Touching response to Marcus Rashford’s clarion call reveals very best of England

Local communities step up to provide free meals to needy schoolchildren in lockdown

Marcus Rashford: sparked a nationwide campaign after the British government voted against extending the provision of free school meals until next Easter for children in need. Photo: Fareshare/Mark Waugh/PA

When Marcus Rashford wakes up on Saturday morning, he's entitled to feel that it has been a fairly productive week.

First he swooped in to score the winner against Paris Saint German on Tuesday night and then he provoked a genuine national social movement which began to take wings on Friday morning and then grew and grew until it filled the dank skies above the resolute constituencies of Doncaster and Sheffield and other everyday places; a shining example of the very best of England.

Less than a fortnight has passed since the Manchester United man was awarded an MBE for what started as a lone campaign to make sure that impoverished kids reliant on school meals didn't go hungry during the coronavirus shutdown.

Any expectation that the award would sate Rashford’s sense of quest was misplaced. Not long after the United game, he took to Twitter to say he’d be closely monitoring the House of Commons vote to extend free school meals until next Easter and at “those who are willing to turn a blind eye to the needs of our most vulnerable children”.


Several MPS took issue, with Brendan Clarke Smith, Conservative MP for Bassetlaw, declaring that he did "not believe in nationalising children" and calling for "less celebrity virtue-signalling on Twitter by proxy". The vote was defeated by 322-261.

Rashford’s Twitter feed lit up. On Thursday evening he issued another public plea to push politics to one side, stating that projected figures from the Free Meals Scheme task force indicated that “child food poverty has the potential to become the greatest pandemic the country ever faced”.

“I don’t have the education of a politician, many on Twitter have made that clear today, but I have a social education having lived through this and having spent time with the families and children most affected.”

Rashford was alluding to his own childhood, in Wythenshawe, in the Blair era, when he relied on school meals. It's a fiercely personal cause for him. And he was flooded with responses, not all sympathetic. Scroll through the comments and just three down comes: "Promoting socialism while living in a mansion earning 10M+ a year? Incredible. Can't afford to feed kids. Don't have kids," a view that generated a lot of support – including genuine unease at the idea of transforming the school canteen into a de facto soup kitchen over the holiday period.

But by Friday morning, people had begun to reach their own conclusions on what they wanted to do. Rashford spent the morning pinning locations from across England of small businesses and cafes whose people got in touch with him to independently pledge to make meals available to those who needed them during the school holiday period. The vows came from everywhere – from the Kingfisher fish and chip shop in Hull, The Poachers in Durham, from Oldham and other councils, from Mumtaz in Leeds.

The Art House in Eastbourne is offering free packed lunches all of next week that can be collected from the café: phone number included and 30 minutes advance noticed requested.

The offers kept pouring in – from Birkenhead, from Rotherham and from Kimble's in Billingham, who will be offering complimentary sausage and mash or nuggets and chips between the hours of four and five o clock. As I'm writing this, the acts of generosity keep on flooding into Rashford's timeline and he pins the location. And this during a period when all cafes and pubs are on their knees financially.

Better moment

It reduced the virtue signalling accusation to what it was: political slinging from the safety of the chambers, illuminating the unfathomable distance between the political representatives and what is happening on the ground during the pandemic. And if Rashford felt proud of what was happening, then he had a right to.

For when has English football had a better moment? Hadn't England shown the best of itself here? Isn't this exactly what David Cameron was banging on about in his big society spiel, before he vanished?

The origins of this unusual stand-off between the man who should be United's goalscoring pin-up and the Tory establishment goes back to the panic-stricken days of April. It was then, when the gravity of the coronavirus gripped Europe and everything ground to a halt, that Matt Hancock, the health secretary, quickly noted that given that health workers had made "the ultimate sacrifice" the least that Premier League footballers could do was "make a contribution and pay their part".

With business income threatened and compromised, the 400-odd footballers who enjoy the mega-wages of the elite tier of the game were held up as a convenient example of the spoilt and privileged.

What Hancock forgot is where many of these same footballers came from. Wayne Rooney, the Croxteth prodigy, was first in with his objections. Footballers made up less than 2 per cent of Britain's millionaires yet they were held up as the greedy and out of touch.

And Hancock's message inadvertently shone a spotlight on what many footballers were doing during the closedown. It wasn't just Rashford. A substantial donation to Glasgow food banks came from an anonymous source widely believed to be Andy Robertson, the Liverpool full back. Wilfried Zaha opened the doors of his London property chain to health workers for free accommodation. Paul Pogba set up a charity link with a vow to double the final figure reached. The list goes on.

But Rashford’s cause was of a different scale and in a different vision. The trajectory of the lifestyle of the typical English football star has been steep. Until the 1950s, they were Saturday heroes only. Through the 1960s and 1970s, they enjoyed a fleeting and temporary veneer of glamour and fame.

But once the vast waves of cash began rolling through the game in the 1990s, England’s band of top-tier footballers became suddenly and immensely wealthy and partitioned from life behind gated, nouveau mansions, unsure of how to live except ostentatiously and occasionally foolishly. The details of their transgressions invariably spilled onto the front pages of newspapers.

But it feels as if the emerging generations of football stars are better prepared for that sudden transformation from ambitious apprentice to fully realised English star. The reason Rashford is paid so well is that his job, his talent, is brutally pressurised. Almost nobody makes it to play up front for United. He has to perform and score week in or week out and when he falls short, he hears about it in spades.

And it feels like a kind of miracle that he has managed to inject such life and energy into this campaign. But in a catastrophic year Rashford has reminded people of the small everyday values that yesterday morning began flaring like beacons all across England. It was a majestic sight. He’s 22-years-old. And he’s right, too. He’s not a politician. Just imagine if he was.