My respect for Marcus Rashford grows deeper by the day

Rowan Pelling
·5-min read
Marcus Rashford has campaigned for free school meals to continue during holidays
Marcus Rashford has campaigned for free school meals to continue during holidays

“Rashford!” If you had been walking past my house just after 9.45pm on Tuesday evening, you’d have heard a roar as Manchester United’s forward scored the winning goal against PSG in Paris. Dr Marcus Rashford MBE – still only 22 – is a living god to my 12-year-old son, who has a signed No. 10 shirt hanging on his bedroom wall. 

The story about how he got that shirt is one I’ve written before. It started on a family holiday in 2019, when I discovered I’d been private messaging the footballer via Instagram, after lending my mobile to my boy (my messages were ardent, if misspelt: “Your actually the best football player ever… Keep on doing what you doooo… Big RESPECT”). A few months and a beseeching email later, the jersey arrived through the post, from Marcus to my son. It moved us both to tears.

Rowan Pelling at Old Trafford with her son Torrin, who is a fan of Marcus Rashford 
Rowan Pelling at Old Trafford with her son Torrin, who is a fan of Marcus Rashford

But fortune didn’t smile upon the footballer and anti-poverty campaigner on Wednesday, when Conservative MPs voted down his proposals to extend free school meals for the UK’s most deprived children throughout holidays until Easter 2021. To trot out a footie cliché, it’s hard not to feel the Tories have scored an own goal. At a time when there’s much scrutiny of vast Covid-related Government contracts, it would have been a relatively inexpensive and popular gesture to feed Britain’s poorest schoolchildren. More than that, our leaders could have backed a unifying figure at a time when the country’s never felt so polarised.

Because Rashford’s off-field super-skill is an ability to bring together young and old, black and white, rich and poor, and even northerners and southerners (this 52-year-old, Kent-raised mum adores him) in a common cause. Rarely has a young footballer transcended team tribalism – and even frank indifference to the beautiful game – to become so widely admired by his fellow citizens. 

One reason for the youngster’s popularity is the polite, measured but resolute tone of his social media messages. Rashford has consistently resisted the temptation to have a cheap pop at politicians, using persuasion and diplomacy instead. On Wednesday evening, following the debate in Parliament, he tweeted a supremely dignified statement that began: “Put aside all the noise, the digs, the party politics and let’s focus on the reality. A significant number of children are going to bed tonight not only hungry but feeling like they do not matter because of comments that have been made today.” After calmly detailing his concerns, Rashford asked No 10 to “sit around the table” with the Child Food Poverty Taskforce and “collaborate on how best to combat child food poverty in the UK.”

Clearly, the Manchester United and England striker can be as tactical outside a stadium as in it. But then Marcus Rashford has been unusually grounded from the start. His campaigning zeal comes from his own experience of childhood privation, when his devout Christian mum Melanie worked 14-hour days, struggling to make ends meet for five children, and often cried herself to sleep. She pushed for her talented son to be accepted by Manchester United’s youth academy a year early, aged 11, so he could have the support, including nutrition, that was so hard for her to guarantee. No wonder Rashford said, when awarded his MBE: “This is a very special moment for myself and my family, but particularly for my mum who is the real deserving recipient of the honour.”

Odd though it may sound, his sentiments chimed with me. My church-going mum also worked insane hours as a tenant publican to keep a roof over her five children’s heads. During the hardest years she confessed she wouldn’t have been able to feed us without child benefit payments and I remember her intense relief when I was given an “assisted place” to a girls’ private school, meaning I got free meals and a uniform allowance. Yes, many will say: ‘Don’t have so many children if you can’t pay for them!’ but it’s hard to predict future hardship – such as my late father’s failing eyesight and battles with TB and then lung cancer. The Pelling and Rashford broods are all now hard-working, tax-paying members of society, so I’d hazard the suggestion a few year’s support was worthwhile.

Needless to say, I couldn’t be happier in my football-obsessed son’s choice of icon. 

Whenever I see a headline that screams “Man U player arrested in Greece!” or “found with girl in hotel room” I know the culprit won’t be a smart, well-adjusted, unflashy player, who cherishes family above all (Rashford’s two brothers are his agents and run his brand; he’s been in a steady, low-profile relationship with PR account executive Lucia Loi for some while). 

In short, Marcus Rashford is a thumping good role model who teaches our children respect and the fact there are far greater goals than being rich and famous. I sincerely hope No 10 heeds his call to come to the table.