What is community? Pop it into Google and you get “a group of people living in the same place or having a particular characteristic in common”. Now get yourself down to south Manchester and ask the same question. I can guarantee that you’ll get a very different answer.
See, community is a feeling. A sense of belonging.
Growing up in Wythenshawe, my community was an extension of my family unit. There was a togetherness. An unbreakable bond. Neighbours wanted to see me win and, even when we had nothing, we always found something to give. That’s community. A safety blanket. A protective layer. A force that can rarely be challenged or broken.
The Marcus Rashford you see standing in front of you today is a product of that community.
When I finally made it professional, I knew I had a responsibility to open up new opportunities to those who had contributed to my success, to allow children in these communities to see the bigger picture.
Children from middle-class backgrounds are taught to reach for the stars, that anything is possible. That doesn’t happen in communities like mine. Children grow up believing that what they see on their doorstep is all it can be. That has to change. If children can’t see that they can be anything they put their mind to, just because of the area they grew up in, we have to open their eyes. We have to take the opportunity and the belief to them.
People often refer to Wythenshawe as an ‘underprivileged’ community. Personally, I feel privileged to call it home.
Since going professional, I have visited the area once a week. It’s so important to me that my anchor remains there, and that I stay connected to all of those who acted selflessly to get me where I am today. I don’t want children there to see me as ‘Marcus Rashford of Manchester United’, I want them to see me as Marcus. Marcus who lived ‘there’, learned his craft on ‘that’ patch of grass and is now representing his country at the highest level. It’s so important that they see that I had a dream, and my dream came true. We have to encourage these children to dream, because unfortunately sometimes dreams are all they have. I remember forcing myself to sleep as a child, just so the feeling of hunger would go away. All I had were my dreams, my escape.
That’s why one of my key priorities for 2021 was to launch a literacy project with Macmillan Children’s Books. There are an estimated 390,000 children across the UK who have never owned a book. I was once one of them. (We didn’t have spare cash for food at times, never mind a book.) Yet the children who are denied access are, more than most, the people who need the escapism of reading, to guide them through their experiences. To know that they are not going through this alone. They need to see themselves in books. To be represented. People often ask me about my ‘highlights’ or ‘greatest achievements’, but it’s really hard to pinpoint a particular moment because, to me, they’ve been stepping-stones. There’s a lot more to be done. I haven’t seen success until there is no child in the United Kingdom going to bed hungry.
Saying that, a moment that really touched me in 2020 was seeing everyone work together to play active roles in supporting vulnerable children in their communities. In October, cafes, restaurants and pubs – some of the hardest-hit businesses during the pandemic – were willing to run at even greater losses by opening their doors to those who needed their help. That’s the power of togetherness. Not only did children get access to the food they so desperately needed, they were offered it without judgment and with a level of compassion that they might not have experienced before – a compassion my mum would have benefitted from when I was young. Reading the messages on Twitter and Facebook from each of those businesses brought me so much pride. In a year when the nation never felt so divided, we came together and achieved great things.
It took me back to when I was growing up.
“If children can’t see that they can be anything they put their mind to, just because of the area they grew up in, we have to open their eyes” – Marcus Rashford
I didn’t really realise at the time the extent of the acts of kindness people were showing me in my community. I just assumed this was normal. I assumed all chip-shop owners like Sam just handed out a free packet of chips now and again. It’s only as I got older that I realised how conscious a move this was. Sam was looking out for me, making sure I had something in my tummy – probably having watched me trying to recreate a football skill on the patch of grass opposite the shop. They recognised that I had a talent and, in their eyes, there was nothing that was going to stop me reaching my dream of playing the game professionally. I had parents whose sons had been dropped from the academy system step up and offer to collect me from home and take me to training week to week. Think about that for a moment. They’ve experienced first-hand the distress of having their ten-year-old son’s dream shattered and their reaction is to make sure I’m still looked after, and that I still have the means to follow my dream. When people ask me why community is so important to me, there it is. They never gave up on me and, in return, I’ll never stop fighting for them.
I remember scoring my first goal at Old Trafford and looking up into the crowd. Among the near-76,000 people in front of me, I could see so many familiar faces. It was special to know that collectively they had gotten me on to that pitch and we were experiencing this moment together.
I’m incredibly proud to call myself a footballer and to call football my profession. That ball is one of the most consistent things I’ve owned in my life. It gave me an avenue out of difficulty for not only me but my family, and I’m eternally grateful for that. It has also offered me a voice to speak on behalf of children who are just like me – from areas just like mine. I’m not a ‘campaigner’, I’ve just acted as the bridge. A bridge for real issues and real feelings to be heard.
Over the last year, and even before that, I have seen what the game contributes to local communities; it’s at the heart of everything. For years, supporters’ groups have worked tirelessly to help the most vulnerable around them. I’ve been blown away learning more about the work of Liverpool FC and Everton FC on Merseyside in response to food insecurity over the past 12 months, much of which goes under the radar. Generational rivalries were put aside and fanbases came together to help those who needed it most. Not even football rivalry can cloud the bigger picture of protecting our next generation. That was amazing.
My job has opened me up to unbelievable opportunities. I’ve met people from different cultures, races and religions, and I’ve learned something different from every single one of them. I can play this game alongside ten others with only a common language of football. I can only champion and celebrate the game’s ability to bring people from different backgrounds together without even saying a word. It’s so powerful.
“Not even football rivalry can cloud the bigger picture of protecting our next generation” – Marcus Rashford
When I was six, we moved to our house in Wythenshawe. I got a knock on the front door. A boy my age was looking for his neighbour to play football with, not knowing he had moved away from the area. It took a matter of seconds for me to ask to play and, voilà – we’ve been the best of friends ever since. All thanks to that round ball.
People often ask me, what’s next? Well, I’m 23. I’ve got a lot of life ahead of me (I’d like to think). To find real, sustainable solutions, we need to get into the communities and listen. Listen first-hand to issues and concerns. Identify areas where there is little oppor- tunity, and construct a framework that guarantees no child goes to bed hungry. We are making steps forward, but there is still an awful lot left to do.
It’s time to level the playing field once and for all.
When I started out in football, I felt 20 yards behind any other child because of where I grew up. Imagine the talent that we are missing out on when underprivileged children don’t have a community like mine around them. Everyone has a role to play here. We need to really look at ourselves in the mirror and ask, ‘Are we doing enough to help these children?’ I say the same thing to companies all the time. Nobody knows your skill- set and infrastructure better than you. What can you do to help level the playing field? While we work on the bigger picture, I’m using the resources I have to equip all children with vital life skills and the tools they need to navigate whatever adversity they are facing.
We’ve demonstrated what we can do when we come together. Each and every one of us can make a difference to a child’s life, big or small. Sometimes all they need is a kind word – surely we can give them that?
Make-up Bari Khalique, photographic assistant Zaineb Abelque, styling assistants Mirko Pedone, Rosie Borgerhoff Mulder, production Yasser Abubeker, production assistant Anna Julia Winter