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 By Rory Smith

Marcus Rashford proves opportunity is key in development of young players

Alison Bender takes a quick look at players who shined in their debuts before struggling later and asks whether Marcus Rashford is the real deal.

It is far too early to know where the Marcus Rashford story ends. Two games -- even two games in which he lit up a Manchester United wallowing in gloom and shade -- are no sample at all. He could yet burn with a bright but brief flame, as Federico Macheda once did, or this might be the early flickering of a fire that lasts for years.

There are too many twists, turns and roadblocks that could yet appear on his path. An injury could derail it all, and so could someone else's return to health. All the stardom might go to his head. This might turn out to be the exception rather than the rule, and a career that dazzled at first might settle into something still respectable but less remarkable.

Or this could be just the beginning. Rashford might refuse to relinquish the spotlight he has attracted in the first week of his senior career. Those who know these things say he has all the attributes -- the movement, the positional sense, the instincts, the stuff that cannot be taught -- to be whatever he wants to be.

We have seen a star being born. Now we need time to discern whether he is a sun or a comet tearing across the sky.

There are two lessons, however, that the Rashford story can teach us, even at this early stage.

The first is simple and, to some extent, obvious. Young players, especially young players whose job is to lift a crowd off its feet, have a curious effect on clubs. There is something in the limitless sense of possibility, the feeling of a wonder rooted in ignorance, that has a rare power.

Just after Rashford scored his second goal against Arsenal on Sunday, the sun started shining on Old Trafford. The crowd was jubilant, hugging and cheering and delighting in the pure inexplicability of what it was witnessing. There were banners held aloft and songs sung. At that moment, it was impossible to think of Manchester United as the crisis-ridden, chaos-torn club it has been for much of the season.

A few minutes later, as Louis van Gaal took a tumble on the touchline, Old Trafford chorused his name for the first time in a long time. It was a nice bit of drama, a flash of character, from a man who has endured a troubled few months. But it would not have been greeted with quite the same gusto, had it not been for Rashford. The teenager made it all possible.

Rashford's debut has captured the imagination of football fans, but it might not have happened without key injuries.

If United finish fourth this year -- even if they finish fifth but end the campaign on a positive note -- and Rashford does not play another game, there is an argument that he is their player of the season -- not because he has been their best player or because he is the best player at the club, but because he has changed the mood at Old Trafford completely. In four days, he has inspired a complete turnaround. He has shattered the sense of despondency and rid the club of all that self-doubt.

It is to be hoped that United remember that when they plan their summer spending. Ed Woodward, the executive vice chairman and only man in the world who seems to think the Galactico era at Real Madrid was a blueprint rather than a bad idea, has made plain his intention to attract big-name signings to the club every season. Where would that leave Rashford, though, if some superstar is drafted ahead of him? Young players are delicate; it is hard to enough to break through without your club throwing obstacles in your way. They need trust if they are to prove worthy of it.

That, rather neatly, leads to the second lesson Rashford can teach us: It isn't facilities or coaching or systems that enable young players to succeed, though of course they all play some part. The most important element is the one that doesn't cost any money: opportunity.

Speak to those in the know, and it's widely accepted that Manchester City and Chelsea are streets ahead of almost all their rivals when it comes to youth development. They have state-of-the-art academies and the best coaches. They are the clubs that have best taken advantage of the Elite Player Performance Plan -- the Premier League-authorised strategy to help gather the best young players, theoretically enabling them to encourage each other to new heights -- to acquire the brightest young things in each age group. Everybody else, the consensus runs, is playing catch up.

Rashford's emergence is more impressive when considering United's academy lags notably behind those of Chelsea and Man City.

United, by contrast, have struggled to maintain their proud tradition of growing their own in recent years. They did not have a Head of Academy for almost a year, between the departure of Brian McClair and last month's appointment of Nicky Butt. Their scouting system at that level, by all accounts, is haphazard; in one estimation, they are too reliant on their reputation. The better pitch (and better money) is on offer down the road at the City Football Academy.

Even before his debut, it was widely felt within the game that Rashford was one of just a handful of genuine prospects at United's disposal. There are a few behind him said to stand a chance, but there is a reason they keep being beaten at youth level by City and a reasons they chose to play Chelsea in the FA Youth Cup on the treacherous surface at Altrincham, rather than on the carpet at Old Trafford. Even so, their ploy didn't work, as they lost 5-1.

Yet now, it is United who seem to have a bumper crop on their hands: Rashford, after all, was one of five graduates to make his first-team debut last week. More than a dozen have been blooded in the past year by Van Gaal.

It defies logic: It should be City and Chelsea unearthing a new generation of gems. The reason they are not -- and United are -- is simple. Opportunity. Van Gaal's injury crisis, coupled with his preference to not top-load his squad, meant he had to turn to youth. Rashford is the one who has best taken his chance.

The most important thing, however, is that he had the chance in the first place. No matter how much money clubs spend on their facilities, how many coaches they draft in or how many tie-ins they have with outstanding local schools, it means nothing unless at some point the hopefuls are given their opportunity. That is the most important lesson of the Rashford story, the one clubs all over Europe -- bringing through players at a time when managerial job security is almost nonexistent is a problem beyond England -- should heed.

You can do everything you can to polish the raw materials you find. You can give them the perfect education. You can imbue them with all your knowledge and wisdom and experience. But ultimately, you have to find out if they can shine. You never know. You might be pleasantly surprised.

Rory Smith is a columnist for ESPN FC and The Times. Follow him on Twitter @RorySmithTimes.

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