When Marcus Rashford heard he had been awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Manchester this summer, he put the phone down and turned to his girlfriend who had just graduated with a first in advertising and brand management.
Lucia,’ said Rashford. “How long did it take you to get your degree?” “Three years” she replied.
“Well, I’ve just done it in 36 hours!” Rashford was only having a bit of fun but that was how long it took the Manchester United player to persuade Prime Minister Boris Johnson to make a U-turn over free meals for underprivileged children in the summer holidays.
Now he is being honoured with an MBE at the age of 22 for his efforts to combat child poverty, and the boy from the deprived parts of Manchester is looking forward to going to Buckingham Palace with proud mum Melanie.
“I know I’ve got to take my mum, she doesn’t give me a choice,’ Rashford tells BBC Breakfast this morning. ‘Then I’ve got to pick between my brothers and sisters wish me luck! It’s all just a little bit strange. People from where we come from don’t get these type of things, so we don’t know how to act or behave. It’s just a proud moment for everyone.”
Melanie raised her five children, three boys and two girls in the tough suburbs of Withington, Fallowfield and Northern Moor, working hard to make ends meet. Rashford is familiar with the breakfast clubs and school meal voucher scheme that he has fought to have extended over school holidays to help families struggling through the pandemic.
Another beneficiary of free meals as a boy, Mayor of London Sadiq Khan, led the tributes to Rashford. ‘When I first heard about Marcus’s campaign, and that he was championing the right of every child to have access to a decent meal all year round, it moved me deeply,’ Mr Khan told Sportsmail.
“Everything from the conviction with which he stated his position to the determination with which he pursued this cause spoke of someone for whom little had come easy but who wanted life to be a little bit easier for others”
“Like Marcus, my views on free school meals were not based on political ideology but on my own experience. They were something my siblings and I relied upon and they provided us with the sustenance needed to give our very best at school”
“What Marcus has achieved on behalf of so many young people is extraordinary and he thoroughly deserves this honour.’
Friends describe Rashford as a humble individual who doesn’t want this to be about him, but United legend Bryan Robson believes he is right to use his status to effect change”
Footballers have a great platform to influence people, so it’s important when they think of others through hard times that their influence is put to good use” said Robson, himself an OBE.
“Marcus has not just thought of others, he has lived through it. He has been able to draw on his childhood and use that as motivation for this fight. That is why he is so passionate about it”
“The Government weren’t overly receptive at first but he didn’t give up. His determination helped changed policy and that gives inspiration to those he is trying to help. It would have been easy to say, “Well, I’ve tried, someone else can have a go”, and just fall back into his football life but he didn’t.
As much as Rashford’s campaign has been a nationwide effort, pride in his award will be most keenly felt in Manchester.
“Marcus is a truly outstanding ambassador for our city-region and we could not be more proud of him,” said Mayor of Greater Manchester Andy Burnham. “He is the embodiment of everything we stand for here a place where people who get on in life are always ready to give back and never forget where they came from”
“Marcus has spoken powerfully about his upbringing and has given a voice to thousands of young people who too often go unnoticed and unheard. He is building a movement that will change millions of lives, and hopefully our country, for the better.”
Those who knew Rashford growing up spoke fondly of the boy who became a working-class hero. At Button Lane Primary School in Northern Moor, teaching assistant Pat Woolham remembers the boy who would always helped clear up at breakfast club. “He comes back here quite a lot he was here last week and always comes to find me” she said. “We were very proud of him when he went to Man United but even more so now.”
Dave Horrocks, the chairman of Rashford’s first club Fletcher Moss Rangers, used to drive him to United’s academy every Sunday. “Marcus has challenged himself every step along the way,” said Horrocks. “Every challenge he’s risen to and been prepared for it.”
When Rashford’s elder brother Dwaine got a car, he and family friend Elliot Marshall took over the driving duties. “He’d get out and go straight on the green near where he lived and play football with the other boys and girls,’ recalls Marshall. “He wasn’t showing off. He would pass the ball and let them do things. Marcus has always had time for people.”