"Marcus Rashford does nice things. And he plays football"
'At a time when there's so much hatred and divisiveness, it's reassuring as a parent to know your kid is growing up in a world where people like Rashford are there to look up to...'
The other day, my son told me he wants to be a hairdresser when he grows up. On the way home from nursery a few weeks ago, he told me he fancied being an ice cream van driver. Before that, he had briefly flirted with the idea of becoming a zookeeper, but only after I had gently broken it to him that no, no matter how hard he works at school in the years to come, he can’t be an Indominus Rex when he’s a grown-up. That, sadly, is not how life works.
He is four. His career aspirations, I find, have a habit of changing drastically and regularly. There’s every chance that his hairdressing dream will have faded in a matter of days, replaced by a desire to be a pilot or a gruffalo or one of the people who collects the trolleys together on the car park outside the big ASDA.
Through all the uncertainty and bleakness of these past 18 months, spending more time with him as a result has been an extremely welcome distraction. Global pandemics don't hit quite as hard when your mind is occupied by lego or picking bits of trodden-in plasticine out of the carpet.
For most of our days we've been largely confined to the house, but whenever the weather has allowed it, we've ventured into the back garden with a football.
It's then that he becomes Marcus Rashford.
I should say that at this point that Ethan hasn’t fully grasped what football is just yet. He knows there is a goal, he understands the objective is to kick the ball into the goal and he knows there is a man called Marcus Rashford who plays for a team called 'United'. That's about it. The rest of it will have to wait for now.
I can't pinpoint precisely when he became aware of Rashford. All I know is for a while now, whenever football has been on the telly, he’s habitually asked which team Rashford is on - as if no game of football could ever legally take place without a Marcus Rashford in it. His attention span isn't developed enough to tolerate more than a few minutes of a game before he wanders off to do something else, but he'll happily watch the highlight videos of Rashford “doing goals”.
Most parents, I think, can relate to that sense of being mindful not to impose their own interests on their kids too much; of letting them find their own way and their own things to be passionate about. I'd be lying, though, if I said I don't enjoy seeing the flicker of a smile on his face when he watches those videos, or the way he insists on me spinning him - sorry, Marcus Rashford - around in celebration when he scores past me in the back garden. It's a lovely feeling, that; the kind of moments you know you'll look back on one day and long for.
He was asleep when Rashford missed his penalty against Italy. He was sad to discover England had lost, but Monday morning CBeebies went some way to soothing the pain.
Then, a couple of days later, just before bedtime, he heard Rashford's name on the telly again and was curious. This wasn't a football game. Why, he asked, were people covering up the picture of him with cut-out hearts and drawings? I didn't really know how to answer without straying into the kind of conversations you shouldn't really have to be having with a four-year-old child. How are you supposed to explain what racism is to someone so young? Is there an easy way to do that?
In the end I told him how Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka had missed their penalties and that some people had said some horrible things to them afterwards. The hearts and pictures that were being added to the mural were showing how important it is that people show they are nice, not horrible. That, I thought, would be suffice, would satisfy his curiosity.
The questions continued:
"What horrible things did they say?"
"A few things that weren't very nice."
"Well, did they try their best with their kicks?"
"Did the man use paints?"
The mural isn't far from where we live, so on Sunday I decided to take him to see it.
In the time since the last of the photographers and reporters left during the middle of last week, the number of tributes has grown significantly. The wall featuring the mural is now covered, the letters and pictures now spilling round the corner, to the wall on other side of the same building. A few traffic cones have been placed a couple of metres in front of the wall, too, allowing for even more tributes to be laid on the floor.
Ethan pointed out his favourites for me to read some of the messages, thanking Rashford for his bravery and for his kindness. We didn’t stay long: maybe three or four minutes. He is, after all, not even in primary school yet, and as much as I meant well, as much as I saw this as a chance to teach him something, making a child look at a wall - no matter how impressive - isn't exactly a day at Disney World. We went home.
There was no mention of our trip until much later on. As he got ready for bed, I overheard him speaking to his mum about how he had seen a big picture of Marcus Rashford on a wall. People had left letters and drawn pictures, he told her. Someone had even left a real(!) teddy bear.
"He does nice things for people," he explained. "And he plays football."
He's yet to add footballer to his ever-changing list of things he wants to be when he's a grown-up, but that's okay. There might come a time when he wants to be Rashford for more than just the odd kickabout in the garden when the weather's nice, but for now, there's something uplifting about the way he - and so many other children - see Rashford simply as a kind person who just happens to play football as well.
It's not a lot to ask for, is it? To be kind, to look out for people less fortunate than yourself. Yet at a time when there's so much hatred and divisiveness, it's reassuring as a parent to know your kid is growing up in a world where people like Rashford are there to look up to.
So go on. Be a hairdresser. Be a pilot. Be a trolley collector or an ice cream van driver. Be whatever you want to be, because that's fine. But above all, don't forget to be like him, too.