Marcus Rashford had just three weeks’ holiday last summer, a mini-break squeezed in between England’s Euro 2016 elimination at the hands of Iceland on June 27 and his return to training at Manchester United the day before Jose Mourinho’s squad flew to China for their preseason tour on July 19.
If England manager Gareth Southgate and the Football Association have their way, the 19-year-old will have even less downtime this summer due to their determination to have the United forward in the squad for the European Under-21 Championship in Poland in June.
Rashford, who won his eighth senior cap as a substitute during England’s 2-0 victory against Lithuania in World Cup qualifying on Sunday, has been diplomatic about the looming club vs. country row which will surround him.
“It is up to the coaching staff and managers to decide if I go,” Rashford said at the weekend. “But if I do go, I’ll be approaching it with the same attitude as I do to the seniors. It is exciting. Getting tournament experience is massive.”
Whether “tournament experience” gained during a two-week long campaign in Poland will be of any use to a player who saw the positives and negatives of performing in a major tournament firsthand during Euro 2016, is debatable. But United manager Mourinho has already made clear his position on Rashford’s potential involvement with the U21s this summer.
“If he becomes a regular in the A national team and established, then to say it is important for his development with the U21s, makes no sense,” he said back in October. “If he’s an U21 player in the national team, then he is an U21 player and there is no discussion about that.”
Yet with the tournament just over two months away, Rashford has made precisely one appearance for the U21s — when he scored a hat trick against Norway last September — and has played in five of the six senior games since Southgate stepped in to replace Sam Allardyce as manager in the autumn.
On the one occasion under Southgate that Rashford did not play, he was an unused substitute during the 3-0 victory against Scotland in November.
So, in terms of where Rashford stands on the international stage, nobody could accuse Mourinho of exaggeration if he suggested that the player is an established member of the England senior squad. Rashford and the U21s have been like ships passing in the night — and the striker is now some distance away.
Yet despite the weight of evidence which points to Rashford having progressed beyond the U21s, Southgate and the FA are ready to allow Boothroyd to select him in his squad for Poland.
Having traditionally overlooked young players who have established themselves at senior level, England are now keen to travel to U21 tournaments with the best players available to them, whether they have made it into the senior team or not.
Harry Kane, then 21, was named in then-manager Southgate’s squad for the U21 Championship in the Czech Republic in 2015, but the Tottenham forward had won just two senior caps by that stage and, unlike Rashford, had been a regular at U21 level, playing in six qualifiers and both legs of the playoff for the finals before being selected.
Kane was an U21 knocking on the door of the seniors, so his inclusion could not be contested, despite the fact that he ended the 2014-15 campaign having played 56 games for club and country — a huge workload for such a young player.
Whether Kane’s involvement at in the Czech Republic in the summer of 2015 had a knock-on effect the following summer, when he appeared drained of energy during a hugely disappointing Euro 2016, is up for debate, but there is a danger that Rashford could risk the same issues if he goes to Poland.
He has already made 38 appearances for United this season, five for England and one for the U21s. He is almost certain to break the 50-game barrier and could play on until May 24 for his club if United make it to the Europa League final.
Then there will be internationals, for either the seniors of U21s, before departing for a tournament which runs until the final in Krakow on June 30. And then 15 days later, United begin their preseason tour of the United States with a friendly against LA Galaxy in California.
Sir Alex Ferguson often claimed that the summer was the most crucial time in the development of young players because the four to six weeks without football “enables them to grow, physically and mentally.” They need to rest their bodies and switch off from the demands of the game, but Rashford risks being denied that.
If the decision is made in Rashford’s best interests, he will not be selected; if it is made in the interests of the FA and the U21 team, Rashford will go.
Nathan Redmond and James Ward-Prowse, who were both selected by Southgate for the seniors during the recent international break, will go to Poland, but both have been regulars in the U21s and neither are established at senior level. Would it really make sense for Rashford to learn the ropes in the U21s when his rivals for a place in the senior squad are the likes of Theo Walcott, Danny Welbeck and Andros Townsend?
With a World Cup to prepare for in Russia next year, the sensible option would be for Rashford to be given a break this summer and the chance to head into next season without any fear of burnout or mental fatigue.
Nobody will care, or remember, if Rashford leads England to success in Poland but then plays a part in another dismal World Cup next year. The bigger picture should focus on his development and the real prizes, rather than dragging him along to a junior tournament which he has already outgrown.
Mark Ogden is a senior football writer for ESPN FC. Follow him @MarkOgden_