How Marcus Rashford saved football and out-sloganed Dominic Cummings
It was near the end of the third game back for England’s Premier League in (they hope) the post-Covid footballscape and Norwich City were looking rather bedraggled. “Some teams will be better prepared for the return than others,” said the commentator. “Some teams will have better fitness.”
Really? How can this be? Why, when the Prem was lobbying from the first decent, maybe even the last indecent, opportunity for football being a special case for lockdown exemption because it had the power to “lift the nation’s spirits”, isn’t every side absolutely raring to go? But I guess no two clubs are the same in these – cliche alert – unprecedented times, just as no two players are the same.
Some will have had good lockdowns, some bad ones. The vast majority will have had lockdowns not too different from you and me, only in vastly bigger, whiter houses. They will have attempted to work from home, in their case train on their own. But while some have hosted sex parties and crashed their cars, Marcus Rashford spent his isolation staying sharp for Friday night at Tottenham and still found a few spare moments to devise a wizard wheeze which would leave Boris Johnson looking like he’d just been sold the most outrageous and humiliating dummy.
The Prime Minister’s shorts were round his ankles. His hair was a (even bigger) mess. He was bereft of a Churchillian quote or some Latin or Greek and the usual blustering wouldn’t help this time. Meanwhile, Rashford is looking like the runner-up, in the non-NHS category, for Man of the Year, Hero of the Pandemic (Sir Tom Moore’s got the main prize sewn up).
Rashford’s aim had not been to make a mug of Johnson though that was the outcome. His aim had been to stop poor children going hungry. At first, the PM wasn’t having it. Like the lumbering centre-half squinting at a high ball flying at him from out of the clouds, he bellowed: “Leave this to me.” No, free school meals would not be extended right through the summer.
Ministers on the daily media round were to reinforce the message. Surely at least one of them must have thought back to the rammy over Dominic Cummings and the poor saps sent out to defend Johnson’s special adviser only for more revelations about birthday visits to castles to be splashed over front pages? Anyway, ministers dutifully reinforced and the government waited for the final whistle on the issue. Then, out of seemingly nowhere (though he’d actually been campaigning for a while), Rashford appeared to stun the high ball and in the same movement perform the flip-flap copied from Ronaldinho which observers describe as his only ostentation. Johnson was nutmegged. He was beaten. He tried to compliment Rashford. He tried to claim he’d only learned about the footballer’s passionate activism earlier that day. He even tried to announce the voucher extension like it has been his idea all along. It was a snivelling response, and a highly embarrassing U-turn.
The headline “Rashford 1, Johnson 0” will be right up there when it’s time for those Reviews of 2020. But even if the PM was ignorant of Rashford’s campaigning, why wasn’t his office aware of it? Why indeed wasn’t Cummings aware of it? A high-profile sportsman, a footballer but not one of those who existed in the game’s elite-level protective bubble displaying self-absorption and instances of excess, was always going to be a potential problem for a government. Rashford was the right man and child poverty was the right cause.
That is not to say he blithely chose from a selection of causes like he would new wheels. This one is close to his heart. He knows about food banks because when he was the same age as the kids he’s striving to protect he depended on one. He’d done the research and spoke to good people dedicated to the issue. Social media-savvy, he knew how to mobilise online support, directing it to the relevant MPs.
Cummings is supposed to be brilliant at identifying what matters most, what will gain popular appeal. His slogans are supposed to be world-class: “Take back control”, “Get Brexit done”. But maybe it’s not only Johnson who’s met his match with Rashford.
Look at Rashford’s urgent despatches during his campaign: “We need more vans”, “I refuse to give up” and – best of all, to those in power when he was getting frustrated – “Find your humanity”. Cummings, if it was still him in charge of the punchy messages at that point, seemed to be losing his touch with the widely-derided Covid slogan “Stay alert”. “Find your humanity” beats it easily, shows it the ball and speeds down the wing.
Rashford to take over as the PM’s right-hand man? No 10 will have to wait; he’s still got a job to do as the No 10 in an under-performing Manchester United side. Maybe we should stop being so hard on football’s “Covidiots” who flouted lockdown with call-girls and bad driving; they were widely ridiculed at the time and must have felt suitably chastened as the game remembered the pandemic’s victims on its return.
They were the reason the Health Secretary challenged footballers to do more to help but neither Matt Hancock nor his boss knew how one enormously impressive young man would respond, and how silly they would end up looking. Rashford is the Sports Personality of the Year and no mistake.
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