How it all started with Marcus Rashford: He was never supposed to make his famous Europa League debut for Manchester United, things could have been so different

Marcus Rashford is the most in-form striker in the world right now but things could have worked out so differently for the Manchester United forward, with his debut – seven years ago today – only materialising due to two sliding-door moments.

It may take some digging into the real recesses of their minds, given what came next replaced it quickly, but United fans will still be able to remember the feeling of dread back on February 25th 2016.

The team had been in disarray weeks before, with Louis van Gaal lucky to keep his job pre-Christmas, in a period where they were knocked out of the Champions League by finishing third behind the might of PSV and Wolfsburg, and also lost to Stoke City.

United dropped down to the Europa League and were then embarrassed in their first game, losing 2-1 to Danish side FC Midtjylland in the round of 32.

Heading back to Old Trafford for the return leg, Van Gaal’s team were without Wayne Rooney, with the striker suspended, leaving them staring down the barrel of a gun when it came to selecting who would start up front.

Anthony Martial was set to lead the line but the sight of the Frenchman walking down the tunnel injured during the warm-up left Van Gaal desperate, with Rashford the sole alternative he could turn to.

The forward had made his first appearance on the bench during a win over Watford earlier in the season but hadn’t come on.

He’d made just two starts for the under-21s but here he was, in a huge game, making his first senior start.

It’s fair to say Rashford made the most of the opportunity, scoring twice while the game was locked at 1-1, to help United turn the tie around and progress at the Danes’ expense.

Marcus Rashford celebrating his first premier league goal

Just three days later, Rashford made his first start in the league, in a huge game against title-chasing Arsenal.

Van Gaal might have stolen the show when he pretended to get pushed over in an argument with Arsene Wenger but it was Rashford who hogged the limelight instead, scoring his third and fourth goals in just two games.

In normal circumstances, there’s no way the then 18-year-old would have been so close to the first-team squad for two such crucial games, never mind starting in them.

A star had been instantly born. And his youthful excitement, running towards the United fans in celebration after scoring his first against the Gunners, instantly became iconic with supporters.

His back-to-back European and league debuts had caught everyone by surprise but the suspensions and injuries weren’t the only circumstances in his favour at the time.

Marcus Rashford on fire

Just a month before his debut, Crewe Alexandra wanted to bring the youngster in on loan, despite him not being able to boast any first-team experience at Old Trafford.

The reason that the move never came off was because youth coach Warren Joyce had shown faith in Rashford and was intent on him staying put.

Speaking that June, then Crewe manager James Collins said: “I spoke to Warren Joyce earlier in the season about taking him on loan for us.

“Warren said we couldn’t because they needed him for their U21s and a week later he made his debut for the first team and the rest is history.

“It just shows there are good players in academies but opportunity is the key.

“Marcus Rashford could easily still be languishing in United under-18s because the manager hadn’t put him in.

“But whatever you say about Van Gaal this season, he threw them in, maybe through injury. He took his chance, fair play to the kid.

“How many other Marcus Rashfords are there out there in these academies? I think quite a lot.”

Rashford and Sancho

Speaking that year, Nicky Butt, then head of United’s youth setup, lavished praise on the club’s precocious young talent.

“You couldn’t pick a better player to be at the club, or any big club, than Marcus,” he said.

For much of his time at United between then and this season it has been difficult for Rashford to live up to the hype that surrounded him following his meteoric rise.

His career to this point has had a number of highs, not least scoring the winner for United in their Champions League win at PSG back in 2019, but has also been marked by lows too. The racist abuse he suffered after missing a penalty for England in their Euro 2020 defeat to Italy naturally had a significant impact on the player and he has had to unfairly put up with criticism of his work in the community to push for children to receive free school meals, with many fans believing he put politics above football. But the current season has seen his game reach new levels under Erik ten Hag’s guidance.

With the help of Benni McCarthy, he is in the form of his life, scoring 24 goals already in 2022/23, his most in any campaign in his career and with the spectre of Cristiano Ronaldo no longer looming over the club, Rashford is the main man.

If he leads United to their first silverware in six years he’ll truly stamp his place amongst the greats at the club, particularly given his journey from Europa League saviour to leading light.

And to think, the debut that gave him liftoff may have never happened when it did if Warren Joyce and Anthony Martial’s interventions hadn’t happened.

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