Marcus Rashford’s always been one of football’s good guys – winning an MBE for his campaigning over free school meals. But now, after a two-day tequila and cocktails bender, those close to him fear the expectations have become too much…

For reasons that have mystified football pundits, but which perhaps became clearer yesterday after a Belfast waitress exposed his drunken small-hours shenanigans, goals have been in short supply for honorary doctor Marcus Rashford MBE this season.

When the Manchester United and England striker does put the ball in the net, he is not one of those narcissistic players who shows off his six-pack to celebrate. He prefers to stand stock still and point his index finger at his temple: the inference being that scoring is all about his Zen state of mind.

Whether or not cultivated, it is a message that perfectly chimes with the Manchester United and England star’s image, as a renaissance footballer for these awakened ages. A boy who conquered the demons of a blighted upbringing, when he was never sure where the next meal was coming from, and recreated himself as the accomplished, self-assured athlete we see today.

But not just an athlete, of course. Rashford wasn’t handed his gong and Manchester university doctorate, plus a plethora of other glittering awards, for his ability to glide past defenders.

Marcus Rashford, pictured with Gerry Flynn of Larne FC, flew to Belfast by private jet, ostensibly to see Ro-Shaun Williams, a close friend who plays for the Northern Irish club

Rashford went for drinks at Lavery's after arriving in Belfast on Wednesday evening

Rashford went for drinks at Lavery’s after arriving in Belfast on Wednesday evening

The Manchester United and England footballer's relationship with his childhood sweetheart Lucia Loi has reportedly been off and on recently

The Manchester United and England footballer’s relationship with his childhood sweetheart Lucia Loi has reportedly been off and on recently

By using his privileged ‘platform’, as he puts it, to champion all manner of social causes – from hunger among school pupils to literacy and homelessness – and doing so with astounding success, he has, in effect, become Britain’s first Premier League politician.

Indeed, his mission to bring about change has proved so persuasive that Boris Johnson was only half jesting when he told the Commons that Rashford was a more effective Opposition leader than Sir Keir Starmer.

On those rare occasions when the 26-year-old striker does lift his shirt after scoring, the enormity of Rashford’s off-field achievements becomes poignantly apparent. Tattooed on his ribcage is a picture of the lad he once was, kicking a ball against a wall on a tough estate in Wythenshawe, Greater Manchester, in the shadow of a never-forgotten cherry tree.

Today, Rashford is paid £350,000 a week at United, and doubtless many millions more for his off-field ventures. He has a burgeoning property empire and recently swapped his own six-bedroomed, £1.8 million Cheshire mansion for an even swisher one, with a pool, wine cellar and nine-hole golf course. Oh yes, and ‘biodiversity enhancement measures’, such as hedgehog-friendly fencing and boxes for bats and wild birds.

All this for a young man whose single mother, Melanie Maynard, held down three jobs to feed and clothe him and his four older siblings, but still sometimes struggled to buy a loaf of bread.

And who sometimes missed coaching sessions with Manchester United, who spotted his gifts at seven years old, because there was nobody to give him a lift to the practice ground.

Last Friday, when he ought to have been preparing for an FA Cup match against Newport County, Rashford went absent from training for rather less forgivable reasons. Reasons which saw his name blazed across the front page of a tabloid newspaper and his image as the spokesman for a deprived generation sadly tarnished.

Having flown to Belfast by private jet, ostensibly to see Ro-Shaun Williams, a close friend who plays for a Northern Irish team, he went on a two-day bender, downing tequila shots and cocktails, according to the waitress, Sarah Adair, who claims Rashford invited her to join his party on their second night out, last Thursday.

Waitress Sarah Adair claims Rashford invited her to join his party on the second night out of a two-day bender on which he downed tequila shots and cocktails

Waitress Sarah Adair claims Rashford invited her to join his party on the second night out of a two-day bender on which he downed tequila shots and cocktails

Had Rashford trained on Friday, he might well have been included in the United squad, coached by Erik ten Hag (right), who took on lowly Newport County in the FA Cup last Sunday

Had Rashford trained on Friday, he might well have been included in the United squad, coached by Erik ten Hag (right), who took on lowly Newport County in the FA Cup last Sunday

Adair had met Rashford earlier in the day, when serving him lunch, she says. The footballer, whose relationship with his childhood sweetheart Lucia Loi has reportedly been off and on recently, was accompanied by two men and two women, one of whom (‘French and very beautiful’) appeared to be with him ‘because of how they interacted’, though they didn’t seem well acquainted.

Having been invited by Rashford to ‘show them around the city’ that evening, Ms Adair, 30, something of a Celtic beauty herself, was not about to pass up the opportunity. Yet the night turned out to be a ‘weird’, she claims.

Decked out in a white suit, with diamond-encrusted watches on each wrist, ‘six or seven silver diamond chains and two diamond rings, and two identical mobile phones’, the Rashford she depicts was a pampered Premier League player personified – and he behaved like one.

The self-styled people’s champion and his entourage commandeered the VIP area of a nightclub where he drank from his own bottle of expensively branded tequila. He even brought his blue-tooth speakers along so the DJ could play music by his preferred rap artists, Ms Adair says.

Rashford was also ‘clearly on a mission to get drunk’, she alleges. She says he had been ‘drinking all day’ and wanted to continue, even though one of his friends reminded him he had to attend a training session back in Manchester the following day.

Here we should pause to explain to readers who don’t follow football closely why it was so important for him to participate in this session. United, you see, are no longer the all-conquering club they once were. Under the managership of Dutchman Erik Ten Hag, they are mired in a crisis on the field – languishing in eighth place in the Premier League – and beset by rumours of discontent in the dressing room. As their top striker, they desperately need Rashford to score goals, yet he has netted a paltry four in 20 league games this season and looks a shadow of the player who grabbed 30 last year.

As their highest-profile star, United need him to lead by example in helping to raise morale and end the reported rift between some of the team and the beleaguered manager. He will hardly have done that by going AWOL to drink himself into oblivion.

And what of the salt-of-the-earth folks whose social causes Rashford so proudly champions? Had he trained on Friday, he might well have been included in the United squad who took on lowly Newport County in the FA Cup last Sunday. It was a romantic prospect: the sort which fires the dreams of small clubs and their supporters.

Rashford's single mother, Melanie Maynard, held down three jobs to feed and clothe him and his four older siblings, but still sometimes struggled to buy a loaf of bread

Rashford’s single mother, Melanie Maynard, held down three jobs to feed and clothe him and his four older siblings, but still sometimes struggled to buy a loaf of bread

Perhaps, though, having represented his country 57 times and played in the world’s finest stadiums, Rashford didn’t much fancy turning out at Rodney Parade on a cold winter’s afternoon. Never mind that a few thousand grassroots Welsh fans had paid good money for a ticket, doubtless in the hope of watching him.

Did their disappointment cross Rashford’s mind, even for a moment, as he was necking those Patron tequila shots? By Sarah Adair’s account, it seems not.

In the Belfast nightclub, she says, the Gallic beauty who was on his arm accused him of kissing another woman, and a row broke out.

‘I’m so angry because he thinks he can do what he wants,’ the French woman allegedly told her.

It was after 2am, the waitress says, when they all left the club and headed for the five-star Fitzwilliam Hotel, where Rashford was staying in a £1,750 a night suite. There an unedifying scene erupted, says Ms Adair. Rashford dumped the French woman’s belongings in the corridor, shut himself in the suite, and refused her angry demands to be allowed in.

‘I said to Marcus to go out and speak to her and he said, “No, I just don’t care”,’ Ms Adair is quoted as saying. ‘He was so drunk at this point that he picked up his own bag and dropped it, and all this cash fell out. It was all £20 notes and big wads of it. I reckon it was between £8,000 and £10,000 cash.

‘Then he falls back into the wall and I have to kind of scoop him up and on to the bed. He was fully dressed, and I reckon he just passed out like that.’

With the agreement of one of his friends, the waitress says, she slept in another room. On waking at 9.30am on Friday, one of his minders told her Rashford and his team had left at 5am – a timing that tallies with the reported time he arrived back in Manchester.

Many years ago, when Paul Gascoigne was secretly binge-drinking his glittering career into the gutter, I found myself sitting next to him on an early-morning flight from London to Scotland, where he then played for Rangers.

Though he reeked of alcohol and told me, with endearing candour, that he had been ‘on the wine all weekend’ with his girlfriend, he was so determined to make it into training, that morning, that he had bought a bagful of ice-lollies at Heathrow, and sucked on them during the flight to try to rehydrate himself. There were no such tragi-comic heroics from Rashford last Friday. Instead, United received a phone-call saying he had fallen ill. Which, in a self-inflicted way, was probably true.

While this is his most humiliating, and potentially most damaging act of idiocy, it isn’t the first time he has embarrassed himself and his famous club of late. Whether by pranging his £700,000 Rolls Royce in the car park, or celebrating his birthday in carefree style at Manchester’s China White nightclub when fans expected him to go home and lick his wounds after a thrashing by local rivals Manchester City, he has started to make headlines for all the wrong reasons.

With his oblique stare and muted replies to even innocuous questions, Rashford has always hidden his emotions. Yet he now cuts such a sullen figure, on the field and away from it, that expert onlookers such as Alan Shearer and former United striker Dion Dublin have questioned his attitude. What’s eating at him, they wonder.

All of which poses a pressing question: has Marcus Rashford truly overcome those childhood insecurities? Demons that are cleverly explored in Dear England, James Graham’s acclaimed play about the revival of England’s football team under Gareth Southgate; and which returned three years ago when, after missing a penalty during England’s disastrous shootout in the European championship final, Rashford reportedly sought a psychologist’s help and took to his bed for days.

Even those who follow Rashford’s career closely know little about his personal life, much less what goes on behind that impenetrable gaze. That is clearly by his own design. Only his mother, siblings and a few close friends are permitted inside his circle. His affairs are conducted by his brothers, Dwayne Maynard and Dane Rashford, though as both recently failed their football agents’ exams, that might soon have to change.

However, during her interview with The Sun, Sarah Adair made a telling observation. ‘Marcus was confident, but he also seems a bit shy,’ she said. ‘It’s as if he doesn’t really know who he is. He gives out the vibe (that) he thinks, “I’m a footballer, I’ve got loads of money and can do whatever I want”. His friends treated him like he was a god. It’s as if he doesn’t really know who he is.’

The Belfast waitress is no Freudian analyst, but maybe, in making that simple character assessment, she hit on the nub of Rashford’s apparent turmoil.

Rashford is paid £350,000 a week at United and recently swapped his six-bed, £1.8million Cheshire mansion for an even swisher one, with a pool, wine cellar and nine-hole golf course

Rashford is paid £350,000 a week at United and recently swapped his six-bed, £1.8million Cheshire mansion for an even swisher one, with a pool, wine cellar and nine-hole golf course

Turmoil is not too strong a term, for informed United watchers say his Belfast binge was not the first time a player who barely touched alcohol until his early 20s has gone out on the tiles in recent months. Usually, they say, he drinks in the privacy of upmarket casinos and the like. The only difference this time is that he was foolishly indiscreet.

Ask these insiders why this clean-living paragon appears to be is succumbing to the footballers’ curse – an affliction that ruined George Best and many more before and after him – and you get a variety of theories.

The absence of his childhood sweetheart Lucia’s guidance; exploitation by outside influences; the pressure of trying to carry the fortunes of an under-achieving team managed by people in whom he has little faith; and maybe the same creeping disillusionment with football that afflicted the great Best in his prime.

All of this on top of his need to perpetuate the image of a lionhearted Left-winger as well as a match-winning centre-forward.

Has Dr Marcus Rashford MBE taken on too much in attempting to achieve his vast potential as a footballer while fulfilling his onerous duties as a campaigner for societal change?

Of course, there could be a very different reason for Rashford’s spectacular fall from grace. And in the coming days we can expect his recently hired PR Caroline McAteer to pooh-pooh the notion that it was rooted in his underlying problems. Since McAteer’s past clients include David Beckham and Dele Alli, the former England prodigy whose career has been disastrously derailed at 27 (and whose off-field ‘issues’ have much to do with his own difficult childhood), she is certainly equipped to handle a crisis of this magnitude.

However, all of us who have watched admiringly as Marcus Rashford changed the course of politics and put food in thousands of hungry stomachs are hoping the boy from Wythenshawe won’t need a spin doctor to come to his senses and restore his noble image.

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