The Hunger Game: Marcus Rashford on Passion, Grit and Positivity

·22-min read
Photo credit: Photo: Chris Floyd | Styling: Nike I Jacket, jeans and t-shirt Burberry
Photo credit: Photo: Chris Floyd | Styling: Nike I Jacket, jeans and t-shirt Burberry
Photo credit: CHRIS FLOYD
Photo credit: CHRIS FLOYD

Marcus Rashford is not like most 23-year-olds. Over the past year, the professional footballer and activist has successfully pressured the UK government to change its policy on free school meals, become the third youngest Manchester United player to score 50 Premier League goals, and been appointed to the Order of the British Empire. Most recently, he has teamed up with the Michelin-starred chef Tom Kerridge to help empower kids with the tools and knowhow to create affordable, nutritious meals in the kitchen – the likes of which neither of them had growing up. Men’s Health sat down with Marcus and Tom to talk about the power of positivity, humility and determination, plus the small issue of a forthcoming European football tournament.

Men’s Health: Let’s start with your collaboration. How did it happen?

Tom Kerridge: There’s a connection between my background and Marcus’s – single-parent families, mums who had two jobs – and we’ve found ourselves in a position where we are able to help. Marcus has been exceptional over the past year, forming the Child Food Poverty Task Force, persuading the government to increase the value of the Healthy Start voucher to £4.25. Meanwhile, my life is all about food, so it was about working out how we can connect to do something long-term, something special.

We want everyone who qualifies for help to take advantage, so we started looking at the sort of foods you can buy with these vouchers, then decided to work on some affordable recipes. A lot of these people have to make decisions like whether they can afford to turn the oven on. They may have one pan; they may live in a bedsit with kids. We didn’t want to make it preachy. We wanted to de-stigmatise the issue, so that every child would want to be part of it.

All of the recipes are pocket-friendly, and Marcus’s engagement in it is to encourage everyone to become more kitchen-literate. The biggest aim was just to get people to have fun. The analogy is riding a bike. This isn’t aimed at foodies. It’s to help people who are learning to ride a bike but still have the stabilisers on. We’re holding their hands. And we’re trying to get them to engage in the kitchen. Marcus freely admitted that he’d not peeled a carrot before.

MH: So, Marcus, are you a chef with stabilisers?

Marcus Rashford: I don’t know if you can even call it that yet! [Tom laughs.] But I’m on my way. I’ve learned a few bits. For me, it’s about showing children that making mistakes is fine, that it’s part of growing up. I’m not the best, but I actually enjoy cooking. I know some children don’t cook simply because they don’t know how to. They’d rather just order some food. But they need to try. You learn from mistakes.

Photo credit: david.horrocks@fletchermossrangers.com
Photo credit: david.horrocks@fletchermossrangers.com

MH: Were you intimidated by food as a child?

MR: I was the youngest in my household – so if anyone was going to cook, it wouldn’t have been me. It was always football; cooking was never on my agenda. But it’s definitely a skill that I wish I’d had, because it would have made me more independent. That’s one of the reasons why we started this. We want kids to feel comfortable in the kitchen. Whether they’re going to be the best chefs in the world or just able to do the bare minimum and learn to survive on their own – either way, it’s a win-win situation. Just learning a few different meals can go a long way.

MH: Could you describe what it was like to feel hunger as a kid?

MR: I struggle to explain it. If you haven’t been through it, then you just don’t know what I am on about. I remember countless times playing out and then, if there wasn’t any food, forcing myself to go to sleep, because I knew there’d be a meal the next morning. I was that hungry, and a lot of the time, that’s what I had to do. What’s bad is that it became part of a routine. It wasn’t happening once a month. It was two or three times a week. If you combine my lack of food with the amount of exercise I was doing, my nutrition was all over the gaff.

TK: It’s terrifying to think this is still happening. I’m twice Marcus’s age. He’s talking about it as a 23-year-old, and there are four-, five-, six-year-old kids who are going through the same thing again. It has to be addressed. Takeaway food, that convenience model – it’s great that it’s there, but the moment you become reliant on it, a huge skill set disappears. Like Marcus says, it’s not about being the best chef but simply trying to understand how to cook some vegetables, a piece of meat, or fish. How to fry an egg. If you engage in the kitchen, you can understand food better. But if you’re too scared of putting on a frying pan, you’re never going to recognise how to move forward with healthier meals or how to structure your diet.

Photo credit: Photo: Chris Floyd | Styling: Nike I Jacket, jeans and t-shirt Burberry
Photo credit: Photo: Chris Floyd | Styling: Nike I Jacket, jeans and t-shirt Burberry

MH: Marcus, can you take us back to January 2020? You’d picked up a back injury against Wolves, and that was when you started upon this idea of fighting food poverty.

MR: If I don’t have something to look forward to, I can find the days very long and boring. I have a feeling inside me that’s, like, “I need to do something positive.” This was something that was always on the agenda, and I knew I was going to be injured for at least three or four months, so I thought: “Why not concentrate on this?” I was doing nothing but resting, so me, Kelly [Hogarth, his publicist], my mum and brothers came up with the campaign. I wanted to focus on something other than the stress of my back, so it actually benefited me as well as the children.

MH: You talk a lot of having “this thing inside” you to help people. It’s almost like you can’t not do it…

MR: That’s because, as a kid, I was helped. I was helped a lot. When I first started going to United, no one in my family drove, so I was catching buses. Then, some of the coaching staff started giving me lifts, and that alone was a massive stress relief for my mum and brothers. They all had jobs to do, to put money on the table. Sometimes, for them to get a bus into town with me, and then another to Salford, and then the same back, losing five or six hours of the day to help me when they could be working – that put me in a difficult spot. When United started allowing us to use drivers, it made it easier. My mum and brothers could go and make the money to put a plate of food on the table when I got home. Without help, it wouldn’t have been possible for me to get this far in my career. So, I just feel like, if you can see that people need help, then people in my position should help.

TK: That’s very sensitive of you. A lot of people do see these things, but they don’t react like you.

MR: Not that long ago, I was living this. I know what it feels like. I know the complications, and I also know what it can lead to. The two or three friends who are close to me today have seen the positive side of things. But the rest of my friends – and it’s sad to say this – they just couldn’t find that way out. It led them to do other things to provide for their families. It puts them in a position: either you do nothing about it and struggle, or start grafting and do whatever it is you have to do to put food on the table. That’s just the reality. If they could have found a different outcome earlier on, they wouldn’t be doing the things they are doing. It’s just their way of surviving.

Photo credit: CHRIS FLOYD
Photo credit: CHRIS FLOYD

MH: The weight on your shoulders as a kid must have been stressful. Could you tell the story of your mum finding you crying because you couldn’t get to training?

MR: I was in the front room. I was very young. Seven, maybe six. I hated missing training – always have done. I was ready to go and hoping someone could get on the bus with me. My mum wasn’t comfortable with me travelling on my own, even though by that stage I’d been there enough times I knew roughly where to go. I could have got there off my own bat, but she would’ve been mad at me if I just hopped on the bus into town. So, there was this one day when no one could take me and I was crying. I didn’t think she was coming home. I thought she was coming home later, and she caught me. It was after that when she asked for a bit more help [from United], and thankfully we got it.

MH: Football was clearly everything to you, even then.

MR: My whole day revolved around football. I don’t know if it was because of a lack of meals, or because often there was no one at home, but my life was just football, football, football. I enjoyed going out on the streets and finding ways to challenge my skills and improve. I played until it was too dark to see the ball; that was time to go home. On a school trip, I would wake up at 6.30am and the first thing on my mind was, “What can I learn today, football-wise?” Everyone else was up at 9am on that school trip but I thought, “I’ve got two and a half hours here to develop my skills.”

Photo credit: Instagram/MarcusRashford
Photo credit: Instagram/MarcusRashford

TK: I’m a Man United season ticket holder and I was in the East Stand when Marcus made his debut. It was an amazing evening: 75,000 people inside Old Trafford suddenly fell in love with this incredible 18-year-old. As a football fan, it’s been amazing to see Marcus’s journey. He’s a great footballer but he’s also reconnected so many people. It’s the desire to give something back and inspire people that makes him different to so many other top sportsmen. He wants to help.

MH: Was football a release for you, or something that you identified as a way of improving your life?

MR: At that age, I didn’t see football as a way to help my family. I didn’t even know footballers got paid! I honestly didn’t. I just loved football. I could see myself getting better and better, and I didn’t want that to stop. It wasn’t until I was 13 and realised that footballers were paid good money that I saw it as a way to get my family out of the situation we were in. By that stage, I was fully in love with the game and there was nothing that could take me away from it. But hearing that there were large amounts of money involved, the first thing I wanted to do was buy my mum a house, and then my sisters, my brothers – even before I got a house myself, I made sure everyone else had a house. It was just the way I did things.

MH: Your mum has said of that house, “Sometimes, I go and sit in a room and cry.”

MR: Maybe that’s her way of letting things sink in or something. I don’t know. But I have told her I don’t like it when she cries, because we’ve been through so many things that were worth the tears. She never used to cry.

MH: That’s why she cries now…

MR: Yeah, but I just want her to be happy and to do things she never thought she would be able to do. Things like travelling. I’ve learned a lot from travelling – different countries, different cultures. We’ve got a similar attitude towards work. She still works and works and works. One day, she’s going to have to put her feet up, but I don’t know who’s going to tell her, because she might not listen.

TK: My mum is very similar. She’s embarrassed to receive thank yous and gifts – but it’s lovely as sons to be able to do that. When you look back and think of the way you grew up, you’d never believe we would be in this position where we can give something back and not just to our families. We can’t all be England international footballers, but we can achieve stuff, no matter what our backgrounds are, with self-belief and family support. Anyway, Marcus, are we going to win the Euros?

Photo credit: CHRIS FLOYD
Photo credit: CHRIS FLOYD

MR: We’ve got a good chance. The talent and ability in the team is as high as I’ve seen it. A lot of it is down to self-belief. I was speaking to some of the players, and I think the only thing that stopped us last time was entering that element of the unknown. [England reached the semi-finals of the 2018 World Cup but were beaten by Croatia in extra time.] We hadn’t been that far as a team before and didn’t know what to expect. Croatia had more experienced players, and they handled the situation better than we did, because we should have put that result out of sight. I feel we’ve learned from those experiences. Plus, we’ve got a few new faces in the squad, talented players. We’re looking at a good balance, and you need balance to win trophies. If my generation of players don’t win anything, it’ll hang over our shoulders long after we retire.

Photo credit: InstagramMarcusRashford
Photo credit: InstagramMarcusRashford

MH: Is this a stronger squad than the one that went to the World Cup?

MR: We’re definitely more prepared now. If we go into a semi-final again, we will control it much better, 100%. We’ll try to play our football. Last time, it just turned into “attack, attack, attack”, and we stopped doing the basics. I feel like we’ve learned from it, and we’re a lot more capable of doing greater things. It’s not to say that this squad is better because of personnel. We’re a better squad because of our experiences. Sometimes, when you lose, you have to take the positives to become better.

MH: Is it an advantage to play group games at Wembley?

MR: It’s a massive advantage. To play so many games at our home stadium and, hopefully, in front of our home fans – that’s just not going to happen again. Everyone is excited and ready. The main thing is to get yourself physically prepared, because it’s tough. You play so many games during the season, then the tournament comes straight after. I’ve had a few niggles, and my aim is to be back as close to 100% as I can be in time. It’s something I’m so excited about, and I believe in what the manager, the staff and the players can do.

TK: Is it important to you to keep the balance right between football and campaigning? And do you ever sense that some people almost want you to fail on the pitch to prove you’ve taken on too much?

MR: Yeah, but in my life, people have always wanted me to fail.

MH: Really?

MR: There’s a lot of jealousy and a lot of hate out there. People don’t like to see young black people being successful. I just believe that I’ve found a way to channel it. Like, if people don’t want me to be successful, it makes me want to be successful even more. It’s nothing to do with what I am doing off the pitch. On the pitch, I am a completely different person. I do what it takes to win for the club and for the manager. It’s two different mentalities. I don’t know how I manage to do it, but I do.

MH: You say two different mentalities, but they must be linked in a way…

MR: In terms of the drive, yeah. But on the pitch… I can’t explain it. I go into game mode, and my mentality is completely different to how I am as a person. If the two things ever crossed over, that would be when I’d say, “Right, I’m giving a bit too much time to this. I need to do less of that in order to do more of this.” But [the campaigning] will never stop. If I felt I needed to do less, I would make sure the team around me and the taskforce know what messages I want to be put out there. I have a lot of belief in them, and I know they’re very good at their jobs and they will do that for me. But so far, it has all come quite naturally.

MH: Let’s flip it, then – does this work help with your football?

MR: In a way, yeah, because it reminds me every day of where I was and, for me, that’s one of the most important things. Something I’ve always told myself is: never lose sight of where you came from, and never lose sight of the journey that got you to where you are. That drives me in football, because my mentality on the pitch is to just improve, improve, improve. Concentrate on scoring goals and making assists. You have to be relentless. And the skill set needed to have a good campaign is similar to what I need on the pitch, in terms of mentality. Going between the two is genuinely not a problem for me.

I’ve given 100% for United this year, and I will continue to do that. It’s just the type of person I am. I’m not one to shy away from responsibilities. I don’t like missing games. I don’t like missing training because I’m losing a day to be that one step better. So, I always find a way to get back out on the pitch because it genuinely hurts to watch the team play without me out there – especially in a difficult game that they end up losing. It’s like a family to me. If you imagine a battlefield and you see one of your friends go down, the feeling of not being there to pick him up… It’s horrible.

MH: Is it that intense?

MR: For me, yeah. I love football. I love the game, and I see my teammates as my family members. If you’re on the same team as me, we’re fighting for the same things. We have a go at each other sometimes, we snap at each other. But don’t let that fool you. We are on the same page. We all want to win trophies, and that’s the important thing. That’s why they are at such a big club.

TK: It doesn’t matter what world you are in, teamwork improves things. That’s why so many people can relate to sport. You see it is all about the team and making things happen. Equally, you can see when teams are disjointed. You talk very passionately about being part of a team. At Manchester United, you can see there is a clear difference in the last two or three years from where it was to where it is now. But also with the England squad, and wanting to be part of it even when you’re injured. It’s great to hear you talk passionately about it. As someone who runs businesses, I understand the need to build those networks. I’m a 47-year-old man and to hear that from a 23-year-old stands you in great stead for the future.

Photo credit: CHRIS FLOYD
Photo credit: CHRIS FLOYD

MH: Marcus, what do you think it takes to be the best?

MR: I would probably say, “How much are you willing to lose?” To be at the very top, you have to learn to sacrifice a lot and you have to be OK with sacrifices. For example, I left home when I was 11 years old. That was me leaving my family behind, my friends behind. All to follow my dream of football. That was my first massive sacrifice. After that, I used to come home every weekend and go to see all my friends – not just the close friends I have now, like Jamie [Hendley] and Ashley [Leather], but all my friends together. And some of them were up to no good. When I talk about sacrifice, it’s also about making decisions. That’s why I’m so close to Jamie and Ashley, because if they knew someone was going off in a direction that could put us in a sticky situation, they would have me home straight away. Just like that. We would get on our bikes and I would be home. They have been like that from the beginning for me. So, that’s my way of looking at it. How much you are willing to lose determines how great you can be.

MH: Could it have gone wrong for you? You say there were people around doing bad things…

MR: It could so easily have gone wrong. We would be on our bikes together, and you would see some people making a right turn and we knew we didn’t live the way that went. And that was an opportunity for it to go wrong. I’m lucky that I had people like Jamie and Ashley, who were on the same page as me. They didn’t want to be involved in whatever was going on. We just managed to stay away from it and eventually, as we got older, we just broke off from those people. It was sad, really, because in the beginning we were all close. But they just never understood that there was another way of doing things, whereas Jamie and Ashley did. Jamie is about to buy his first house and Ashley probably will next year. That makes me proud when I see those moments.

It would have been very easy for them to take that right turn. They probably would have earned themselves a £20 note and, as a kid, that could do a lot. A lot of people used to offer you money if you just took something for them. Jamie, Ashley and me – we would always say no. I see them as family. I don’t see my friends as friends. I treat them as brothers, and they are the same with me. My circle is so small! Other than my family, it’s Jamie and Ashley and then the people who work with me football-wise. Then my gym guy, strength and conditioner, recovery guy. That’s it. It has always been small and always will be, because I feel like I work best in that environment. I trust them.

Photo credit: Steven Paston
Photo credit: Steven Paston

MH: Let’s finish with the food. Hand on heart, Marcus, will Tom teach you how to cook? Will you cook for yourself? Don’t you have a chef?

MR: What Tom is doing for me is… Look, I do have a chef, because, as we’ve spoken about, I need to make sure I am eating the right food consistently. But on the days when she isn’t here, I feel a lot less worried. I know I don’t have to get a delivery if I don’t want to. I want to get to the stage when I can comfortably go to the shop, get my ingredients, come home, cook a meal and eat. I feel like I am already pretty close to that, to be honest. After another three cooking lessons, maybe, I think I will be at that stage. And for me, that’s a massive, massive jump. So, I can’t complain about that.

TK: It’s going great. We’re putting 52 recipes together in total, but the reality is that the majority of people cooking at home will probably have a repertoire of three or four dishes. Their favourites. Things like bolognese, maybe a pasta dish, something that’s just very simple. If we can just get people to engage with three or four dishes out of 52, then that’s the work done. All the recipes are pocket-friendly. There’s no stigma, no food snobbery. All we want to do is to get people in a position where they can have a go.

Rashford and Kerridge were in conversation with Jason Burt, the chief football correspondent for the Telegraph, on behalf of Men’s Health. He has donated his fee to the food redistribution charity FareShare: fareshare.org.uk

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