In the midst of wholesale criticism for a perceived botched reply to a national crisis, the British government opted to fire a surprise shot across the bows at an easy and very public target.
Health Minister Matt Hancock’s sly dig during a daily briefing to the press back in April, was as pathetically calculated as it was unfair and unhelpful. His faux plea for the nation’s Premier League footballers to “play their part” and defer some of their wages provoked an articulate and in many cases, highly dignified backlash from some the game’s biggest stars.
It’s fair to say that generally speaking, footballers have got some PR issues. Their bloated salaries, notoriety from a select few and overall luxurious lifestyles at a time of austerity can seem painfully at odds with a nation still grappling with a pandemic and the subsequent dire financial repercussions.
However, the minister’s comments were not only a cheap shot aimed at deflecting Downing Street bound flack; they also blatantly ignored the myriad of examples of great work being done by an emerging generation of players. They also provided the perfect assist for a talented young footballer to take a very public and personal fight to the very heart of the government itself.
Marcus Rashford’s headline grabbing heroics are just the tip of an iceberg of good deeds done by the 22-year-old in recent weeks.
The Wythenshawe-born forward has helped raise millions of pounds for UK charity FareShare over the past few weeks and months, which has subsequently helped feed three million families during the national lockdown. Rashford has also founded a campaign to help tackle Manchester’s endemic homelessness; an issue which has blotched the thriving metropolis’ reputation over the past decade.
However, his crowning work has undeniably been to petition the government into a well documented u-turn on their recent plans to scrap free school meal vouchers over the summer months. The government funded program is a lifeline for struggling families. Using both his life experience and considerable platform, Rashford’s eloquent and impassioned letter to the Prime Minister has prompted universal praise.
— Nathan Wyburn Artist (@NathanWyburnArt) June 17, 2020
The England international’s letter spoke of his pride for representing his country as well as a humble acknowledgement that life could have ended up entirely different for a young lad raised by a single parent in one of Manchester’s poorest districts. After some trademark wobbling and immense pressure, the government caved in and scrapped their plans.
In an age when there is an unquantifiable disconnect between the players on the pitch and the fans on the terraces, it is heartening to see such a socially conscious cohort of footballers emerging for the modern era.
Rashford’s work belies a genuine commitment to his local community and an awareness of his immense privilege. Rather than shy away from his childhood difficulties and exist behind high perimeter walls equipped with CCTV, he has shown incredible empathy and heart-warming care for the kind of families he grew up with during his youth.
Jamie Carragher: “Marcus Rashford has took on the government and made them change policy. It’s unbelievable really — it’s a different type of leadership, a different type of courage.” #mulive [@footballdaily] pic.twitter.com/pfentwGVJ3
— utdreport (@utdreport) June 17, 2020
Encouragingly the 22-year-old is not alone in any of this. Manchester City winger Raheem Sterling has shown magnificent composure and bravery in the face of horrendous racial abuse over the past few seasons. His social media posting, which rightly questioned the media’s portrayal of young black players, proved to be a flashpoint in 2019 and he received universal praise for his honest laceration of what many perceive to be cheap fuel from the media for callous racism in wider-society.
Furthermore, just a few days after Hancock’s snide criticism, Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson revealed that he had contacted his fellow Premier League skippers to help set up an emergency Coronavirus fund for the NHS. Indeed, once you drill down into this current crop of high profile stars you can find a healthy cascade of good deeds and charitable endeavours.
👏 Harry Kane sponsoring Leyton Orient shirts in support of NHS charities
👏 Marcus Rashford fighting for free school meals and much more charity work
👏 Raheem Sterling and Jadon Sancho standing up for racial equality
The England front-line are heroes off the pitch too ❤️ pic.twitter.com/cRQzJ5LaAk
— GiveMeSport (@GiveMeSport) June 17, 2020
That aforementioned PR problem that has previously blighted footballers and their image off the field is still sadly prominent. Young men, stupendously well paid, will sometimes get into some very big trouble indeed. And of course, there are still those who generated the wrong sort of headlines during lockdown; but is wholly unfair to judge them all by a few bad apples.
Today’s breed of modern Premier League footballer has evolved from the collective beer and chocolate bar loving stars of the nineties who donned flashy suits for cup finals and were often stumbling out of nightclubs. To thrive in the modern game in 2020, you have to be squeaky clean, virtually teetotal and very communicable with the press as well as smartphone wielding supporters.
Yes, there is an argument to say that some footballers are conscious of their brand image and the cultivation of a following on social media. However, you cannot help but be struck by the sincerity of Rashford’s actions or the quiet dignity displayed by Sterling in the face of moronic abuse from some so-called football fans.
Their good deeds have rightly won praise from all quarters of the game and beyond. In a time of crisis, role models are crucial. Rather than aiming cheap kicks at the national game, perhaps politicians could learn a thing or two from a generation of talented and wealthy young men, who have tried their best to remember their roots and stay connected to a society that helped to forge them and ultimately to sustain them.