Profile: Marcus Rashford – Crusading forward reflecting Premier League’s commitment to good causes

2 March 2021

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Photo: Alamy Last year, with the summer holidays coming, Marcus Rashford wrote an open letter to the government urging them to step in to provide meals to the country’s neediest children. After resisting these calls, the government backed down and paid the £120 million cost, something they reluctantly repeated during the October half term. On this picture the Manchester United player is saluted by local street artists.

Rashford’s campaigning for good causes reflects unacknowledged commitment by all Premier League clubs to good causes.

Premier League clubs’ average commitment of total pre-tax profit to their foundations was 25.4 per cent – 11 times the FTSE 100 average.

Off The Pitch research shows equivalent of 1.93 per cent of EPL turnover went to clubs’ charitable foundations.

Overseas fans increasingly lured by clubs’ social values.

James Corbett, Senior Correspondent corbett@offthepitch.com

The Marcus Rashford juggernaut ploughs on and on. On Sunday he drew level with David Beckham’s Manchester United scoring record. The previous week he joined global football leaders, including the FIFA secretary general and Premier League and Bundesliga CEOs, on the podium at the FT’s influential Football Business Summit.

Sandwiched in between the United forward joined the small, illustrious and strikingly contemporaneous group of footballers - Messi, Neymar, Balotelli, Salah, Mbappe – in adorning the cover of Time magazine.

On the field English football has had more prodigious 23-year-olds than Rashford, even in its recent past.

Rashford lacks, for example, the instinctive genius of Wayne Rooney at that age, or the dash and vim that made Michael Owen a Balon D’or winner at 21. But never has the game had such an articulate, impactful or powerful political advocate at such a young age.

Drawing on his own experiences as a child who lived on the poverty line, Rashford has, since early last year, used his ambassadorial role with FareShare, the UK’s largest food redistribution charity, to raise awareness of the issues surrounding child food poverty.

Twice he has forced the government into U-Turns on provision of free school meals for underprivileged children outside term time and is credited with influencing half a billion of government spending.

He has joined forces with large corporations, such as Aldi, Tesco and Kellogg’s to form a taskforce to tackle food poverty. He regularly speaks with the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson. Last Autumn he was awarded an MBE in recognition of his services for vulnerable children in the United Kingdom during the COVID-19 pandemic.

At a time when the official opposition blunders in the shadows, Rashford has at times seemed to have done more to hold the government account than anyone else. His influence transcends in football in a way that no other young star has done, not even Rooney or Owen.

But what does Rashford’s rise and rise off the pitch tell us about football? Is he an outlier in an otherwise selfish and introverted game, or simply at the forefront of an industry that does more for good causes than it is credited for? And what can the sort of values that he inculcates do for clubs and the game as a whole?

Wythenshawe Prodigy

Marcus Rashford was born in Manchester in 1997 and raised in the Wythenshawe area of the city. The youngest of five children in a single parent household, his mother Melanie had to work multiple jobs to make ends meet. Initially a goalkeeper, he joined Manchester United’s academy aged seven, despite the overtures of Manchester City, Everton and Liverpool.

Fame and money lay far in the future at this stage: his family’s poverty saw him struggle to make training and only the intervention of kindly coaches to arrange lifts saw him progress.

You can collect food parcels at every football game going, but you won’t change food poverty without a political element

Now a striker, he burst onto the senior football scene in spring 2016. There were winning goals in the Manchester derby and FA Cup quarter and semi-finals. United won the FA Cup and 18-year-old Rashford was rewarded with a £20,000 per week contract. England recognition followed soon after and over the past five years Rashford has established himself as a mainstay of the United squad.

Pandemic activist

His move into social activism came two years ago, when he partnered with Selfridges to give out boxes of essentials to the homeless. But it was when the pandemic struck that it really gathered momentum. He approached FareShare to make a “substantial” donation, but was instead persuaded to serve as an ambassador.

Initially he helped raise £20 million to provide free meals to children who would otherwise have been entitled to them at their closed schools. With the summer holidays coming he wrote an open letter to the government urging them to step in to provide meals to the country’s neediest children.

After resisting these calls, the government backed down and paid the £120 million cost, something they reluctantly repeated during the October half term. Following the latter climbdown, in November the government pledged £400 million to support poor children and their families through to Christmas 2021.

Rashford, now an MBE and someone the PM sounded out on such policies before his own cabinet, had achieved the impossible: prickling the consciousness of a government who appeared not to have one.

A volunteer delivers food to a distribution hub in the underground car parking lot at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in London, Britain, March 31, 2020. The distribution hub was set up by the charity Edible London, working in partnership with Haringey Council, for food distribution to vulnerable groups and workers of National Health Service (NHS). The British Government continues to try to combat the COVID-19 outbreak, while local authorities, community groups and charities are working to provide food for the mo
Photo: Alamy A volunteer delivers food to a distribution hub in the underground car parking lot at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in London, Britain, March 31, 2020. The distribution hub was set up by the charity Edible London, working in partnership with Haringey Council, for food distribution to vulnerable groups and workers of National Health Service (NHS). The British Government continues to try to combat the COVID-19 outbreak, while local authorities, community groups and charities are working to provide food for the most vulnerable in society.

“I don’t think you can put a value on what Marcus Rashford has done,” says Dave Kelly, a Liverpool trade unionist, who has organised the Fans Supporting Foodbanks campaign and is petitioning the government to enshrine the “right to food” into law.

Kelly says that the pandemic has exarcebated poverty already high after a decade of austerity and there has been “a sharp uptake” of families relying on foodbanks.

“When I started working with foodbanks in 2015 there were lots of people who you might have expected to use them,” he says. “People on benefits. People who’d had problems with substance abuse. Now we’re seeing home owners. People with jobs who are struggling with less hours, or who’ve been put on furlough and are struggling on 80 per cent of their salaries.”

The problems transcend food poverty, he adds, with fuel poverty and digital exclusion particular problems for those forced to stay at home during the pandemic. Rashford, he says, has provided a voice for those marginalised. 

Unique Figure

Rhodri Davies, head of policy at the Charities Aid Foundation (CAF), argues that a number of factors make Rashford unique.

There is a “clear sense of commitment and personal involvement” combined with the “authenticity” of personal experience of a poverty-stricken background.

Then there is Rashford’s inherent modesty “an apparent reluctance to position [himself] at the centre of the story, and a desire instead to emphasise the contribution of others.” 

“This element of humility – the willingness to acknowledge that they are only a small part of something bigger – is an appealing feature,” he argues.

“It sits at odds with the archetype of the ‘philanthropic lone saviour’ that has dominated too much big money giving in the past, whereby donors (usually men, it must be said) have seen their philanthropy largely as another means by which to prove their own brilliance.”

Most politically powerful player of his generation

Another aspect is the way that he has built up a broad grassroots support. “Not only does this amplify the pressure on those in power (as Rashford has so brilliantly done); it also makes it much harder for them to characterise the campaigning as simply the crusade of only one person.”

The nature of Rashford’s campaign also goes beyond charity, Davies says. The footballer’s calls for the government to extend its school meals programme is “a claim of justice.”

Football clubs play a vital role within their communities, engaging people of all ages to provide positive pathways, as well as supporting mental and physical wellbeing

Dave Kelly agrees that this is a crucial factor. “You can collect food parcels at every football game going, but you won’t change food poverty without a political element.”

Combined these qualities have made Rashford the most high-profile football philanthropist and most politically powerful player of his generation.
 
Football’s unseen side

But is Rashford an outlier, or merely part of a broader and unacknowledged trend in football?

To listen to the British Government over the past pandemic-stricken year, you would think he was most definitely alone in his stance. From the health secretary Matt Hancock demanding footballers take a pay cut to “play their part” in tackling the pandemic to the government’s demands that the EPL bail to “step up to the plate” and bail out the rest of the professional football pyramid, on account of its apparently unspeakable wealth, one would consider football and footballers as unscrupulous, greedy and avaricious. 

Far more commited

Dave Kelly, perhaps with some justification, argues that this position is driven by “envy and jealousy by politicians of young working class men becoming millionaires through football.”

He also says that while Rashford “deserves every bit of praise he’s got” there are many other players who help good causes, but don’t take any credit. He tells me about “one current Premier League player who comes along and helps at the food bank each week, does his bit, and goes home without any fuss or publicity.” 

Nor is the movement for good causes the preserve of fan groups or individuals. The reality is that Premier League clubs as a whole are far more committed to their communities and good causes than much larger businesses. A 2018 CAF report found that total charitable donations by FTSE 100 Companies had not only fallen by 26 per cent year on year since 2013 but highlighted the overall lack of munificence of leading companies.

Measuring charitable donations as a proportion of pre-tax profit CAF found that while the FTSE 100 donated a combined £1.9 billion to good causes, this amounted to 2.3 per cent of profits.

Utilising data from 2019, our research shows that charitable foundations set up by Premier League clubs had a collective income of £64.1 million – or 1.93 per cent of total club turnover.

 

Of the eight clubs that made a profit that year, their average commitment of total pre-tax profit to their foundations was 25.4 per cent – 11 times the FTSE 100 average.

 

Perhaps surprisingly the EPL hasn’t made more of this wider contribution.

“Football clubs play a vital role within their communities, engaging people of all ages to provide positive pathways, as well as supporting mental and physical wellbeing,” said the EPL’s typically understated CEO Richard Masters on the subject last November.

“This has been more important than ever during the COVID-19 pandemic, as clubs refocused their efforts to develop significant outreach programmes, including assistance for the most vulnerable members of society.”

Buying into community experience

Our research shows that Everton’s award winning community programme had the largest proportion of income to overall club turnover (2.76 per cent) among clubs competing in the EPL in 2019. Its community programme continues to grow – income is up for 2020 by 20 per cent to £5.8 million – and its ‘Blue Family’ campaign that has run through the pandemic has provided support to nearly 30,000 families and individuals over the past year. 

 

But despite this munificence there are intangible benefits for the club too and rising evidence that it has grown the club’s fanbase.

Toffee Soccer, a forthcoming book on Everton’s relationship with North America, surveyed Everton’s supporters across the Atlantic and found that one of the most popular reasons fans chose the club was “Respect for the club’s community values and projects.”

“Everton is a special club for real soccer fans,” says the co-author, David France. “It is one of trail-blazing initiatives, rich traditions, uncommon values, venerated ambassadors, good people and more on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.”

The community work is just one part of an historical armoury that sets the club apart from its rivals, he argues across some 550 pages. 

“Many fans choose Everton because the club appeals to something they value,” Professor Andrew Lambert, another lifelong Evertonian at the City University of New York, explained to the authors.  “Choosing Everton seems to represent its own set of values. Solidarity, increasingly unfashionable in modern life, is one such value (the Everton family), loyalty another – how do you know you are really loyal if your team is always winning? Integrity is yet another.” 

Modest hero

Solidarity, loyalty, integrity; it is such virtues that have brought Rashford to the forefront of public consciousness, including its latest manifestation on newsstands all over the US and Europe. 

Interviewed at last week’s FT Business of Football summit, Rashford was typically understated about his achievements over the past year, saying that he benefited from the immediacy of social media and the circumstances of the pandemic to make his message potent in a way previous generations of athletes could not have benefited from.

“It's a big positive to be able to make change and do it for the right reasons,” he said.

Marcus Rashford celebrating yet another victory -this time on the pitch.
Photo: Alamy Marcus Rashford celebrating yet another victory -this time on the pitch.

“Instagram and Twitter has given me the opportunity to not only voice my opinions and raise awareness, but also for me to understand more and connect more with families and gain a greater understanding in a much shorter time.”

As for his own role, he played down any future personal political ambitions. Instead he said that it was “disappointing” that the current political environment and lack of understanding from the government for the realities of child poverty had put him in a position where he was effectively “a link” between Westminster and millions of people.

“I feel like if someone's put in a position [as a politician] such as that, they should be connected to each environment, each area, and already be on the way to how helping these families just in case a pandemic hit,” he said. 

“It's unfortunate that I happen to be in this position. But at the same time, I'm pleased to be able to help in any way.”