After Marcus Rashford’s reaction to criticism after his team’s defeat to Atletico Madrid on Tuesday night, we should reflect on how players are treated when they suffer a slump in form.
Rashford was harangued by fans who wanted interaction with the Manchester United forward, and they cited his poor performance against the Spanish champions as a reason that he should have given the supporters his time.
In truth, it is not the worst argument for a fan to make, but to do so to Rashford himself is perhaps provocative. The 24-year-old has acknowledged that he was struggling with a shoulder injury last season, and he is evidently not yet at his best following surgery. It has probably been Rashford’s worst run of form since he broke into the United first team as a 17-year-old under Louis van Gaal.
When he emerged as a young goalscoring prospect, his interviews suggested he was a carefree boy, not overawed by his circumstances, and not weighed down by the problems of adult existence – much like many of the best players who start their professional careers early and with promise.
Over the years, Rashford has perhaps failed to reach the top of his potential. Perhaps more accurately, his potential is not limited simply by a willingness to train everyday, but it is also limited by having to grow up. Rashford has dealt with injuries, the distraction of his own team’s poor form, and his growing social conscience. There is no suggestion that he should not have campaigned to improve the chronic problem of childhood poverty and hunger, but such an effort must take its toll.
While some players are single-minded enough to focus on their careers and little besides it, Rashford instead has invited criticism from the government, some of the nastier elements of the press, and some of the more reactionary elements of the public. For every reasonable criticism of his performance people might make on Twitter, there is undoubtedly a toxic element, and also a blatantly racist current to some of it. Anyone exposed to social media can understand how damaging it can be to users, for a host of reasons, but for a young athlete who is attempting to take on the political status quo, it unsurprisingly carries with it a far more vituperative sting.
While Rashford appears to be a thoroughly decent man, he is not invincible. Few athletes are able to shrug off relentless criticism, and perhaps we should acknowledge the possibility it is grinding the player and the person down. At that point, all of us must consider – is it doing anyone any good to tweet to him to say he is underperforming?
Does a fan expressing his frustration directly to a player, and being able to do so at any time of day, make anything better for anyone?
The same goes for Harry Maguire, another United player. He went from a reliable figurehead of a very impressive Leicester City team, and a respected England international, to a player who seems prone to calamity. We know he can be a very dependable player, and his defensive abilities are still in evidence on occasion, but clearly something is dragging it down.
Whether it is the simple pressure of playing for United, the troubles of those around him, or his personal difficulties following his arrest in Greece, there is enough to speculate. Importantly, none of his managers have suggested there is a personal failing on his part, nor have they done so for Rashford. And it is not like United’s past managers have been reluctant to issue public criticism to players when they thought it was warranted.
In all of this, we should consider the experience of a former United player, Wayne Rooney. Recently he opened up to discuss that he would drink too much when on duty with his team, hinting at loneliness and – at times at least – an unhappy outlook with his life. Now, Rooney perhaps invited a little more criticism because of his more frenetic personal life, but knowing what we do now, we should all wonder if the abuse or criticism that was aimed at him really improved the situation.
Of course, there are times when players come in for some striking insults, and it’s not always unfair. Luis Suarez and John Terry, to pick names out of a hat, did some truly odious things, and until they offer credible apologies they should not be allowed to escape from the shadows of their misdeeds. Perhaps inevitably, their ability to apparently shrug off even warranted attacks might be part of their durable success and consistency on the pitch.
When we see others in our workplace suffering, struggling with the task at hand, a more natural reaction is to offer sympathy, and to ask to help with their workload or to assist with deeper obstacles. As people we are better suited to offering sympathy up close, and mockery from a distance. While it is in some ways natural, it is no more constructive. When it comes to footballers suffering under the microscope, some generosity might benefit us all.