When Marcus Rashford was included in England’s European Championship squad, it added another layer to an already remarkable tale. But when Roy Hodgson threw the teenage forward on in Lens in an attempt to crack the Welsh dam, it really did veer into comic book territory; a nobody to an international somebody, all within six months. What fun this has been: stories like Rashford’s, where a player emerges from nowhere, are rare in this era of total knowledge. Rapid rises remain common, of course, but it’s unusual to watch one which hasn’t been preceded by predictions and YouTube compilations. Development now happens within the mainstream’s glare and Rashford has been the exception to that new rule: he is the shooting star who unexpectedly surged into view. Nobody was waiting for him and there were no telescopes trained in his direction, he just appeared in the sky one night.
So, given how fresh and novel this episode has been, it’s dispiriting to hear the hounds of judgement barking their familiar tune. Rashford’s story is naturally attractive and the tale of a teenager emerging from nowhere to play a prominent part for Manchester United and England will never grow old. Here were are, though, polluting it with those those same old questions: how good can he be? What do we definitively know about his future?
Are we ready to draw that perfectly smooth development curve, yet?
Rashford isn’t the first young player to be subjected to those wonderings and neither will he be the last, but there’s something so joyless and self-serving about this. What, within the wider context, is a prediction really worth at this stage of a career? Not worth in the sense of how accurate can it be, but what is its value in a more general sense – what, really, is the point?
A lot of amateur scouting is rooted in a desire for self-promotion. We’ve all done it, of course, and each and every one of us has turned to a friend at some point and prematurely predicted great things for a young player. But this more formal form seems to have become an activity in itself – it’s no-lose prospecting, in which amateur scouts stake their plots and hope to hit the smugness motherlode.
“I told you back in 2008, here’s my article. Thank you – that will be four hundred credibility tokens.”
And it is no-lose, because very rarely do wayward predictions survive the passing of time. They are highly unoriginal. Each month, thousands of erroneous claims are made about hundreds of different players and the only ones which have any sort of half-life are, invariably, those which somehow prove correct and, subsequently, are repeatedly referenced by their authors. In rare instances – Claudio Ranieri’s impact at Leicester, for example – bad forecasting ends up being used against people, but football is generally so unpredictable that outlandish claims are common enough to be indistinguishable from each other.
With regards to Rashford, the rush to declare him as a particular type of talent seems to come from the same place. He’s a Manchester United player and so, in online world, anything written about him will attract views and comments, but he’s also an incredibly raw player whose traits and habits are yet to be fully-formed. His movement is good, but overly-instinctive. His finishing is neat, but yet to be fully-refined. And the chemistry on which all forwards are dependent is yet to properly develop. What he will ultimately be as a footballer will depend on not only how he grows and diversifies his own game, but also on secondary and tertiary factors such as who he’s managed by, what style of play becomes Manchester United’s long-term default, and how he’s complemented by players who have not yet arrived. Footballers, like all athletes within team structures, are not only the product of their own abilities, but are also defined by their surroundings. Rashford may be primarily responsible for his own career, but it will also be shaped by factors beyond his control which are yet to be determined. In the future, he may benefit from the guidance of a yet-to-be-appointed attacking coach at Carrington or, conversely, he may have no relationship at all with someone who, for whatever reason, just doesn’t warm to him. One scenario would see him make marginal improvements to one or more of his attributes, the other might push him to slide into a spiral of disaffected ennui. That point even applies within the microcosm of the current European Championship: maybe a crucial, unlikely goal will garnish him with a fresh set of valuable intangibles. Maybe a highly negative experience will permanently dilute his belief.
That’s a highly theoretical argument, but then that’s what it should be: Rashford is still more theory than reality, more prospect than player. Making predictions is fun. Like betting, fantasy football and score forecasting, it’s sport – long may it continue. But the rigid brackets into which these young players are forced are artificial, not least because that process seems to animated by that “look what I said three years ago” self-glorification which has become so prevalent. Part of the fun is in not knowing what he might become and being surprised by the fluctuation which will inevitably occur over the next few years. Put the comparisons and the graphs down and just watch. We don’t need to know how good he’ll be in 2022 because, by that time, he’ll have told us himself.