David Horrocks is growing a little tired of talking about Marcus Rashford. “I don’t mind talking about Fletcher Moss Rangers, but everything to say about Marcus has been said, I don’t think you can say much more, to be honest.”
Despite that, Horrocks, the academy development officer at Rashford’s first club Fletcher Moss Rangers, is kind enough to tell me his recollections of Rashford, now a star player for Manchester United and for England, as well as being something of a national treasure for his relentless charity work and campaigning on free school meals.
As highly as Horrocks thinks of Rashford, however, he tells me he has done countless interviews like these since his former player broke onto the scene in such style with that memorable debut against FC Midtjylland in the Europa League back in 2016. “Since then, I’ve not stopped doing things like I’m doing now with you – Sky Sports, BBC, an author looking to write a book. When he did the school dinners thing, my phone never stopped.”
While there’s clearly immense pride in playing a part in Rashford’s development, there’s an air of frustration from Horrocks as well, who insists it’s done nothing to aid the finances of a club that, like so many other at grassroots level, are struggling to get by.
“When you look at what he did, it sort of elevated the profile of Fletcher Moss Rangers,” Horrocks says. “But it’s not benefited us in any way other than more young boys and girls wanting to come to ours. That’s the only benefit we’ve had out of it. We’ve had no income coming through, nothing coming back from the clubs who’ve taken these players.
“I was talking to Marcus’ mum a few months ago, telling her about how our development plan was coming along and our plan to rebuild our changing rooms. I was saying to her we were trying to fund-raise, I wasn’t asking her for money, I would never do that. It’s not something that I feel we should do. I feel if Marcus wants to contribute something, let him do it. But we’ve never asked him for anything, a shirt, a pair of football boots, I wouldn’t go and do it. I don’t think it’s fair because everyone wants a piece of him.
“I was speaking to her about this and she says ‘well what did you do with the money you got off Marcus?’ and I said ‘well, what money that we got off Marcus?’. She said ‘the money that you got off Marcus signing for Manchester United’. I said ‘What money?’ She said ‘well you must’ve got a signing-on fee for him’ and I said ‘no, we didn’t even get a bag of balls or a pile of bibs’.
“There’s only one club that’s given us anything and that’s Stoke City, they gave us a bag of balls, size fives. We used them for training and halfway through the session they were flat, they were knackered. We’ve never got anything off anybody. This is where the system is flawed. These clubs take players, not just United or City, Liverpool, Everton…they all take these players and nothing comes back.”
This is clearly a grave injustice for a club that continues to produce so many good players, with Rashford joined by Jesse Lingard, Danny Welbeck, Wes Brown and Ravel Morrison as among the players to start out at Fletcher Moss Rangers. Another up-and-coming youngster at Man Utd, Anthony Elanga, also had a spell training with the club, Horrocks tells me.
There’s an inescapable connection with the Red Devils here, with Horrocks clearly feeling the two clubs have something of a special relationship and a shared ethos that has enabled the youngsters coming through at his side to go on and shine at Old Trafford as well.
Sir Alex Ferguson certainly recognised the fine work they did, which is hardly surprising as the club gifted him Wes Brown, who played 362 games for the club, winning five Premier League titles and two Champions League titles. Underrated by some throughout his immensely successful career, it seems Man City also failed to recognise his talent.
“When Wes Brown was first coming through, he went for trials at Manchester City, and they played him up front,” Horrocks says. “For us, he never played striker, he was always a defender. City decided they didn’t fancy him, but he went to United as a defender and the rest is history.
“I spoke to Sir Alex Ferguson some years ago when he was still at the club and I was introduced to him, and he asked ‘have you got any more players as good as Wes Brown?’. He knew Wes had come from Fletcher Moss Rangers, that’s the kind of memory Sir Alex had, he knew exactly where Wes came from.”
Horrocks tells me a lot of the club’s players were snapped up by other big clubs, such as Man City, but why is it that the ones who go to United seem to fare best? Horrocks insists it’s no coincidence.
“There are a number of players of ours that have also gone to Manchester City, Stoke City and others,” he says. “The players that have gone elsewhere have not really come through at other clubs, and it’s not because they’re not good players – and this is my personal opinion – it’s because the other clubs have not got the same ethos in their youth development policies.
“A lot of kids tend to fall by the way-side. You’ve only got to look at Manchester City and the number of players who’ve come through the academy and into the first-team. People talk about Micah Richards, but he didn’t come through their academy, he came from Oldham … Shaun Wright-Phillips, he’s another one who came through later. They’ve not come through the same route as Marcus and Jesse.
“Before the age of 9, if you go into any organisation, United, City or whoever, then they can go anywhere they want. It’s when they’re over a certain age that the rules are slightly different. A lot of kids go to several clubs throughout the week, visiting their development centres.
“You’ll get a player who’s at a lot of clubs, and it depends on how much smoke is blown up the parents’ backside in terms of the influence they have and how well-flattered they feel by a particular club that the parents will end up signing for when it comes to their time to sign.
“Manchester City will give the kids a kit, whereas Manchester United don’t give the kids anything. They feel kids need to earn the right to wear the Manchester United shirt, whereas if you go to a club like City and someone asks you ‘who do you play for?’ they’ll say ‘I play for Manchester City’, but they don’t, they train with Manchester City. It’s only after their 9th birthday when they can become a contracted player.”
Ping – Marcus has scored again
Even if he’s answered questions about Rashford so many times, Horrocks clearly still beams with pride as he recalls watching the youngster make such an electrifying breakthrough at Old Trafford back in 2016.
Everyone knows the story by now, but hearing it told from Horrocks’ perspective adds a new layer of shine to it. Surprisingly, he wasn’t actually watching the game that night, and yet witnessing the stunning scenes unfolding in United’s game against Midtjylland was unavoidable anyway.
“I wasn’t watching that night and I’ll tell you why,” he says. “I was having a meeting in a bar in town.
“But I got a ping on my phone – Marcus is on the bench.
“And another ping – Fletcher Moss has been mentioned on the television.
“Another ping – Marcus is starting because (James) Wilson has got injured in the warm-up.
“We carried on with what we were doing and I planned to catch the highlights later, but my phone didn’t stop pinging all night.
“Ping – Marcus has scored.
“Ping – Marcus has scored again.”
As well as his own influence on Rashford, Horrocks singled out another interesting name as being an important part of why United have brought through so many talented homegrown players in recent times: Rene Meulensteen.
The Dutchman has a mixed reputation among most fans in England, who might well remember his ill-fated spell in charge of Fulham. At United, however, he is well known for his one-on-one work with Cristiano Ronaldo back in 2007 that transformed a flashy, tricky and slightly inconsistent winger into one of the most lethal goal-scorers the game has seen.
Meulensteen held a number of roles at United, spending six years as one of Ferguson’s coaching staff, but before that he did some important work in the club’s academy.
Horrocks insists that his one-on-one skills training with the kids at United has been crucial to the rise of players like Rashford.
“Going back to when Marcus would’ve been about ten years old or a bit younger, Manchester United, or more specifically, Alex Ferguson, brought in Rene Meulensteen,” Horrocks says. “He was working with the academy at the time, he was the football skills coach for the academy and development centres.
“What Sir Alex wanted him to do was get the kids playing without any fear of trying things, of taking someone on and not being successful. Rene wanted them, in his words, to be able to build up a tool box of tricks. Rene comes from the school of thought of developing players in one v one and two v one situations and getting players to dominate. If a player can dominate those situations they’d become world beaters.
“At the time you looked at teams like Brazil, Italy, France…they had teams that could dominate those situations with confidence. Even a full-back like Roberto Carlos, he would dominate those situations, he had no problems taking on the opposition right-back, he would do that with ease. He could do things that other players couldn’t do, and that’s what Rene Meulensteen wanted to happen with United’s kids. The likes of Jesse and Marcus and players coming through at that time, they’ve all got that similar mindset, all these tools to go out there and do things.
“When United played City (at the Etihad in 2016) Rashford put Demichelis on his backside. He was running at him, he nutmegged him…you ask any pundit, a defender hates a forward running at them. He nutmegged Demichelis and slotted the ball into the far corner. For me, it epitomised Rene Meulensteen’s ethos of getting players to dominate one v one situations.
“You look at Pep Guardiola’s team at the moment, yes his players can dominate one v ones, but also they’ve got this picture in their head, they’re able to see other players because they know where everyone is because he drills these sessions into them day after day. You do things often enough, it becomes robotic, it becomes second nature. But I don’t think he can do that with the younger players at this stage, I don’t think he gives them the credit of intelligence.”
Not every young player is ready to burst onto the scene quite like Rashford did, though, and Horrocks also recalls how well another of his former players Jesse Lingard was handled by United.
“What they always said about Jesse, and this is well documented, Sir Alex said that Jesse needs to be kept in the system because he won’t come into his own until he’s 23 or 24 years old, and that’s what happened,” Horrocks says. “The insight of someone like Sir Alex Ferguson is phenomenal, to see that he’d be a late developer.
“Unfortunately at the moment there are so many players being discarded at a young age because they’re not fully developed. Look at Harry Kane – because they kept him down a year, he was able to develop. Spurs have got an excellent youth development policy, so he was able to develop. If not, he might’ve been lost, he could’ve been another Jamie Vardy who had to make his way up from the lower leagues.”
And it’s impossible not to ask about the enigmatic Ravel Morrison – a name that always sparks such a strong reaction from those who saw him up close, even if his career never reached the heights it should have.
Horrocks is one of those as he witnessed Morrison’s early days at Fletcher Moss Rangers, and he’s echoed the likes of Ferguson and Rio Ferdinand in absolutely lavishing the former wonderkid with praise, whilst giving us his own insight into where it seemed to go wrong for him.
“I’m smiling here, because I can honestly say, in my opinion, that Ravel Morrison is the most talented football player we’ve had at our club,” Horrocks says. “I always said when Ravel’s on the pitch you need two footballs. He wanted the ball all the time, he’d think nothing of taking it off his team-mates.
“The scouts from big clubs would come around and try to talk to his uncle or grandad or whoever brought him to matches. I really think he was a phenomenal player.”
Horrocks admits he wonders what might have been for Morrison if he’d been coming through the system now. “I don’t really mean technically,” he says. “But medically. Because I don’t think anyone recognised that the kid had ADHD. Nobody recognised that. Yes he was on medication but he didn’t take it.
“He would have arguments with coaches, it was almost like a Paul Gascoigne scenario, or George Best was another one – you need someone to be an individual, a maverick, why would you tell these players what to do? We need these players in the game. Those that you love to hate, or hate to love.
“Ravel wouldn’t turn up to training, but he didn’t feel he was being challenged. Because the coaches felt he should toe the line with other players, he just didn’t feel challenged.
“When he went to the England Under-16 training camp, another player asked him ‘why don’t you ever pass the ball?’ and he told them ‘because you’re f*****g s**t’ and started a fight, and he got into trouble with the coach. He never took his medication because he thought he knew better and it ended up being to his detriment.”
Who are Fletcher Moss Rangers? And why do they matter?
Established in 1986, Fletcher Moss Rangers are based in West Didsbury in Manchester. In the modern era of flashy academies that have kids on world class facilities from a seemingly ever-younger age, this amateur club feels like a bit of a throwback, but in a way it’s more vital than ever to recognise the role that they play. More than three quarters of their players on the boys’ and girls’ teams come from some of the most deprived areas in the country and rely on the free school meal vouchers that have been an issue so close to Rashford’s heart.
Horrocks has seen other unpleasant things in his time, but was inspired by the response his players gave. “We’ve had some tough times,” he says. “The original team that we started with had a lot of black and mixed race players in the team, and in the early days they took absolute dog’s abuse.
“It sort of galvanised the spirit of the lads, it was a bit like the class of ’92 – if you kicked David Beckham then Nicky Butt would kick you. They would back each other up, they looked after each other during games and off the pitch, they grew up together.”
Horrocks is not a big believer in players being born to be football superstars. It’s something players learn, and their first experience is so often at grassroots level at clubs like his.
“I get this question about Marcus a lot – ‘when he was a six-year-old, could you see he was going to be a big player?’ I always laugh and say ‘absolutely not’,” Horrocks tells me. “If anyone says they can see an England international at the age of six or seven, they must be smoking something. There’s no way anybody can see it.”
It’s not too surprising, then, that Horrocks can’t help but feel disappointed that his former players who’ve made it big don’t use their considerable platforms to give Fletcher Moss Rangers a bit more of a shout-out. After years of watching the numerous rises, and falls, of many footballers in a “broken” system, as he describes it, he’s not too surprised.
“The whole system is wrong,” he says. “What other industry would a 17-year-old get a contract like Jude Bellingham at Dortmund? In so many cases the clubs do it just so no one else gets them. Kids go off the rails because they’ve got far too much too soon.
“Their money should go into a trust for them. How much money can you spend in a week? You still need your education, the money should be in a trust until they’re 21. It stops the arrogance, it helps them become more grounded. It would make them value what they have a lot more.
“Kids go from grassroots football to being told they’re representatives of, say, Manchester City, and they’re told ‘You’re here because you’re special. You’ve got something that those other kids in your junior football team have not got.’ And it gets to the stage that they’re told in all their training sessions ‘you’re special, you’re special, you’re special…’ and a coach will ask a player to bring the cones in, or when we get to the changing rooms, ‘you do the socks, you do the shorts, you do the shirts’, and the player turns around and says – and excuse my language here – ‘f**k off! I’m not doing that, you told me I’m special! I’ll go to Liverpool where I don’t need to do it!’
“When I was an apprentice, I’d always make sure I sweep up after my work. It’s life skills. Getting your house in order. What’s wrong with a player collecting the shirts? Or folding the socks the right way round?
“One player at a Premier League club, who used to play for Fletcher Moss Rangers, ended up getting binned for his attitude. I asked him, as a 16-year-old, if he’d come to do a presentation for us…’I’m too busy’. I fully appreciate that when you get to the stage of the likes of Marcus and Jesse, everyone wants a piece of them. But at the same time because they’re brainwashed about being special, they forget where they came from.
“There’s only two players that have done anything financially for us, that are in the professional game at the moment. One of those was Tyler Blackett, who’s now playing in America. He phoned me up, he’s a nice kid, he asked me if there’s anything I want. I said ‘Yes there is mate, I need £300,000 to rebuild our changing rooms,’ he said ‘oh I’m sorry mate I can’t stretch to that,’ I said ‘don’t worry I’m having you on mate!’. But I said I was looking to buy some training kits, it worked out around £1,400 and he said he’d sort it out. The other player that did something very similar is Kyle Bartley, another nice bloke. He bought some kits for our kids. But these guys are not at the top of the food chain. We didn’t ask them, they came to us and asked if we need anything.
“I can’t lie, it’s disappointing, but it is what it is. We can’t demand anything. It’s not something we would expect. I’ve spoken to people who are close to the footballers who we were linked with, what would it take to get them to say to their sponsors, ‘this is my junior football club and I want to help get them to the next level’? What are players like Marcus, Jesse or Danny Welbeck on each week?”
When asked how much of a difference one week’s worth of wages once a year could make to Fletcher Moss Rangers, Horrocks says: “We would be in a position to rebuild the changing rooms and maybe even provide free football sessions for each of our kids. Our facilities at the moment are dilapidated.”
It can’t be emphasised enough just how much free, or at least more affordable football coaching could make to some of the families bringing their kids to Fletcher Moss Rangers and similar clubs. “At the moment parents are paying maybe £200 a year for their kids to play football with us,” Horrocks says. “If we had that regular income – and I’m not just talking about Fletcher Moss Rangers – if there was something in the system that insisted that players or clubs put something back into the club where these kids came from, grassroots football would get better, and the standard of players coming from grassroots player would get better. It would make it easier for English players to get to where they want to be. Intrinsically, the system is wrong.”
What keeps Horrocks going in this challenging environment that doesn’t, on the face of it, appear to bring much reward? “What keeps me going in the job is being able to continue the progress and development and heritage of our club,” he says. “I want as many kids as possible to come and play football for us. We will build as many teams as possible, provided we have enough of the right people to run the teams. We’ve got more kids than you can shake a stick at, but what we’ve not got is the people to run teams, which is really sad at times. We’ve just had to release a bunch of under-11 kids – we don’t want to keep them when they can go elsewhere and kick a ball.
“I’ve got a great passion for grassroots football. It’s not always about winning things. You’ll hear kids and their parents talking about coming here and winning things, and I’ve got to be honest with them and say ‘you might not win things’. It should be about kids having a fantastic time. Equally, if you see kids winning games by eight, nine, ten goals, that’s done absolutely nothing for their development or the other team’s development. We always feel that our boys and girls need to be challenged.”
What does the future hold?
Horrocks, unsurprisingly, does not have much time for ideas of a European Super League. Nor was he impressed by Lionel Messi’s “crocodile tears” upon announcing he was leaving Barcelona. “If he wanted to stay so much, he should play for them for free!”
It might sound absolutely unthinkable to most football fans following the Premier League, the Champions League, and so on, but Horrocks ends our chat with an important reminder about the importance of enjoying football.
Once again, that intriguing connection with Man Utd comes up. Only this time, it’s not one of the biggest sports franchises in the world poaching a player from an amateur side without any compensation; rather refreshingly, it’s a move in the opposite direction.
“I had a phone call the other day,” Horrocks says. “And it was like ‘Hi Dave, my lad’s just been released from United, what’s the chance of him coming to your club?’ I said I’d talk to the coach, but I can only ask. I won’t select the team for him. He said ‘I only ask because I want him to enjoy his football again, he’s become a little disillusioned at the moment and I don’t want him to get back into the system again.’ I said ‘brilliant, okay, no problem.’ That was Nicky Butt.
“That lad’s never been a part of our club, but he got in touch because he wants his kid to get back into enjoying football. For me, that’s brilliant. For someone like Nicky Butt to contact us and ask for a trial, not taking us for granted, but just because his lad’s had his time at Manchester United and is ready for something different. He knows how things work, and he’s polite enough to ask for a trial. That goes a long way with me, being polite.”