himself. It is just the norm for him. I know it isn't to everyone else, but he has always scored goals. He has always been one of the star men." Owen calls it the "naivety of being young" but will also recall how expectation soon creates a different dynamic.
The good news is that Rashford does seem genuinely level-headed and lacking in any inkling of being satisfied with his achievements. Having arguably been England's best player even during his brief cameo at Euro 2016, the danger would have been of some frustration at stepping back down to the U-21 team. Southgate, though, was just as impressed by his effort and application during the 10 days of training as his subsequent contribution to the 6-1 demolition of Norway.
He also noted how Rashford had won the respect of team-mates. When England won a late penalty to present Rashford with the chance of his hat-trick, Nathan Redmond immediately took the ball to him even though James Ward-Prowse, his Southampton team-mate, was the designated taker. "He blended into the group really well," said Redmond who, at 22, is very much one of the senior heads in the squad.
Redmond has also seen Dele Alli, Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling develop with the U-21s. "Marcus is just a normal kid, a typical 18-year-old who loves his football," he said. "He is different to other strikers we have had in the U-21s like Saido Berahino, Harry Kane and Danny Ings. All those players have different qualities.
"Marcus's finishing is up there with some of the best I've seen."
It was exactly a year since Rashford was coming on as a substitute against Rochdale in the Lancashire Senior Cup first round. Pep Guardiola's Manchester City are now in his sights on Saturday. (© Daily Telegraph, London)