But what happened to the messages left at the portrait of the Manchester United footballer?

To Mancunians, the image of Marcus Rashford on the side of a cafe in Withington is slowly but surely becoming as iconic as the Salford Lads Club. But it might have remained a local curiosity rather than a national emblem but for one act of vandalism late on 11 July 2021. 

Following the defeat of England by Italy at Wembley that day, offensive messages were daubed on the Rashford mural on the side of the Coffee House Cafe on Copson Street. But while the graffiti was barely seen, images of what came next were broadcast the world over.

These wonderful messages with their shared outpouring of love, solidarity and tolerance will be saved, and will be seen and used in the future

A collage of hearts, notes, flags, shirts and scarves threatened to overwhelm the original portrait of the Manchester United footballer as the people of Withington, Manchester and further afield came to show their support to Rashford and his teammates Sancho and Saka, all of whom had been targeted with racial abuse online. The media followed and the story became the feel-good moment the nation needed after its footballing disappointment. 

Marcus Rashford was quick to respond, writing in an Instagram post: "The messages I’ve received today have been positively overwhelming and seeing the response in Withington had me on the verge of tears. The communities that always wrapped their arms around me continue to hold me up. I’m Marcus Rashford, 23-year-old, black man from Withington and Wythenshawe, South Manchester. If I have nothing else I have that. 

"For all the kind messages, thank you. I’ll be back stronger. We’ll be back stronger. 


Now, to cement the mural's status as a site of protest and support, Google has added the mural in Streetview to coincide with its The More We Learn, the Closer We Get’ Search campaign.

Messages Left At The Marcus Rashford Mural In Withington
Messages overwhelmed the portrait of Marcus Rashford

Messages of hope 

Even while the press cameras were still at the scene, a team of conservators and archivists from the cream of Manchester's cultural institutions - Central Library Archives, Manchester Art Gallery, The National Football Museum and The People’s History Museum - were formulating a plan to conserve the items left at the scene.

MA students from the Institute of Cultural Practices at The University of Manchester were drafted in to help with the practical work with support from the Withington Walls project. Inspiration was taken from the project to conserve the flowers, personal mementoes, candles, balloons and written messages left behind in St Ann's Square after the Manchester Arena Attack in 2018, which also involved some of the same institutions. 

To this end, the group called in Harwell’s, a conservation specialist which also helped with the project to conserve the tributes to the victims of the Manchester Arena Attack, to come and assist with the removal of the messages.

People Gather At The Marcus Rashford Mural In Withington Manchester
People gathered to show their support for Rashford et al

Despite the recent heatwave, Manchester's weather proved predictably unpredictable and a localised downpour over Withington meant that the items - many of which were paper - were in danger of being ruined.

At the time, Councillor Luthfur Rahman said: "This is Manchester, we're not going to be defeated by a few drops of rain. And, because it's Manchester, our fantastic gallery and archives staff were on site within minutes of the downpour starting last night to assess things and to do what they could to stabilise the mural display…  These wonderful messages with their shared outpouring of love, solidarity and tolerance will be saved, and will be seen and used in the future to help educate and show what standing together and acceptance looks like right now, in this moment in time, in Manchester."

Filming In Withington At The Blm Marucs Rashford Protest
The media followed the story

Eugenie Karen, an officer at Manchester City Council with expertise in paper conservation, told Icon:

“The rain had made a lot of objects damp, but it was not as bad as it might have been. The shower had been short and objects were drying out well in Friday’s hot, sunny weather. Getting to work, we encountered the first rather unpleasant surprise - the lurking maggots, which was slightly off-putting but perfectly manageable. We were not fazed by the insects and subsequently discovered that many of the objects had been stuck down with a variety of sweets and chewing gum, which was far more revolting than maggots!

“Removing all the messages individually would have been impossible in the time that we had, due to the volume and layering of the tributes. There were long banners, large sheets of card with individual messages affixed, often from a class full of children. Big flags were hung up and there were football shirts, toys, flowers and other gifts. We elected to package the larger items individually and smaller ones were affixed to Melinex (or when that ran out, to polythene) and laid in layers within boxes. Local businesses lent us bread trays when boxes ran low and offered us washing facilities.

“The rain had ruined only a small portion of the objects, and there were so many lovely, heartfelt messages that it was a pleasure to be going through them. People had sent good wishes from as far away as Mauritius and Nepal and while we worked, many people came and told us what the wall meant to them individually.”

Marcus Rashford Withington Hero Apron Memento
A spontaneous tribute

Police appeal

Once removed, the items were taken by Harwell's for freezing and drying at its facility in Oxfordshire, before being returned - cleaned and dry - to Manchester Central Library's archives, where the process of recording and photographing each individual message is still underway.

It is thought that the items, once properly preserved and catalogued, may form part of an exhibition that could be displayed at the National Football Museum and other locations. But beyond the physical location of the items, however, these so-called "spontaneous memorials" have attracted attention from academics, who believe that they are an important part of the collective psyche, as communities come together to process traumatic events. Accessing these materials, therefore, has potentially positive psychological impact on us all.

Marcus Rashford Wall In Withington
The Marcus Rashford portrait as it looks today

While the objects themselves are not yet available, Google, together with the National Football Museum, has created an online exhibition in tribute. Google Arts and Culture, as part of its Black & British Hub, has added in a section on Marcus Rashford. Images of items, plus the ability to visit the mural in Streetview memorialises that moment in July 2021.

Since then, Rashford has been recognised with an honorary doctorate from the University of Manchester, the youngest person to receive such recognition from the institution. Referring to the removal of the Universal Credit uplift that same day, he said: “Millions of families across the UK lost a lifeline and a means of staying afloat. A move that could see child poverty rise to 1 in 3 children. For that reason, today is a little bit bittersweet.”

The footballer is of course known for his campaign to eradicate child hunger in this country. He has worked with FareShare to deliver meals to those in the Greater Manchester area who were no longer receiving their free school meals.

Meanwhile, police have released CCTV footage of the incident in question and anyone with information about the vandalism has been asked to contact police.

A police spokesman said the force had "followed all lines of enquiry available following the vandalism".

"Officers have carried out a vast amount of CCTV checks and now have footage of a man they would like to speak to," he said.

"The footage is not the best quality, but is part of our efforts to exhaust all of the opportunities we have to find whoever is responsible."

About the Marcus Rashford mural

The portrait of Rashford was painted by Akse, a street artist known for his photo-realistic work depicting people in the public eye, and was based on a photo by Daniel Cheetham. The mural on the side of the Coffee House Cafe on Copson Street was originally painted in the weeks leading up to November 2020 and was a centrepiece of Withington Walls – a project which sees artists use the walls and shutters of Withington as a canvas for free expression, turning the village into an open gallery. The Rashford mural and all the other work last year was made possible by donations to the Withington Walls crowdfunder in 2019 and further support from MCC, Manchester Uni and Onward Housing. Visit the Withington Walls website for more information.

Greater Manchester Police have appealed for information regarding the incident in July. Anyone with any information should contact police on 0161 856 4973 quoting incident number 453 of 12/7/2021 - or the independent charity Crimestoppers anonymously on 0800 555 111.

Read now: Art Trail bringing Old Trafford community together launches this weekend

Read next: Marcus Rashford mural causes Trafford Council controversy

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