In February 2016, Louis van Gaal was still trying to save whatever he could of his career at Manchester United and was deep into crisis talks with his first team squad following a Europa League defeat to FC Midtjylland.
The alarming thing was, this wasn’t the first set of ‘crisis talks’ he had been involved in around the time. A 2-0 Boxing Day defeat to Stoke saw him enter similar talks with Ed Woodward, where the Dutchman was convinced he had to resign.
‘Worse than Moyes’ was a phrase that began to echo around, which says all you need to know.
So, let’s quickly recap. Following a Boxing Day defeat to Stoke, a defeat to some Danish nobodies (sorry Midtjylland, but it’s true) and two sets of talks, Van Gaal now had to march whatever was left of his United squad into Old Trafford and put together a comeback to avoid being booted out of the Europa League – having already fallen at the first hurdle of the Champions League.
Marcus Rashford had only started twice for United’s Under-21s in Premier League 2 before being drafted into the matchday squad for the first team’s second leg tie against the Danes.
Soon, though, that spot in the squad turned into his first start for the Red Devils, with Anthony Martial picking up an injury in the pre-match warm up and having to pull out. For all of Van Gaal’s downfalls during his spell as United boss, there was very little he could do to stop such a torrid spell of bad luck. And when Midtjylland took the lead after 27 minutes at Old Trafford, it was looking like getting worse.
United equalised through an own goal and took the game into half-time at 1-1. They needed some magic, though. An air of fearlessness, unpredictability, ruthless aggression.
Did Van Gaal play Vince McMahon’s famous ‘ruthless aggression’ promo to his side at half-time? Probably not. They’d found that streak after the break though, with an unknown, 18-year-old Rashford stepping up and leading the charge. The teenager gave United the lead after 63 minutes when he smashed home from Juan Mata’s low cross, and added a second with 15 minutes to play to put United ahead on aggregate.
The floodgates opened and the panic was over for the Red Devils, who had five come the final whistle. But it wouldn’t have been possible without the magic from Rashford, who became United’s youngest goal scorer in European competition, breaking a record set by George Best.
It was a debut nobody could ever forget, as the local lad threw himself into a crowd of fans – which included Dean Henderson – as his second goal went in. United had seen it all before, however; James Wilson who had bagged twice on his debut was rotting away on loan at this point, while Federico Macheda was scraping together a career in the Championship.
Rashford was different, though.
For all of Van Gaal’s criticisms at United, one thing he was consistent on was his belief in youth – a key part to succeeding at the Theatre of Dreams. United turned that tie around with Rashford, Guillermo Varella and Joe Riley all on the field. Still plagued by injuries, they hosted Arsenal three days after the Europa League comeback and had to fashion a win with the same, depleted squad.
The dream start for Rashford was now in the rear view mirror and the pressure was on as he received his second start in one of English football’s most famous fixtures. 29 minutes into the game, he had his third Manchester United goal in as many days.
One goal wasn’t enough, though, and Rashford bagged a brace again in only his second appearance for United just three minutes later, before providing the assist for Ander Herrera as the Red Devils wound up 3-2 winners.
Hailed as ‘fantastic’ by Van Gaal following the performance, there was no turning back for Rashford, no matter how much fans and staff alike urged patience. He finished the 2015/16 season with 18 appearances in all competitions and bagged eight times along the way, including an eventual winner against Manchester City in his first ever senior derby – a goal he cites today as his favourite.
Van Gaal’s time at Old Trafford was a strange one. From theatrical touchline dives and endlessly entertaining press conferences to painfully laborious football, the Dutchman bowed out on a high by winning the FA Cup, and can always be remembered for being the man that allowed Rashford to get to where he is today.