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‘It is never about him’: how Marcus Rashford became such a devastating activist 

When Marcus Rashford injured his back after taking a heavy knock in Manchester United’s 1-0 FA Cup replay win against Wolverhampton in January, it was bad news for him and his club – but also the start of an incredible journey for the England striker.

The double stress fracture indicated he would be out of action for some time. Football had been his life, his routine, his discipline since joining the academy system at Manchester United at the age of seven.

Rashford receiving medical attention after being injured while playing against Wolverhampton at Old Trafford, Manchester. Photograph: Andrew Yates/Reuters

Then came the coronavirus pandemic lockdown. “He really needed to focus on something to get him through it. He needed something to give him consistency,” said Kelly Hogarth, Rashford’s right-hand woman at the international talent agency Roc Nation. “So this was the first opportunity he had to really think about what he wanted to do, and how he wanted to do it.

“And he turned a really horrible moment for him personally into something that was so rewarding.”

Rashford, the activist, was unleashed to devastating effect. His campaigning on child food poverty has forced two government U-turns. While the 23-year-old has captured the zeitgeist, No 10 has been exposed as out-of-touch and seemingly floundering.

His fundraising for FareShare, a charity collecting surplus food, quickly raised more than £20m for children’s school meals, including a “significant” donation from himself. Then followed his ultimately successful campaign to extend food vouchers to children during school holidays.

“He read an article in the Guardian that the voucher scheme was coming to an end,” Hogarth said. Having received free school meals growing up in a single parent family of five children in Wythenshawe, south Manchester, Rashford was horrified. His memories were of fear of food poverty during holidays, of making out he was full so his mother, Melanie, who was working three jobs, would allow herself to eat. “He rang us and said ‘This cannot happen; these families cannot survive on just food banks’,” Hogarth said.

Marcus Rashford and his mother, Melanie, visiting FareShare Greater Manchester at New Smithfield Market, which has named a new warehouse in her honour.
Marcus Rashford and his mother, Melanie, visiting FareShare Greater Manchester at New Smithfield Market, which has named a new warehouse in her honour. Photograph: Fareshare/Mark Waugh/PA

Recently made an MBE, Rashford’s power remains undiminished. This week he announced a partnership with Macmillan Children’s Books to promote reading and literacy, having never had books himself as a child. He has campaigned for an increase in the Healthy Start food vouchers and is now working to promote understanding among families about how to get the most nutritional value through them, including through collaboration with celebrity chefs, such as Tom Kerridge.

One would be forgiven for thinking that with his renewed on-pitch commitments – his recent 16-minute Champions League hat-trick in Man U’s 5-0 victory over RB Leipzig shows no less dedication to the game – Rashford is a mere figurehead now for the movement he spearheaded. But no. “He is 100% hands-on, 100% part of the conversation,” Hogarth said. Talking to families and charities, chairing Zoom calls with food industry chiefs, telephone calls with the prime minister, pulling together his child food poverty taskforce – Rashford takes it all on. Each week he reads analytical reports from the Food Foundation.

His strength comes from his very tight circle, at the core of which lies his mother, his brothers Dane and Dwaine, who manage his on-pitch interests, old school friends Jamie Hendley and Ashley Leather, and Hogarth. She has represented his off-pitch activities for some time, and took him with her in April to Roc Nation, the agency founded by Shawn Carter, better known as Jay-Z, Beyonce’s husband.

“He has always kept his circle close, in that they know who he is. His circle is important to him. The consistency is important to him,” Hogarth said.

Henry Dimbleby, the author of the government-commissioned national food strategy, described Rashford as “brilliant”. He sent the footballer a copy of the report in August, “and much to my delight, he got in touch in September to say he wanted to campaign for the recommendations”. Dimbleby has since addressed Rashford’s taskforce, explaining the thinking behind the recommendations.

Hogarth said: “Henry Dimbleby said the other day: ‘Do you think Marcus ever steps back to look at what he has achieved?’. And I said that it’s quite difficult, because he has always envisaged this as a long-term project. It’s hard to reflect on wins when you know it’s a stepping stone to the next thing.”

While Hogarth, the vice-president of strategic marketing and communications at Roc Nation Sports, and their team there help make things happen, most of the ideas come from Rashford, and he remains at the book-end of each one; the CEO, guiding the conversations and also putting in the calls. Knowing that “this appetite, this ambition for him has always been there”, Hogarth is not surprised at his direction, but is at the speed of movement.

A young Marcus Rashford.
A young Marcus Rashford.

Growing up in a place where, if his mother was working, his teacher would drop him off at the end of the street from where his brothers would pick him up, or where the next-door neighbour’s door was always open, or where other friends and neighbours would drive him to football training, Rashford knows the power of community. “They never made him feel that asking for help was the wrong thing to do,” Hogarth said.

He is said to regard community as being key to societal change, to gaining a great level of empathy in general. His assets as an athlete help: he sees power in team work, in people coming together.

And he shrugs off criticism, saying he’s heard 10 times worse on the pitch. Setbacks make him redouble his efforts. When the Commons rejected Labour’s plea for free school meals to be extended over school holidays, he wasn’t beaten. “He was like: ‘How do we do it, then?’” Hogarth said, adding: “The greatest thing about him is it is never about him.”

As global charities unsurprisingly clamour to hitch his star power to their causes, his response is always the same: “I need to fix what’s going on in my own backyard first.”

Hogarth said: “The job for him is far from done.”

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