Heart Of Football

Rashford, Verstappen put youthful slant on an age-old question

Youth keeps on writing its own scripts, and older men keep on giving youth its head.

Two weeks ago, it was Max Verstappen, 18, winning the Spanish Grand Prix the first time that Dr Helmut Marko, 73, put him at the wheel of a Red Bull.

This weekend, Marcus Rashford, 18, is the youngest ever England player to score on debut for his country. Roy Hodgson, 68, is the manager who gave him that chance.

We knew - of course we will say we knew - that when talent meets opportunity in sport, age is irrelevant.

But if you saw on TV the reaction to Rashford's goal in Friday night's England v Australia game, then you cannot have missed the reaction of possibly the most knowledgeable person in the stadium.

There must be a temptation to put Rashford in and see how little time he needs to score. His goal on Friday, an expertly timed volley, was the stuff of instinct. He made mistakes after that, but at 18 he's entitled to do that. It's the other thing, the courage to dare, that is so impressive.

Mrs Mel Rashford, mother to the teenage wonder, didn't know whether to laugh, to shout or to cry. She clutched her heart, almost a mirror image to her son patting the England three lions badge over his heart.

The look on her face was shock mixed with maternal delight.

She had missed the start of her boy's phenomenal entry to top-class football when he played, and scored twice, on his debut for Manchester United at Old Trafford, the Theatre of Dreams.

That was way back on Feb 25, against the Danish team FC Midtjylland in the Europa League. Mum wasn't there because Marcus had told her he wouldn't be playing.

The lad couldn't have foreseen that Anthony Martial would feel a thigh muscle injury in the warm-up, 15 minutes before the kick-off. Another elder, Louis van Gaal, already by then worrying (with good reason) about his job as United's manager, turned to Rashford.

The rest, as they say, is history.

Rashford scored with his first shot as a Manchester United first-team player. On Friday, once again, he scored with his first shot, after just 138 seconds, in the senior England shirt.

He also scored on his respective debuts in the English Premier League (against Arsenal, days after the Midtjylland fairy tale), and on his first derby match against Manchester City.

There are intermediaries who sensed what he might do. For Rashford, from a quite tough area of street crime in Manchester, had been under United's wing since he was seven.

Before even that, he was playing with Fletcher Moss Rangers, a junior club with a reputation for taking kids off the street and turning some of them into fledgling pros.

Talk to any of the coaches at the United academy and they will tell you that the boy has natural born speed, an instinct to make the runs into scoring positions, and a healthy attitude to listen to instruction.

And then, something the coaches cannot give him, the oh-so-cool presence of mind to take the opportunities, no matter the level he's playing at or the experience of the opponents.

I can detail a few landmarks young Rashford has already eclipsed.

The name of George Best means everything to United fans of an older generation. Well, Rashford is now the youngest Man United player to score in a European game since Best, 51 years ago.

The names Tommy Lawton (1938) and Jimmy Greaves (1959) count too because they were, until Friday, the youngest players to score on their England debuts.

Marcus Rashford, at 18 years and 208 days, beat them both to it. Lawton was 19 years and 16 days on debut, Greaves was 19 years and 86 days.

Of course, youth gets a soccer academy start these days that wasn't available in the Lawton and Greaves eras.

And for the benefit of younger readers, there are two recent players who beat Rashford to scoring an England goal. One is Wayne Rooney (17 years and 317 days) when he hit his firstfor England. The other is Michael Owen (18 years and 164 days).

Rooney, now an "old" England player, all of 30 years of age, is still at it. He scored a thunderous goal from outside the penalty area against Australia on Friday.

Owen is in the commentary booth these days, and it's fair to say that he was at his absolute best when he scored as a teenager for England against Argentina in the 1998 World Cup in France.

I believe that Owen and Rooney, and many in between, shared something special that Rashford is showing us now.

Youth is fearless on the big stage, because youth hasn't had the time to be overawed by the weight of expectation.

When Louis van Gaal threw Rashford into that February game at Old Trafford, he might have gleaned from training and from the rapid rise of the youngster through the age group sides run by United (and by England from Under-16 upwards).

What Big Louis cannot foretell, nor will get the opportunity to oversee, is what Jose Mourinho will do with the talent.

Mourinho isn't noted for giving youth its head, and reports don't go away that he is courting an old boy, a certain Zlatan Ibrahimovic (35 next birthday) in Rashford's role.

Mrs Rashford will not be amused. But maybe by the time Mourinho gets his hand on the team sheet, Rashford's rise with England will have become even more irresistible.

Hodgson has the immediate task of deciding if Rashford, or the often injured Daniel Sturridge, make the final cut of his Euro 2016 squad.

After training tomorrow, if Sturridge is fit to take part, the manager has to cut back his selection from a provisional squad of 26 down to 23.

Will Rashford be in it? "Wait and see," Hodgson says. "But before Friday's game, you asked if I thought he could be up for it and was able to deal with the situation.

"I think we got a resounding yes. I'm really pleased for him, and on that performance, he wouldn't look out of place in anybody's 23."

The England squad, with Harry Kane and Jamie Vardy the most prolific strikers in the Premier League, is not shy of front runners.

But there must be a temptation to put Rashford in and see how little time he needs to score. His goal on Friday, an expertly timed volley, was the stuff of instinct.

He made mistakes after that, but at 18 he's entitled to do that. It's the other thing, the courage to dare, that is so impressive. Just putting his foot to the ball - the way that Verstappen puts his foot to the floor.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on May 29, 2016, with the headline 'Rashford, Verstappen put youthful slant on an age-old question'. Print Edition | Subscribe