Foresight is a gift rarely bestowed.
England’s failure to win the Euro 2020 final against Italy at Wembley has sparked fierce criticism and recriminations about the team’s management.
While it’s easy to be Ron Manager making retrospective pronouncements from the comfort of one’s sofa on what should have been done better to achieve the right result, one decision taken by the England management defies common sense: why Marcus Rashford was there on the night playing the fall guy for England.
It is well known that Rashford, still only 23-years-old, has been managing a long-term shoulder injury that would require surgery, as well as a foot injury, picked up in March. As a result, he has been woefully out of form. He has only scored seven goals in 33 appearances this year. It has been suggested that staff at his club, Man Utd, advised England management that he was not fit enough to start matches and he should rest over the summer.
Yet, he was still selected for the Euro 2020 squad.
Teams, of course, frequently gamble on the fitness of key players for international tournaments. They did so with Harry Kane and Harry Maguire. Their importance to the team was reflected by the fact that they played full matches. Kane played every game for England, and so did Maguire once he had regained full fitness. Rashford, though, only played for 84 minutes in total, as a substitute, over the whole tournament. That’s less than a full match.
So what was the point of picking him just to sit him on the bench, when he could have been spending valuable time resting and recuperating for the new season, which includes important England qualifying matches for next year’s World Cup.
Even more inexplicably, he was then asked to take a penalty in the final shootout without so much as a warm up, having been sent on just before the final whistle. He is normally a clutch penalty taker, but inevitably missed.
In a moving post on Twitter, Rashford wrote about enduring a ‘difficult season’ and going into the final ‘lacking confidence’, undoubtedly due to his injuries. He added: “I’ve always backed myself for a penalty but something didn’t feel quite right. During the long run up I was saving myself a bit of time and unfortunately the result was not what I wanted.” Long-term injury compounded by a lack of warm up equalled missing the goal by the width of the post after he had done the hard work of sending the keeper the wrong way. A top player just a little bit off-form ended up just a little bit off-sync in the crucial moment. Such are the fine margins between success and failure.
The consequence of being England’s fall guy wasn’t simply professional disappointment. He, along with the two other players who missed penalties, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka, have suffered horrific racial abuse on social media and a mural of him in his home suburb of Withington was defaced. A player who should not even have been there copping the flak for poor management decisions.
The obvious question to ask if he was not fit to play is why he didn’t withdraw from the team. Rashford admitted he considered it, but obviously the temptation to represent England in a tournament that was taking place practically at home was too much.
Of course, it was. Players want to play. They will play on broken legs, with broken heads, broken necks, damaged eye sockets, dislocated shoulders. Sometimes players need to be saved from themselves. Rashford should not have had to make such an impossible choice. The decision should have been taken out of his hands by the England management by not selecting him. Especially if they were only going to use him as a bench warmer. By not making the right decision they were party to a chain of events that ended with a dedicated England player who had sacrificed his health to play for the team being racially abused for it the moment things went wrong.
The FA and the England management have made loud noises about caring for the welfare of players and ensuring they are looked after. So where was their duty of care for Rashford?
Rashford will now belatedly have shoulder surgery later this month, which is likely to keep him out of the new Premiership season till October. It means that the team that pay his salary will be without his services for the first three months of the season, as will England for vital World Cup qualifying matches. All so that Rashford could be part of a tournament in which he barely played and where his only meaningful contribution was to miss one of the penalties that cost England their first major title in 55 years.
If England really are serious about winning major tournaments, then it is essential they stop making poor decisions that inevitably lead to poor outcomes. Back in 2016, after England’s ignominious exit from the previous Euros in the last 16 against Iceland, I wrote a post questioning the team’s preparation and decision-making process. Points 3, 4, 7, 8, 11 and 14 still remain pertinent. For all the progress England have made, it seems some bad habits die hard.
Namely, the need to show foresight and ruthlessness, which means not choosing players on reputation or past performances or on a wing and a prayer that they will suddenly magically find some form the moment they put on an England shirt. The management need to monitor players so they have up to date information on their recent form and physical condition. A casual Man Utd fan could have told them Rashford’s form had been indifferent for quite a while due to carrying injuries.
Given England’s propensity to end up in, and on the wrong side of, penalty shootouts – Sunday was the team’s seventh loss in nine attempts at major tournaments – someone was always going to be the scapegoat to follow in the unfortunate footsteps of the manager, Gareth Southgate, himself. But it shouldn’t have been Marcus Rashford. He should have been sat at home on the sofa watching and making knee-jerk assertions about what he would have done better, just like the rest of us.