Marcus Rashford has created an unstoppable movement. What will government do now?

Marcus Rashford’s MBE does not begin to chart the scale of the 22-year-old’s achievements. A much more unprecedented honour awaits the England forward, according to Ian Byrne, the Labour MP for Liverpool’s West Derby constituency.

“It is not beyond the bounds of possibility that a Manchester United striker’s name will be sung on the Kop and the Gwladys Street,” Byrne said. The young Mancunian now transcends football rivalries and has become a hero to supporters whose traditional antipathy towards United sometimes verges on rabid.

Rashford has been at the forefront of a campaign to extend free school meals into the holidays in an attempt to alleviate hunger for children of the poorest families. He successfully urged the government to provide vouchers for vulnerable schoolchildren during the summer and expressed his disappointment on Wednesday when the House of Commons voted against extending the scheme for the upcoming half-term and beyond. Businesses and councils across the country have been bombarding Rashford’s Twitter feed offering free food to those struggling to make ends meet in the midst of the pandemic.

Byrne is not surprised. “Marcus has touched a nerve,” the co-founder of the Fans Supporting Foodbanks initiative, said. “He has the sort of principles and moral values that most people hold. He’s clever, passionate and well advised.

“Free school dinners are essential for many people. Families are terrified in this financial climate.”

The MP, who was elected to parliament in December, understands the level of desperation that parents are experiencing. Fans Supporting Foodbanks was formed five years ago when Everton and Liverpool supporters came together to collect donations for the needy under the strapline “Hunger doesn’t wear club colours”. Foodbanks are now a common sight at stadiums across the game.

“They are going from strength to strength,” Byrne said. “Donors are very generous. Sadly, they need to be.”

The controversy over the Premier League charging £14.95 for pay-per-view (PPV) games has given foodbanks a boost. Many supporters are refusing to stump up for the matches and are instead donating the cash to charity.

“It feels like a turning point for the nation’s psyche,” Byrne, who this week instigated a debate in Westminster Hall aimed at enshrining the right to food in legislation, said. “When a boycott for these games was mooted it was an opportunity to do some good and use the donations for foodbanks. Right from the first game, Newcastle and Manchester United supporters came together immediately and showed real solidarity. Supporters’ groups or trusts from all 20 Premier League clubs are involved in the ‘Charity Not PPV’ campaign.”

Newcastle fans alone raised more than £20,000 and protesting supporters of top-flight teams have been directing their money towards good causes rather than watch the PPV matches. “It’s an own goal for the Premier League,” Byrne said. “They had the opportunity to thank fans in a difficult period but chose to monetise the games at the worst possible time.

“The clubs had a chance to put a marker down. Instead, they have excluded people from watching. In the tier 3 lockdown areas you can’t leave home and can’t have people round to your house. Supporters can’t even share the cost of watching the matches.”

At a time when the sport is tearing itself apart over finance and against the backdrop of the Covid-19 emergency, the decision to charge for individual fixtures was crass, Byrne believes. “For the Premier League to do it when they did was unseemly. It will rebound on them. They’ve galvanised a movement.”

The groundswell of supporters uniting to combat hunger is in stark contrast to the naked self-interest that has been exposed by Project Big Picture and the plans for a European Super League. The game appears to be dominated by greed but Byrne contends that the efforts of Rashford and supporters in combatting hunger shows the true soul of the sport.

“Marcus has created an unstoppable movement,” he said. “Football can be a force for good.”

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