LONDON – Marcus Rashford was in danger of seeing his dream of becoming Manchester United's star striker turn to dust but the England forward is flourishing again after escaping Jose Mourinho's shackles.
Three years after exploding onto the Premier League scene, Rashford marked his 150th United appearance on Saturday with a memorable goal that underlined his vast potential.
Smoothly turning away from Brighton's Pascal Gross, Rashford curled a fine shot into the top corner as United sealed a seventh successive win since Ole Gunnar Solskjaer took over as interim manager.
Solskjaer's arrival in December to replace the sacked Mourinho has proved a catalyst for United's surge, and Rashford has been at the heart of their success.
Rashford has scored five times in six league matches following the Norwegian's appointment, earning comparisons from his manager with former United stars Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney.
“Definitely he can be absolutely top-class. He is only 21 but the maturity he is showing at times is more than 21,” Solskjaer said when asked if Rashford was capable of emulating Ronaldo and Rooney.
Born in the south Manchester suburb of Wythenshawe, Rashford has long appeared destined to join the lengthy list of homegrown United legends.
He joined the club as a seven-year-old and was so highly regarded that the notoriously demanding Louis van Gaal handed him his debut in a Europa League tie against Midtjylland in February 2016.
The coltish Rashford netted twice that night, before scoring another brace against Arsenal in his first Premier League game three days later.
He also scored in his first Manchester derby match and his first Champions League match, earning an England call-up that featured - what else - a debut goal.
Scoring against Australia in the third minute, Rashford became the youngest Englishman to net on his international bow.
But following Mourinho's arrival, it quickly became clear that Rashford's precocious talent would be tolerated but not fully trusted by the Portuguese coach.
Mourinho rarely gave Rashford a sustained run of games as a centre forward, preferring to use him on the flanks while Romelu Lukaku monopolised playing time, even though the Belgian was often inconsistent.
Hunger and desire
By the early stages of this season, Rashford was growing disillusioned.
He scored just twice for United between August and December, and Mourinho's acerbic tongue hardly helped ease his player's fears that his career was stalling.
Sent off at Burnley in September for a headbutt, Rashford was labelled “naive” by Mourinho.
It was not the last time he would be one of Mourinho's sacrificial lambs.
“When we talk about Luke Shaw, about (Anthony) Martial, about (Jesse) Lingard, about Marcus Rashford, we're talking about boys with great potential but who still are lacking that (courage),” Mourinho moaned in November.
Thankfully for Rashford's flagging morale, that proved one of Mourinho's last salvos before his unlamented exit.
Solskjaer knows a thing or two about persevering in adversity at United after thriving under Alex Ferguson despite often being used as an impact substitute.
His refusal to be defined by his understudy role was rewarded when he scored the dramatic winner in the 1999 Champions League final against Bayern Munich.
Feeling a kinship with Rashford, Solskjaer was quick to seek him out when he arrived at United's Carrington training ground, making a point of rebuilding his shattered confidence by assuring him the goals would come as long as he persevered.
Putting in the hard yards has never been a problem for Rashford, who is so dedicated to his craft that he spends hours after training honing his skills while most of his teammates have long since gone home.
“Marcus just wants to learn. He's on the training pitch all the time and at times you have to drag him off, because he just wants to be out there,” United defender Ashley Young said.
“It's fantastic to see, he's got that hunger, that desire, he's a winner.”
For Solskjaer, a devotee of United's purist principles, the pace and poise of Rashford was the ideal building block for his revamped attack.
His strike against Brighton was his 41st goal for United, with Ronaldo having scored 25 times and Rooney 45 times after 150 games.
Unchained by Solskjaer, Rashford is the leading man at last and United are reaping the rewards.
Agence France-Presse (AFP)