Earlier this week, Marcus Rashford stopped being a teenager. And yet, the Manchester United forward has already made such a devastating impact at Old Trafford that most of us probably haven’t thought of him in those hormonally-charged, emotionally-erratic terms for some time. He’s already an important part of his managers’ plans at both club and international level; in fact, his influence is already bordering upon indispensable.
But it would be wrong to suggest Rashford’s story is a once-in-a-lifetime fairy tale. It’s certainly true that he hasn’t looked back since scoring a brace on his debut against FC Midtjylland, a game he wouldn’t even have started had Anthony Martial not suffered an injury in the warmup, but we’ve seen similar meteoric rises from teenagers in the Premier League before.
In fact, in terms of teenage hauls throughout Premier League history, Rashford ranks just ninth alongside Emile Heskey and has been outscored by some very dubious names – specifically, Chris Bart-Williams, Alan Smith and Francis Jeffers. That serves as a timely reminder of how young footballers can fall as quickly as their ascension to the top; the number of teenagers tipped for greatness who didn’t make it is far, far longer than those who did.
Rashford may be a key player for England and United at the age of 20, but there’s nothing to guarantee he still will be at 25, let alone 30. It’s often forgotten Smith was one of the most exciting young English players around when United snapped him up from Leeds, just as it’s equally forgotten Jeffers was once so much more than simply the butt of a sarcastic Fox in the Box quip. Incredibly though, the 36-year-old scored just 32 more goals throughout his entire career after leaving Everton as a strike prodigy in 2001.
But there are already signs Rashford won’t fall away in the same manner as some of those aforementioned names. His goals-per-game ratio in the Premier League is actually amongst the weakest of the teenagers we took a closer look at, but the United youngster’s ability to change games speaks for itself; eleven of his 26 strikes across all competitions, almost half, have been game-winning goals – defined as goals that put the scoreline into a lead his side manage to hold onto. Only Wayne Rooney and Romelu Lukaku, who spent the early years of his career in Belgium’s Jupiler League, scored more game-winning goals as teenagers.
Likewise, in comparison to Jeffers, Heskey, Smith and a certain Kevin Gallen, Rashford has already found the net at international level. In the context of this analysis, that appears to be a significant difference between the players who reach their full potential and those who fall slightly short. Perhaps that’s an indication of how some young players were viewed as mere flashes in the pan in their teenage years, but the correlation is certainly intriguing and bodes well for Rashford’s future.
Perhaps the overarching concern though, is how pretty much every player to rack up a noteworthy haul as a teenager has suffered some form of burnout prematurely.
Robbie Fowler lost his Midas touch after leaving Anfield, Michael Owen’s legs had given out by his late twenties, Rooney hasn’t been the same player since his penultimate season under Sir Alex Ferguson and Smith, Heskey and Jeffers regressed dramatically in goalscoring terms (the former even became a defensive midfielder) after the spritely form of their younger years.
The only real exception is Nicolas Anelka, who depended on sheer class and changed his game to become a powerful rather than purely pacey striker, and that should be a concern for United and England. Rashford has already racked up 5834 competitive minutes across all competitions, England included, and is already being depended on heavily by both Jose Mourinho and Gareth Southgate to perform under pressure.
While it’s hard to resist giving such an exciting young talent the chances to further prove himself and develop his game, history suggests playing so much competitive football so early will impact the longevity of his career.