It was late in the second half and a superb first touch from a long pass gave teenager Marcus Rashford the platform to drive at Chelsea’s defence, beat his man to the byline and whip in a misguided cross that fell straight into Thibaut Courtois’ hands. Paint-drying answer’s to punditry Martin Keown felt compelled to share his finite wisdom, a simple two-clause sentence that highlighted everything wrong with English football; “Clearly a massive talent, but he should be playing more.”
This is the same Martin Keown who was involved in the same England squads as the once world-class Michael Owen, whose career was over before he was 30 because of the injury problems he developed from playing senior football twice a week at the age of 16. This is the same Martin Keown who presents himself as an indisputable Arsenal man, a club whose most promising academy graduate for a generation, Jack Wilshere, is spending the season on loan at Bournemouth because he hasn’t completed a full campaign since his debut term in 2010/11.
But alas, the seemingly genetic determination to put pressure on a young English player takes over, and Keown manages to turn even what was a genuinely fantastic first touch into a negative for Rashford; hyping him up yet knocking him down in the same sentence. What does Keown expect the 19-year-old to do with that advice? Leave Manchester United? Publicly criticise Jose Mourinho? Demand he starts over arguably Europe’s best striker of the last decade, Zlatan Ibrahimovic?
None of the above seems like particularly sound career advice for a teenager who made his first-team debut just 13 months ago, as a result of injuries to senior team-mates, and whose own shortcomings were more than evident during his first start since February. Admittedly, Rashford was given one hell of a shift as the lone attacking player after Ander Herrera’s red card, but whilst he had Chelsea’s defence on their heels more than once, his end product simply didn’t live up to his direct and dangerous dribbling.
Keown may claim that’s down to a lack of confidence due to his limited playing time, but every young player is plagued by inconsistency, especially those in the winger-forward mould.
And the idea that Rashford hasn’t been given enough minutes this season is an absolute myth; he ranks 11th throughout United’s squad for minutes in the Premier League this term – trumping Wayne Rooney, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Marouane Fellaini, Anthony Martial and Michael Carrick to name a few – has only been bettered by four players in terms of Europa League appearances, including Paul Pogba and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and has completed the full ninety minutes in two of United’s four FA Cup outings this term, whilst coming off with one minute to spare after scoring against Blackburn in the fifth round.
Plenty of football for a youngster still learning his trade, especially at one of the biggest clubs in the world. In fact, how many teenagers across Europe are getting that kind of game-time at a club of United’s size? There’s none at Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool or Manchester City – there’s none at Bayern Munich, Real Madrid, Barcelona or PSG either.
Some may argue not enough game-time has come at centre-forward, the position where Rashford impressed so unexpectedly last season with a cohort of crucial goals against some of United’s biggest rivals – namely Arsenal and Manchester City.
But it’s time for a reality check; Rashford is 19 years of age and some distance away from being the finished article. Sticking him out on the wing for a season certainly won’t stifle his potential to the extent that he’s no longer capable of becoming a world-beater – in fact, it will likely improve other aspects of his game and make him a better-rounded player.
Perhaps Keown’s comment was a flippant one, designed spontaneously to avoid dead air. But nonetheless, it highlights how we expect far too much far too soon from young English players, put too much pressure on them and, in some cases, inadvertently burn out their careers. If Rashford was Spanish or Portuguese, it’s hard to imagine Keown saying the same thing. And he may be simply the dull, matter-of-fact pundit that is Martin Keown, but his opinions inevitably influence those of the millions who are watching.
Keown’s rashness on Rashford is either misinformed, irresponsible or both. As much as we need to change how we view and handle young players in English football, British punditry could do with a brush-up as well.