WATCHING the gutsy manner in which Marcus Rashford bounced back from the dreadful blunder that had left a weary nation once again readying itself for embarrassment on the football pitch, it was easy to forget that his 20th birthday is still almost eight weeks away.
Listening to the teenager afterwards and in particular his first taste of watching a World Cup on television, however, was a very different story. England’s involvement in the 2010 World Cup being ended by abject defeat to Germany in South Africa is Rashford’s first properly formed memory, underlining just how incredibly mature his man of the match performance at Wembley on Monday night really was.
The error that handed Slovakia the lead was the sort that leaves managers apoplectic on the sidelines. Dribbling the ball out of defence is a no-no in a school match, never mind a crucial World Cup qualifier, so when Stanislav Lobotka capitalised to put the visitors ahead just moments after Rashford had been dispossessed there was suddenly no place to hide inside the Wembley Stadium.
He could have crumbled. Instead, the 19-year-old proved he is made of stern stuff by not only creating the equaliser for Eric Dier later in the first half but then netting the winner.
Along with speaking volumes about the Mancunian’s character, what such a response to a potentially paralysing mistake by the teenager also shone a light on is just how much of a youthful vibe the England team – and particularly their attack – has right now.
On Monday, Rashford joined 21-year-old Dele Alli in taking the game to Slovakia as part of a quartet that also featured Harry Kane and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, two players who still have their best years ahead of them at the age of 24.
All are exciting talents in their own right but with the capacity to improve further, something that must excite former Under-21s manager Gareth Southgate in his quest to shake off years of failure and make the Three Lions truly competitive once again on the biggest stage.
Whether the World Cup in Russia proves to be too soon on that score remains to be seen, but the England manager is in no doubt as to the potential that Rashford brings to the squad.
“He has the mental strength,” said Southgate. “He is very mature. When he first came to the Under-21s, he didn’t know the group. But he was happy to speak in meetings. He has a lot of humility. I met his mum, I met his brothers and they are a good influence.
“We must also play a part and make sure he is looked after. We have shown that with the decision we made over the summer with the Under-21s (when Rashford was left out of this summer’s European Championships).
“The great thing is that if you look at our forwards – with Dele, who is only a year older, and Harry only being a couple of years older, plus some really exciting players coming through the Under 21s as well – we know we can score goals. That is encouraging, and if we get the other bits right then we know we are dangerous in any game.”
Rashford, as the youngest player in the squad, did not need telling he had made a huge mistake when gifting Slovakia their early opener. His face betrayed that much. As did the relief etched on those same features after netting a winner that leaves England requiring just two draws from the final two games to book a place at next summer’s finals.
What the Manchester United forward also doesn’t need to be told by others is the potential that exists for this group to grow together under a manager who is not shy in showing faith to young players.
Asked about the nadir of losing to Iceland in Euro 2016 yet proving invaluable in the long run for English football, Rashford replied: “I won’t class it as a good experience because you never want to experience losing a tournament.
We must also play a part and make sure he is looked after. We have shown that with the decision we made over the summer with the Under-21sEngland manager Gareth Southgate on young star Marcus Rashford.
“I think it was a difficult one to take but, hopefully, next time around you learn from it we and, hopefully, next time around we will do better.
“That was when we had real problems. Hopefully, we can be together for years and years and what we are doing now is just the start of everything. We could be talking about much greater things in the future. For the players and obviously for the fans as well, that is what we all want.”
If that is to be the case and Russia really can be the platform for a long overdue upturn in the fortunes of the Three Lions, the type of character displayed by Rashford on Monday will be vital.
“It is football and you have your ups and you have your downs,” he said about how Slovakia became the first visiting team to score at Wembley in seven qualifiers. “I think the whole team reacted well.”
Did he feel like he owed the team one for that mistake?
“No, you want to help the team anyway by scoring or with an assist,” he replied.
A repeat of that attitude could go a long way next summer as England look to banish the cycle of failure that has characterised their involvement in major finals since Monday night’s hero first started taking a genuine interest in the Three Lions back in 2010.