GARETH SOUTHGATE’S announcement of his provisional England squad for the Euros earlier this week led to a number of heated debates. Jordan Henderson, finally dropped. Nick Pope, surprisingly overlooked. Jarrad Branthwaite and Jarell Quansah, late outsiders for a place on the plane to Germany.

When it came to the decision to omit Marcus Rashford, though, there was barely a murmur. From England’s talisman to an unconsidered afterthought in the space of a couple of seasons. It has been quite some decline for the 26-year-old.

This week’s axing was barely discussed because it has been in the pipeline for quite a while. Rashford’s selection for March’s friendly double-header against Brazil and Belgium was touch-and-go, but felt like Southgate giving a previously-trusted lieutenant a final opportunity to rediscover past glories. In the end, Rashford played 15 uneventful minutes as a substitute against Brazil and that was it. Since then, the forward has failed to score in seven games in a row for Manchester United. Admittedly, a three-week injury absence limited his ability to make a positive impression, but it was hardly a compelling case to offer him another olive branch ahead of the Euros. Hence this week’s culling ahead of tomorrow’s FA Cup final.

So, what has gone wrong for Rashford, the Mancunian hometown hero who burst onto the scene so spectacularly as a teenager, scoring in the opening three minutes of his international debut as an 18-year-old at the Stadium of Light, but who now finds himself struggling to get a game for either club or country?

He has had a disastrous season, scoring just seven Premier League goals in 33 appearances, although it can perhaps be argued that his personal struggles are reflective of a much wider malaise at Manchester United. Could anyone have shone playing under Erik ten Hag this season? Well, Kobbie Mainoo and Alejandro Garnacho haven’t fared too badly, and even Bruno Fernandes, for all his ups and downs in the last nine months, just about emerges from the season in credit. Rashford? It’s hard to imagine how things could have gone any worse.

Perhaps this season’s struggles are just part of a wider pattern that have seen Rashford’s career consistently feature a series of wildly-fluctuating highs and lows? In the 2021-22 season, his fortunes nosedived spectacularly as he managed just four league goals and made almost half of his Premier League appearances from the substitutes’ bench. The following year, in 2022-23, he scored 30 goals in all competitions and was named as Manchester United’s Player of the Season.

Even within seasons, Rashford tends to be a player who gets on streaks, both good and bad, so perhaps he is simply waiting for something to spark him back into life? The worry on that score, though, is that even when there have been chinks of light this term, such as the superb long-range strike that briefly put Manchester United into the lead in the derby against City or the extra-time goal that helped set up his side’s remarkable FA Cup victory over Liverpool, they have been followed by another slump.

What about the argument that Rashford’s career has largely been on a downward slope since he became a campaigning celebrity as well as a footballer? Has he taken his eye off the ball since he became the nation’s sweetheart for his championing of school dinners, not to mention an award-winning children’s author?

That’s probably a bit harsh given that Rashford’s standout season came in the aftermath of his poverty campaigning, which peaked in 2020. Interestingly, though, this season’s struggles on the pitch have also been accompanied by the first real sign of sustained ill-discipline off it. There was the understandable criticism that followed his ill-advised decision to hit the town for a birthday celebration in the immediate aftermath of Manchester United’s derby defeat to City last October, then there was the even more unfathomable night out in Belfast in January that resulted in him missing training and led to him being dropped for the following weekend’s FA Cup game at Newport. Footballers occasionally go off the rails, but both incidents felt out of character for Rashford, unless the idea of being a celebrity is now more appealing than the challenge of consistently meeting the demands of top-level sport. Rashford argued otherwise in an impassioned blog post on the Players’ Tribune, but while his words were defiant, his subsequent performances on the pitch have told a different story.

Maybe, when all is said and done, we are simply seeing the decline of a talent that burned so bright, so soon, that a gradual dimming was inevitable? Wayne Rooney is a rare example of a player who burst onto the scene as a teenager and pretty much maintained his standards throughout his career, but it is much more common for teenage tyros to fail to live up to the hype that accompanied their sudden emergence. Perhaps Rashford was always destined to be another Theo Walcott or Joe Cole, players who had successful careers, but whose best moments came when they were youngsters with the world seemingly at their feet.

Rashford being Rashford, he might well confound the critics by scoring the winner in tomorrow’s Cup final at Wembley. It says much, though, that if he is to do so, it might well have to come from the substitutes’ bench with Garnacho and Amad Diallo likely to form a Rashford-less front four with Fernandes and Rasmus Hojland.

Not at the Euros, potentially not starting at Wembley. Not good at all. And certainly not the way things were meant to go for one of English football’s most enigmatic talents.