How a gift from Marcus Rashford, the modest superstar, moved me to tears

After she discovered her son was a fan of the footballer, Rowan Pelling went on a voyage of discovery – and ended up at Old Trafford

Rowan Pelling at Old Trafford with her son Torrin, who is a fan of Marcus Rashford 
Rowan Pelling at Old Trafford with her son Torrin, who is a fan of Marcus Rashford 

Last summer, I was surprised to find I was following a talented young Manchester United footballer called Marcus Rashford on Instragram. More than that, I’d sent this 21-year-old a string of enthusiastic, if ill-spelt private messages. “Your actually the best football player ever,” I gushed, “I look up to” [sic], “And so many other people do too”, “Keep on doing what you dooo.”, “Big RESPECT”. This is when I realised it’s a mistake to let your 11-year-old son on your smartphone without close supervision. I explained to my boy Torrin that, while he thought he was offering a touching tribute to his favourite player, Rashford, or whoever looks after his social media accounts, would think a demented, middle-aged Daily Telegraph writer was stalking him.

Even so, I kept following Rashford, feeling I should know more about my son’s hero. I’ve never been a huge footie fan and was wary my younger boy would start idolising a coke-snorting egomaniac. Instead, I discovered Rashford was supremely gifted, modest and well-balanced, and had bought his mum a house. Also, he’s a home-grown star, with strong roots in his community, who’s come up through Manchester United’s grounding Academy system. I couldn’t fault my son’s taste and found myself swayed by his argument that if I was “a good mum”, I’d have found some way to take him to a live Manchester United match. Torrin had stuck by the team for three years, and when he went up to our local state academy last autumn, he was made captain of one of the football teams.

That’s when I discovered getting tickets for a top Premier League match – if you’re not a season-ticket holder, a financier or a celeb – is like trying to buy a pet unicorn. I had a look at the re-sale market but it was out of my price range. Christmas was fast approaching and there was only one thing on Torrin’s wish list, but I couldn’t secure it. I’d resigned myself to failure when I mentioned my dilemma to a friend who was over from the States. She said she’d recently been helped to acquire Spurs tickets by a lovely professional acquaintance, who’s part of Liverpool FC’s management team and offered to email introduce us.

'I discovered Rashford was supremely gifted, modest and well-balanced, and had bought his mum a house' Credit: Rui Vieira/AP

I felt a bit demented sitting down to write a beseeching missive to a complete stranger – one who was busy helping Jurgen Klopp and his team dominate the Premier League – asking if there was any way at all he could help me buy tickets to see Liverpool’s huge rivals, Man U? I enclosed a screen shot of “my” messages to Marcus Rashford, hoping they’d make him laugh. Imagine my near-hysterical joy when this sporting chief replied that, yes, he could help me, even though my son supported the wrong team; he’d learn the error of his ways in time. My benefactor added Marcus Rashford was a top player and role model. What match was I interested in? We both agreed a January trip to Anfield probably wasn’t the answer, as Liverpool were thrashing everyone they played.

On Christmas Day, I handed Torrin an envelope, which had a hand-made card inside bearing a picture of Marcus Rashford. Then I set my mobile to video as he read the message saying Torrin-ella was going to the game: Manchester United versus Manchester City at Old Trafford on Saturday March 6. The derby. The legend. The mother ship. And he could take two friends. For once in his very chatty young life, my son was speechless.

A few weeks later a battered jiffy bag came through the post addressed to me. I ripped it open and out tumbled an adult-sized gold-brown football jersey, which I slowly recognised was one of last winter’s Man U strips with a big 10 on the back. I looked at the front again and only then saw it was signed: “To Torrin. Marcus Rashford.” When I ran upstairs and handed it to my boy, we both burst into tears of disbelief.

We were going to Manchester! What could possibly go wrong? It was then that the first cases of Covid-19 were announced in the UK. For two months, as the virus spread, my first concern wasn’t falling ill, but the possibility Boris Johnson would decree a lockdown before our match. Then Rashford was injured in a game and the club announced he wouldn’t be back for several months. On top of this, the game was moved from Saturday to Sunday March 7, with kick-off at 16.30pm, meaning it would be hard to get back home to Cambridge before midnight. The portents were so dodgy I decided to go to Manchester a day early before anything else happened to jinx our match. It was hard to find a room, but the Hilton Garden Inn at Old Trafford gamely agreed to lay on a double sofa bed in a double room – meaning I’d have to share space with three 11-year-old boys hyper with pre-match delirium.

On Saturday March 6, I boarded a train from Euston to Manchester Piccadilly with my three young charges and a bottle of hand sanitiser. None of the boys had ever been to a Premier League match before. Two were crazed Man U fans, while the third was setting aside Derby FC for the weekend. We arrived in time to visit the engrossing National Football Museum, where they all had a go at shooting penalties against a virtual goalkeeper. After that, we took a tram to the Old Trafford stop, dropped off our bags and took a 10-minute walk to the stadium, which loomed over the rooftops. I took snaps of the boys with the holy triumvirate statue of Sir Bobby Charlton, George Best and Denis Law and we all gasped at the vastness of a structure that at full capacity can hold 76,000 fans.

Rowan Pelling's son Torrin at Old Trafford 

On match day, I learned my early travel instinct had paid off. Most of the trains on the London to Manchester route had been cancelled. But we were able to stroll in a relaxed fashion from our hotel along the jam-packed route back to the stadium an hour before kick-off – small, red-scarfed foot-soldiers in a sea of scarlet and blue, buoyed along by irrepressible Mancunian goodwill. Nothing could quite prepare us for going through the turnstiles, then up stairs and out into Charlton’s “Theatre of Dreams”. The atmosphere was pure human helium, ramped up by the age-old United-City rivalry and ribald chants. It was then we discovered our seats were yards away from the players’ tunnel from where all the superstars would emerge and exit.

The cherry on the icing on the three-tier sponge cake came when Anthony Martial scored against the foe in the first half. The crowd’s roar was a blast of pure euphoria. We kept thinking City would equalise, but it wasn’t to be and in the last minutes United’s Scott McTominay drove home a stonking goal to make it 2-0. The roof almost flew off Old Trafford. We then bolted for the tram and the station, hoping against hope an emergency service would get us somewhere near Cambridge. Our luck held, and we hopped on a service headed for Milton Keynes, where the heroic mother of one of the boys picked us all up – exhausted, but ecstatic.

Torrin is now not the only Man U supporter in our household. The warmth of our welcome at Old Trafford has folded me in, too. But I hope Liverpool are crowed this year’s Premier League champions, if only for their sporting director’s services to a small boy’s dreams.

As for Marcus Rashford, now he’s raised millions for FareShare and politely persuaded the Government that their free school meal scheme should be extended throughout the summer holidays, we can probably all agree he’s “actually the best football player ever”. I know I have “big RESPECT” for him. And maybe even a matronly crush.