WHEN Jose Mourinho was unveiled by Manchester United last summer, he came forewarned and forearmed.
He knew there would be questions about his alleged unwillingness to promote youth-team products and he swiftly responded that he had blooded 49 kids during his managerial career.
United then circulated an approved list of 55 such players — although many claims were spurious — and it became apparent that this was a sore subject.
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It is 80 years since United failed to name a home-grown player on their teamsheet — while the club’s Premier League dominance under Sir Alex Ferguson owed much to their class of 92.
So when Marcus Rashford scored the opener against Chelsea ten days ago, on a rare start at centre-forward, Mourinho didn’t even need to be asked.
The prickly Portuguese, protesting rather too much, blurted out that Rashford had “the third or fourth most minutes on the pitch” under him — which wasn’t actually true.
Yet 45 appearances, including 25 starts, represents a fair crack of the whip for a 19-year-old.
And it’s not as if any kid has actually been given a maiden first-team start by Mourinho at United so far — despite frequent complaints about fixture congestion.
Had Will Keane not been injured in an FA Cup tie at Shrewsbury last February, we may not yet have heard of Rashford.
Instead, Louis van Gaal named him as a sub for the Europa League second leg with Midtjylland, then promoted him to the starting line-up when Anthony Martial was injured in the warm-up.
Rashford scored twice in a 5-1 win and almost entirely skipped the United Under-23s and England Under-21s as he became an instant golden boy for club and country.
So it was perhaps unsurprising that he has suffered growing pains — including a six-month Premier League goal drought which ended at Sunderland on April 9.
But the majority of Rashford’s appearances have come out wide and, as he proved when Zlatan Ibrahimovic was rested for Chelsea then injured against Anderlecht, the teenager is an instinctive goal-scoring centre-forward.
With Zlatan’s career at threat from that cruciate injury, Rashford can take centre stage for the remaining eight or nine matches of the season — starting with tomorrow’s trip to Manchester City.
Rashford scored the winner in a 1-0 victory at the Etihad last season and will be the only Mancunian in the derby — although Warrington’s Jesse Lingard comes close.
This next month gives Rashford a chance to convince Mourinho he really could be United’s first-choice No 9 next season.
To prove that he isn’t a token home-grown player — a tool to win an argument with the media Einsteins who think Mourinho isn’t bold enough to fully gamble on youth.
High-pressure fixtures at City, Arsenal and Tottenham, Europa League semi-finals and perhaps a final, are the red-letter games in which even a sceptical Mourinho could be won over.
And it would mean the world to United fans to see this kid from the local Fletcher Moss Rangers youth club make the position his own.
Because the more cosmopolitan Richard Scudamore’s “World League” becomes, the more keenly actual match-going fans seek authentic local heroes.
The “He’s one of our own” song aimed at Tottenham’s Harry Kane sounded lame at first. Now it is taken up by supporters of any club which “dares” to blood an academy kid.
And when English football, having teetered on the brink of lunacy for years, was officially sectioned as Antonio Conte cried poverty for Roman Abramovich’s Chelsea on Monday, the desire for Rashford to succeed ought to have become a little stronger.
Conte, working for his food-bank oligarch, was digging out United and City for failing to capitalise on last summer’s massive transfer spends. But United, for all their monolithic richest-club-on-the-planet status, don’t deserve that.
Certainly not from a club which hasn’t established an academy product in its first team for a generation.
So for the player, his manager and the club, little could be sweeter than Rashford’s goals shooting United to a European trophy and the top four, at the expense of City or Liverpool.
In terms of talent and temperament, he is capable.
Capable of giving Mourinho something to brag about — should you be cynical enough to believe he enjoys that sort of thing.
Treat girls right
YES, Ilie Nastase’s behaviour during the Romania v Great Britain Federation Cup match proved he is an abusive misogynist.
But let’s not pretend British sport doesn’t also treat women with contempt.
Notts County’s women’s team was disbanded two days before the start of the Super League spring season after the Magpies’ new owners refused to fund the operation.
Players heard through the media.
And forget this nonsense about women’s football not attracting sufficient support to pay its own way.
Women’s football was once massively popular but is still recovering from the FA (in 1921) effectively banning it for 50 years and refusing to promote it for another couple of decades.
And the ECB is trying to attract women to cricket with a softball version, marketed as ‘Ditch the Ouch’.
Because women don’t do pain — apparently childbirth is a doddle.
Shirt rule is a Mess
LIONEL MESSI’S superhuman effort in Barcelona’s 3-2 El Clasico victory over Real Madrid on Sunday ended with a stunning injury-time winner.
It prompted the Argentine to take off his shirt and display it to the Bernabeu faithful for what was a truly iconic goal celebration.
But in the background there was the referee, ‘only obeying orders’, who dutifully booked the maestro for his jubilant act.
Surely this was the moment when Fifa realised that this ridiculous little piece of jobsworthiness has to be struck from the law book once and for all.
Tyne and Weary
MIDDLESBROUGH have not won a league game in 2017 and had FIVE 0-0 draws since January.
David Moyes has seen his Sunderland side win just once this year and recently went seven matches without a goal.
Both North East clubs are miles adrift of safety and heading for inevitable relegation.
So good luck to those covering Boro 0 Sunderland 0 tonight.
It promises to be the WORST game in Premier League history.
Truth hurts for Swindon
SWINDON banned all outside media from pre-match press conferences two years ago in an attempt to ensure fans could read only sanitised club-approved ‘news’.
And after they were relegated to League Two on Saturday, it took the club’s in-house media team 48 hours to acknowledge that they had, indeed, gone down. It won’t be long until one of these small-time despots running a club tries to sue a paper for publishing a defamatory league table.
Ched return Eva so strange
CHED EVANS is an innocent man — and Sheffield United are well within their rights to sign him.
But when you’ve just been promoted from League One and you recruit a striker who has managed to score just one goal in his last 22 league appearances for relegated Chesterfield, you either have to question the competence of the Blades’ recruitment team or the motives of their board.