There’s usually a lot for a manager to get through at the first news conference of the summer, and when Man United’s Erik ten Hag sat down in a private school auditorium in rural New Jersey in July, it was no different. But among some difficult questions about the club’s under-fire owners, the Glazer family, a restrictive transfer budget and the uncertain future of Mason Greenwood, there was one that, on the face of it, was relatively simple.
It was about Marcus Rashford who, after coming off a season during which he’d scored 30 goals, had just signed a new five-year contract at Manchester United. It was good news, right? Yes, Ten Hag said, but his answer also came loaded with a warning that perhaps makes more sense now than it did then.
Unprompted, the Dutch manager began talking about how Rashford must have the “right attitude” to continue delivering the type of numbers that distinguish the best players in the world from their peers, adding that “players can’t match the sensational life and play top football.”
It’s something Ten Hag felt the need to remind Rashford of at a meeting at Carrington on Monday as the pair tried to tidy up the mess left behind by the England forward’s trip to a Belfast nightclub last week.
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The bones of the story are simple. Rashford travelled to Belfast on Wednesday ahead of a scheduled day off on Thursday. He was spotted out in the Northern Ireland capital on Thursday night, before reporting himself too ill to train on Friday ahead of United’s FA Cup tie against Newport County on Sunday. Rashford also missed training on Saturday, but did take part in a session at Carrington on Sunday while his teammates were in south Wales, winning 4-2 to book a place in the fifth round.
“He reported ill,” Ten Hag said after Sunday’s win. “For the rest it’s an internal matter. I deal with it. As I said, it’s an internal matter.”
On Monday, following talks between Ten Hag; Rashford; football director John Murtough; and Rashford’s brother and agent, Dwaine; United released a statement in an attempt to draw a line under the matter. “Marcus has taken responsibility for his actions,” it read. “This has been dealt with as an internal disciplinary matter, which is now closed.”
Ten Hag was reluctant to talk about the matter further when he held his weekly news conference Wednesday, but speaking generally about his squad, the message to Rashford was clear. “The players at this level need to manage themselves — that is what you can demand from the player,” he said. “The player has to know what is good and not good.
“When you want to play top football, it demands a certain way of life. Always.”
The problem is that it’s not an isolated incident. In October, Ten Hag branded Rashford’s decision to attend his own birthday party at a Manchester nightclub several hours after a 3-0 home defeat to Manchester City as “unacceptable,” and last season he was dropped to the bench for a game at Wolves as punishment for turning up late to a team meeting. He came off the bench in that match to score the only goal in a 1-0 win, acknowledging his error postgame: “Obviously it’s team rules. I made a mistake,” Rashford told BT Sport. “We draw a line under it and move on. … I overslept, but it can happen.”
Rashford, to his credit, responded to a week of criticism surrounding his trip to Belfast with a goal in Man United’s dramatic 4-3 win over Wolves on Thursday.
After each indiscretion, Rashford showed the necessary contrition for the situations to be resolved — something Jadon Sancho notably failed to do during his public row with Ten Hag — and everyone moved on relatively quickly. But there remains growing concern within the club about Rashford’s off-field behaviour, and his tendency to slip into periods where his focus is not where it should be.
It’s not always been the case with Rashford, of course, and he has shown before that he’s capable of showing the commitment needed at the highest level.
Rashford didn’t play a game completely pain-free for more than two years prior to the 2021 European Championships, battling through minor injuries as England reached the final. Following shoulder surgery after the tournament, he regularly spent 10-hour days at Carrington in an effort to get fit again as soon as possible. United’s fitness coaches put together a grueling plan including three gym sessions a day and by the time he was ready to play again — two months after the operation — he had put on 4 kilograms (nearly 9 pounds) of muscle.
Rashford was equally disciplined in summer 2022, taking himself away to Nike headquarters in Beaverton, Oregon, for an individual training camp. Days often started at 6 a.m. and sessions centred around explosive exercises to make him faster, plus ball work to improve his technical ability. His reward was his best season since making his professional debut as a teenager in 2016, as he tallied 30 goals in 56 games.
However, there have been issues surrounding the way he spends his time outside football. His inner circle decided to scale back a growing list of commercial engagements in response to a dip in form that saw him score just two goals in six months between November 2021 and April 2022, while more recently there have been concerns about some of the company he keeps away from Carrington.
Rashford is not your typical confident footballer — even though it can sometimes come across that way in how he acts and plays — in that he is often shy and withdrawn. Professional football can be a lonely business with a lot of time spent at alone at home, and it’s noteworthy that a number of his closest footballer friends at United over the past few years have since changed clubs, including Paul Pogba (left United in 2022), Jesse Lingard (left in 2022) and Jadon Sancho (exiled from the squad in September before going back to Borussia Dortmund on loan earlier in January). His closest friend in the current squad, Tyrell Malacia, has also spent a lot of time away from Manchester while he recovers from a knee ligament injury suffered last summer.
In fact, Rashford was only in Belfast at all because he was visiting his close friend and former United teammate Ro-Shaun Williams, who has restarted his career at Larne FC after leaving Doncaster last summer.
For friends and acquaintances outside the football bubble, it can be very difficult to understand and respect the discipline and consistency required to be a top-level athlete. United sources insist that they have mechanisms in place, both internally and externally, to help any of their players who are struggling, but the message from the club is always the same: the key is always that the player has to want to engage.
For Rashford, there are echoes of the period after his penalty shootout miss for England in the Euros final in 2021. He had to deal with extensive racial abuse in the aftermath of that defeat, while also coping with a feeling that he had let his country down. According to those who were around him at the time, some felt he should have accepted more help than he did to get through that spell.
Amid genuine concern for where Rashford might be headed, more than one former United player has reached out to see whether they can offer help or advice.
Born in Manchester and a United player since he was 7 years old, Rashford should be front and centre of the club’s new era under minority shareholder Sir Jim Ratcliffe, but for the first time, there are genuine questions about whether it’s time he moved on. Many supporters can’t stomach what they consider to be a lack of commitment and, for many, the trip to Belfast is the last straw after some lacklustre displays on the pitch, particularly during the 1-0 defeat at Newcastle in December.
Rashford has fans at Paris Saint-Germain, who could lose Kylian Mbappé in the summer, while both Mauricio Pochettino and Pep Guardiola are long-term admirers. However, United’s demands plus Rashford’s long contract and weekly wage of around £315,000 form a significant stumbling block for almost every team in the world.
At the very least, Rashford will stay until the end of the season and staff hope the fallout from his ill-timed trip to Northern Ireland will act as a wake-up call that, ultimately, can be a blessing in disguise.
There’s a feeling that, now at age 26, he’s at something of a crossroads and from here his career could go in a number of different directions. The choice, as ever, lies with Rashford.