Manchester United releasing a statement about Marcus Rashford following an emergency meeting at Carrington was expected. The content? Not so much.
Rashford had “taken responsibilities” for his actions, United said, and he would now return to training and be available for selection, starting with Thursday’s trip to Wolverhampton Wanderers.
Given the nature of his absence from Carrington ahead of the FA Cup tie against Newport County, a further reprimand of time out had been anticipated. Erik ten Hag is trying to instil a code of professionalism at United and Rashford calling in sick for training last Friday after landing back in Manchester that morning via private jet, following two nights out in Belfast, fell several rungs below the benchmark.
Jadon Sancho was dropped from the squad against Arsenal in September for failing to apply himself adequately in the final training session before the game. At least Sancho turned up, some might say.
Dropping Rashford for the Wolves match could reasonably have been seen as consistent. Instead, Rashford is reinstated at the first opportunity.
That leaves United and Ten Hag open to accusations of double standards, but there is context that cannot be ignored.
For a start, Rashford, according to the club, has shown contrition. The statement — doubtless put through the grinder of legalese at a club with more lawyers than trophies in recent years — stops short of reporting a Rashford apology. But clearly, the dialogue that took place at Carrington on Monday morning between the player, his brother and agent Dwaine Maynard, Ten Hag and football director John Murtough, left United satisfied that he recognised he had made a major error of judgement.
That is more than Sancho ever acknowledged, even during a video session with Ten Hag a week after the Arsenal game. By then, Sancho had compounded his training performance by posting a rebuttal on social media that effectively branded Ten Hag a liar, an escalation that required an equally strong retraction to mend. Sancho’s defiance meant his exile extended all the way to Borussia Dortmund.
United are refusing to disclose if Rashford apologised outright — not just for missing training after back-to-back nights out but also for misleading club staff when footage first appeared — but he has acknowledged his failures. Although choosing to go out in Belfast can be seen as a provocative act to Ten Hag’s authority, given his doctrine for discipline, it was not as explicit a challenge to the United manager as Sancho’s outburst.
Then there is the background that Rashford has actually performed for Ten Hag, something Sancho only ever did in fleeting moments. Rashford scored 30 goals for United last campaign and Ten Hag felt before this episode he had a positive relationship with him, whatever gripes the forward may have had this season about playing wider left or on the opposite flank.
It must also be accepted that no manager treats all players the same. Sir Alex Ferguson let Eric Cantona wear what he liked given he was doing the business on the pitch, while Nani was spared the hairdryer treatment because of his disposition.
Ten Hag did try to coax Sancho into playing well by affording him a break in the Netherlands last season. He also handed the captain’s armband to Cristiano Ronaldo despite him leaving an earlier game against Tottenham before the final whistle. But Sancho kept underwhelming in performances and timekeeping, while Ronaldo, who was always resistant to Ten Hag’s high pressing, gave an explosive, unsanctioned interview.
Ten Hag addressed his tailored approach when Antony was brought back into the squad following a criminal investigation for charges he has repeatedly denied. “Those issues are nothing to do with each other,” Ten Hag said of Antony and Sancho. “One is internal, the other one is external.”
Still, there is a sense of truce about the Rashford situation. Ten Hag needs to be able to select his top scorer from last season given Rasmus Hojlund is the only other centre-forward available, and results until the end of the campaign may dictate his status as manager. United as a club are desperate for the finances that come with Champions League qualification, which Rashford’s goals could provide.
Make no mistake, Ten Hag has been deeply disappointed, even angered, with Rashford’s actions. At his Friday press conference at 1.15pm, the Dutchman emphasised his hope that the arrival of INEOS would trigger a rise in standards across the club given his work in changing the dressing-room culture. In what now can be seen as awkward timing, Rashford had arrived back from Northern Ireland a few hours earlier at 7.41am.
Rashford appears to have been acting like a teenager grounded by parents. Except he is 26 years old now and should be one of the leaders in the squad.
The truth, from speaking to several people connected to Rashford and the club, appears to be that being front and centre has never come naturally to him. His campaign for free school meals and publication of inspirational books brought happiness to millions of children, but also personal pressure to maintain an unblemished profile.
His football ability also provides for his family and wider network, which is a unique type of stress, and the glare he has operated under for eight years after breaking through in a whirlwind has been intense. Playing through pain and adjusting to five different managers is also mentally affecting.
Rashford is not the first footballer to chase the release of a night out, but doing so when playing poorly or in a way that impacts him doing his job is what agitates fans. In 1999, United’s squad went boozing in the 10 days between May 16 and May 26 despite having three matches in that period, but they were also lifting three trophies to win the treble.
Rio Ferdinand has spoken this week about players needing to pick their moments to go out, referencing Rashford’s choice to visit Chinawhite nightclub after United had lost the Manchester derby 3-0 at Old Trafford. Ten Hag called that decision “unacceptable” but added that Rashford, who was celebrating his birthday, had apologised.
The question United will be asking is how much of a pattern of behaviour is represented by the Belfast trip and whether the very public fallout from it is the kind of jolt Rashford requires.
During a pre-season interview in San Diego, Ten Hag was asked about Rashford’s application following his new five-year contract, worth a base salary in the region of £325,000 per week. “For all the players, you have to live the right life,” he said. “When you’re not living the right life, you get killed. What is important? Sleep, recovery, nutrition. Three key areas and when you don’t do this right, you have a problem. You can’t perform.”
Rashford offered to play against Newport on Sunday, but Ten Hag instructed him to stay at Carrington and train, which he did. By then, Rashford had reported ill on Friday and Saturday, missing another training session and therefore not travelling with the rest of the squad to South Wales. That background is why Ten Hag was restricted in what he said before and after the match at Rodney Parade.
Rashford disrespected Ten Hag by partying in Belfast and trying to cover it up, but he also let down his team-mates, some of whom are said to have taken a very dim view of the matter. The story that has emerged of that Thursday night suggests Rashford needs care and support, but also a dose of reality from those close to him. Reaching his full potential requires even more commitment, not less.
Sir Dave Brailsford, INEOS’ sporting director, delivered that kind of rhetoric in an address to the squad at Carrington on Monday. The INEOS team had intended to wait until Premier League ratification of Sir Jim Ratcliffe’s deal to speak directly to the players, but the circumstances around Rashford invited mediation. Brailsford explained his approach to sporting excellence and the INEOS plan for the club and was said to have been very compelling. Having a member of the hierarchy tackle matters head-on went down well, according to some sources close to the club.
Ten Hag tends not to ignore issues either. In December 2022, he dropped Rashford for being late to a team meeting on the morning of United’s last visit to Molineux despite him being in excellent form. Rashford responded by scoring the winner off the bench and Ten Hag will doubtless be pleased if history repeats itself.
What then happens in future weeks and into this summer remains to be seen.
(Top photo: Ben Stansall/AFP via Getty Images)