The stars aligned for Marcus Rashford in February 2016. Wayne Rooney was injured, James Wilson and Ashley Fletcher were on loans at Brighton and Barnsley, Will Keane strained his groin at Shrewsbury on Monday night and Anthony Martial tweaked his hamstring in the warm-up against Midtjylland. Rashford was parachuted into the starting XI at 12 minutes’ notice.
Joe Riley also made his full debut that evening and Regan Poole emerged for his sole senior United appearance. Three days later, Timothy Fosu-Mensah and James Weir debuted against Arsenal from a bench that featured two players who had broken double-figures for United starts – Adnan Januzaj and Paddy McNair.
Injury to Donald Love, who appeared in February defeats to Sunderland and Midtjylland, in the Under-21s’ win at Middlesbrough the following night increased the United injury toll to 17 players: Rooney, Martial, Keane, Love, Sam Johnstone, Matteo Darmian, Ashley Young, Antonio Valencia, Chris Smalling, Axel Tuanzebe, Phil Jones, Luke Shaw, Cameron Borthwick-Jackson, Marcos Rojo, Sean Goss, Marouane Fellaini, and Bastian Schweinsteiger.
United’s back four against Arsenal consisted of two auxiliary centre-backs – Michael Carrick and Daley Blind – and they had played less than 72 hours earlier. In this cowardly era, that is grounds for postponement.
Whenever United encountered an injury crisis – and there were several under Louis van Gaal – he would ask the reserve coach Warren Joyce to send a reserve over from the academy building. Fourteen academy and reserve team members debuted across Van Gaal’s two seasons.
Almost all of them were old enough but not good enough, but the principle of playing youngsters was loyal to United’s ethos. Around the period of Rashford’s stratospheric start, not once was the word ‘postponement’ uttered or even considered.
Now there is a new version of cancel culture in the Premier League almost a month on from data concluding the highly-transmissible Omicron variant of Covid-19 did not pose the doomsday threat a scaremongering government mired in sleaze scandals suggested it would.
The Premier League handbook’s 13+1 rule of available players does not specifically mention Covid. Appendix 17 states: “Permission will not be granted to postpone a League Match where the applicant Club has 14 or more Players listed on its Squad List available.”
Clubs have to furnish the Premier League with a rundown of players and staff who have tested positive for Covid, players and staff who are self-isolating, as well as players unavailable through injury or illness with medical information that corroborates their inability to play.
A list of available players has to include ‘appropriately experienced Under-21 players’, only the Premier League says a player who played in the FA Cup third round but has not featured in any other competition would not be considered as ‘appropriately experienced’.
That is permission for clubs to abuse the rule. Arsenal Under-23s played on Friday evening with a 17-man squad and Burnley U23s fulfilled their fixture at Wolves on Monday night. Both clubs were successful in requesting their first-team’s Premier League fixtures be postponed.
Arsenal’s website lists 25 first-team players and nine out on loan. The academy section is teeming, with 34 players and three loanees. The six players whose birthdays they have listed are all in their 20s but their U23 side on Friday consisted almost entirely of teenagers, bar the 20-year-old Tim Akinola.
The U23 factor is especially relevant as United, for example, were prepared to name rookies in their squad for the postponed game at Brentford, originally scheduled for December 14, only they also contracted Covid when there was an outbreak in the first-team.
On Saturday, United had eight substitutes against Aston Villa and two were goalkeepers. Ordinarily, an Under-23 would be drafted in to make up the numbers but United’s second string were preparing to play City on Saturday night. The scheduling of the matches is agreed between the teams and then ratified by the Premier League.
United U23s’ last three games have been held on the same day the first-team is playing and it has happened eight times all season. That absurd scheduling is denying academy players exposure to audiences on television and online, as well as crowds at stadia at a level already widely described as ‘fake football’. Now they are being prevented from playing real football.
Rashford started twice in the reserves.