Mason Greenwood and Manchester United: The U-turn – what happened and why

Mason Greenwood and Manchester United: The U-turn – what happened and why

BIRMINGHAM, ENGLAND - JANUARY 15: Mason Greenwood of Manchester United during the Premier League match between Aston Villa and Manchester United at Villa Park on January 15, 2022 in Birmingham, United Kingdom. (Photo by Matthew Ashton - AMA/Getty Images)

In February 2022, less than a month into Richard Arnold’s tenure as Manchester United chief executive, he addressed an all-staff meeting from the club’s Old Trafford stadium.

The executive showed a video celebrating United’s on-pitch goals and success from years gone by before urging staff to stand on the “shoulders of the giants of this club and continue their legacy”.

“Being here and working with United is not a job,” Arnold said. “It is an incredible feeling.”

For Arnold, this past week must have felt anything but.

It is told at times with the help of sources who asked to remain anonymous in order to protect their jobs due to the sensitivity and toxicity of the topic. Comments are turned off for legal reasons.

As of Wednesday of last week, United’s plan was to bring Greenwood back. On Thursday and Friday mornings, club executives devoted time to justifying their chosen path to employees angry at the direction of travel, with some even contemplating resigning or strike action. The club’s sentiment trackers, which monitor supporter feeling online, began to plummet.

The planning divided these people into categories to the effect of “supportive”, “open-minded” or “hostile”, and the club’s document listed a series of domestic abuse charities assumed to be “hostile”.

Greenwood won’t be part of the United first team (Tom Purslow/Manchester United via Getty Images)

By Friday late afternoon, a backlash across season-ticket holders, fans, supporters’ groups, members of parliament and even charities that support female victims of abuse had combined to force a rethink.

That same evening, United’s most senior decision-makers engaged in crisis meetings. Very quickly, despite a plan for reintegration that had gone through more than a dozen iterations, the only questions that remained centred on the next steps as United weighed up an exit strategy.

They debated whether to loan out or sell Greenwood, or attempt to cut ties with the 21-year-old altogether — though this would present legal challenges given the club do not consider, following the findings of an internal investigation, that they have grounds to terminate his contract. In the end, the club confirmed on Monday that they would work with the player to continue his career elsewhere and the club say they do not expect an eventuality where a loan move leads to the player representing United again in the future.

A loan move away from the club would allow United to retain commercial control of a footballer who, before his arrest in January 2022, was widely deemed to be the best young forward in English football. This would either be with a view to selling Greenwood further down the line if he can restore his value on the field, or, hypothetically, to one day bring him back to Old Trafford, but the club insist they do not expect this to happen.

Talks culminated in a U-turn as the public pressure surrounding the decision became intolerable for some of the club’s most senior executives. Many people will wonder if United’s final decision has been made based on public backlash or because they came to reflect that the initial decision communicated by Arnold to the executive leadership was misguided. Arnold said his “view evolved as the process progressed” and claimed he was “taking various factors and views into account right up until the point of finalising my decision.”

United would have been wary of issuing a statement on Saturday because the men’s first team had a Premier League fixture against Tottenham Hotspur, while Sunday morning and early afternoon were ruled out so as not to deflect attention from the Women’s World Cup final between England and Spain — featuring Manchester United players Mary Earps, Ella Toone and Katie Zelem.

The reception to Greenwood’s potential return was hostile (Chloe Knott – Danehouse/Getty Images)

United may also have been wary of delaying their statement beyond Monday afternoon given the topic was increasingly likely to be discussed on Sky Sports’ flagship show Monday Night Football. United were aware that influential pundit and former club captain Gary Neville was opposed to the original decision to keep Greenwood.

Manchester United said on Monday afternoon: “All those involved, including Mason, recognise the difficulties with him recommencing his career at Manchester United. It has therefore been mutually agreed that it would be most appropriate for him to do so away from Old Trafford, and we will now work with Mason to achieve that outcome.”

While the nature of the cases are very different, comparisons will be made between the manner in which United, under the Glazer family, also secretly planned to join the European Super League in April 2021, only to U-turn on the outcome amid public outcry.

It seems it has happened again with Mason Greenwood.

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Greenwood was arrested on January 30, 2022, after graphic audio and images emerged on social media — just 48 hours before Arnold succeeded Ed Woodward in the role of chief executive.

He has not played for United since but remains under contract until 2025, with the club having the option to extend his deal — worth around £75,000 a week — for a further year. United have continued to pay Greenwood since his last match for the club on January 22, 2022.

Last October, the player was charged with attempted rape, controlling and coercive behaviour, and assault occasioning actual bodily harm. Greenwood denied all the charges and they were dropped in February, with the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) saying that “a combination of the withdrawal of key witnesses and new material meant there was no longer a realistic prospect of conviction”.

After the criminal case ended, United stated the club would “conduct its own process before determining next steps”. The United process was led by chief executive Arnold, assisted by a panel headed up by the club’s legal counsel Patrick Stewart, communications chief Ellie Norman, football director John Murtough and the chief operating officer, Collette Roche. Following this investigation, United’s view became that Greenwood should return.

The club has previously said it is limited in what it can say beyond “partial evidence” referred to in previous club statements — based on the lifelong anonymity granted to those who complain of certain sexual offences under UK law, which is also why comments are off on some of our articles — but at no point before Monday had United previously provided any substantial reasons, outside of the public domain, for why they initially planned to bring back Greenwood. Throughout this process, The Athletic has repeatedly requested any further background or comment from United on this matter and on Monday afternoon, the club explained their thinking.

United’s inquiries, the club say, lasted five months as they sought to gain a broader understanding of the audio and images that brought this case into the public domain. United spoke with Greenwood during the enquiries but did not have direct contact with the complainant. Instead, they spoke with her mother, with the knowledge of the complainant. The club say that both the complainant and her mother received the opportunity to both comment on or correct the club’s factual findings, but the club says she did not choose to do so.

At a hearing at Manchester & Salford Magistrates’ Court on October 17, 2022, the court had heard that the complainant had made allegations against Greenwood following an ABE (achieving best evidence) interview — a video-recorded interview with a vulnerable or intimidated witness where the recording is intended to be played as evidence in court at a later date — in January of that year. She then provided a retraction statement in April 2022, meaning she had withdrawn her support from the investigation.

The club also say they received explanations for the audio and video that were posted online and say they are satisfied that Greenwood did not physically abuse the complainant. While the club say these explanations were not contested by the complainant’s family, there has not been an explanation for what appeared to be very damning images and audio to the general public. The club also say they became satisfied that the complainant, based on conversations with her mother, had not been subjected to coercive control by Greenwood. The controlling and coercive charge, which he denied and was later dropped, alleged that Greenwood had made threatening and derogatory comments towards the complainant and accessed and monitored the complainant’s social media accounts.

In a statement, Arnold said on Monday: “While we were unable to access certain evidence for reasons we respect, the evidence we did collate led us to conclude that Mason did not commit the acts he was charged with.”

Greenwood said: “Today’s decision has been part of a collaborative process between Manchester United, my family and me. The best decision for us all is for me to continue my football career away from Old Trafford, where my presence will not be a distraction for the club.”

United also concluded that they did not see grounds to terminate Greenwood’s contract, a position which remains today.

In a statement issued on United’s website on Monday, Greenwood said: “I want to start by saying I understand that people will judge me because of what they have seen and heard on social media and I know people will think the worst.

“I was brought up to know that violence or abuse in any relationship is wrong, I did not do the things I was accused of, and in February I was cleared of all charges. However, I fully accept I made mistakes… and I take my share of responsibility for the situations which led to the social media post.”

The plan to bring back Greenwood

At 9am on Wednesday, August 16, The Athletic wrote to United to inform the club of our intention to report that Arnold had told the club’s executive leadership in the first week of August that United intended to bring Greenwood back into the first-team squad.

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It was also put to United that Arnold had intended to record a video to explain the decision to bring Greenwood back to supporters and staff. United’s men’s team manager, Erik ten Hag, and football director John Murtough — who is responsible for the men’s team, women’s team and academy — were both supportive of Greenwood’s return. Sources at the club, who would stay anonymous to protect their positions, had also indicated that some United employees felt a sense of “guilt and shame” because of the plans.

United insist the decision was Arnold’s (Oli Scarff/AFP via Getty Images)

In response, United sent out an all-staff email, a statement on their club website and messaged the same comment to The Athletic.

The 224-word statement did not deny that Arnold had communicated the plan for Greenwood’s return or any of the details The Athletic intended to report. The club insisted a “decision has not yet been made”, but also appeared to set the scene for a return by referring to the club’s “responsibilities to Mason as an employee, as a young person who has been with the club since the age of seven, and as a new father with a partner”. United also said they “understand the strong opinions it has provoked based on the partial evidence in the public domain”.

United’s unusual response — the club statement published at 15.44 BST on Wednesday after England’s women’s team had beaten Australia in the World Cup semi-final — appeared to illustrate the panic that had enveloped the club’s decision-makers.

United had been modelling plans for Greenwood’s return for quite some time (the planning documents were revised more than a dozen times) and the response from United revealed a club attempting to seize back control of the narrative.

Yet United were soon in the midst of a public relations crisis, both internally and externally.

The public and private backlash

Some employees felt appalled by the club’s plans around Greenwood and United executives held multiple intense meetings with staff. Some had discussed resigning in the event United brought Greenwood back. Others started to research how to go on strike.

The crisis meetings involved United executives seeking to justify a return for Greenwood to staff, while also claiming no final decision had been made, which reiterates how determined United’s executive had become to see through the plan. At that stage, United would only tell The Athletic and staff that the evidence available to the public was “partial” and did not explain the reasons cited above for why they wished to bring the player back.

Staff members were questioning how they were supposed to justify a decision to bring Greenwood back to their friends and families. While it will always be the case that disgruntled employees speak to the media more often than satisfied employees, the scale of dissatisfaction had now hit home. “The vast majority of people don’t think he should play for the club again,” said one staff member, who also considered their own position. When The Athletic reported on those considering a strike, multiple employees contacted this publication discreetly to say they would also join if one materialised.

Prominent United supporters’ groups, including the Manchester United Supporters Trust, Manchester United Women’s Supporters Club, and the Rainbow Devils, each sent out surveys to their members. The Athletic’s own survey, published on Saturday, was narrower than United anticipated, with only 58 per cent of responders saying Greenwood should not return.

Fans sent impassioned emails to Arnold on the topic, some of which have also been posted on social media. The club responded to the emails by telling supporters that United “are extremely mindful of their views” but added that the club “also believe that our decision in this case should be based primarily on the findings of our investigation”.

Manchester United

Fans protested against his return (Simon Stacpoole/Offside/Offside via Getty Images)

On Thursday, August 17, the British television presenter Rachel Riley warned she would not continue to support the club, which made headlines across the British media. It became a story that not only concerned the back pages, but also serious discussion shows on television, such as the BBC’s flagship evening discussion programme Newsnight.

The club’s preparations had anticipated a negative response in some quarters after Greenwood’s return was announced, but they appeared incapable of dousing the flames engulfing their plot when details emerged outside of their own control and framing.

The decision to delay the announcement

United’s grip on the situation slipped from the moment the club decided to delay the announcement of Greenwood’s return. Arnold, during an executive leadership meeting on August 1, had laid out a plan for an announcement on Friday, August 4. On July 30, reporters who covered United on their pre-season tour of the United States were also told to expect an unspecified verdict on Greenwood before United’s Premier League opener at home to Wolves on Monday, August 14.

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The dates of Wednesday, August 3 and Thursday, August 4 had been pencilled in for United’s executives to contact key stakeholders — including sponsors, the club’s fan advisory board and the club’s women’s team — of the decision. The problem, however, was that key members of United’s women’s team, including captain Zelem, goalkeeper Earps and striker Toone, remained in Australia competing for England at the World Cup and it was felt inappropriate to disrupt their tournament.

In recent months, United executives have at times used different words when explaining their intentions with regards to the Greenwood process and the proposed involvement of the women’s team. The word “consult” has been used, but so have words such as “engagement”. The semantics of this became more significant when, on August 11, The Guardian reported a decision had been delayed to “consult World Cup players”.

United insist their plan was never to delegate the decision-making to their female players but, rather, they did wish to give the team prior notice and the opportunity for feedback. If such feedback had proved overwhelmingly negative, then United may have been forced into re-thinking their decision, but the intention essentially revolved around delivering Arnold’s decision and United would have told stakeholders it had followed an objective fact-finding process.

The case against Greenwood was dropped (Lindsey Parnaby/AFP via Getty Images)

The women’s team did include players who were fiercely opposed to Greenwood’s return, but that sentiment was not overwhelming. It is also the reality of the more modest pay in the women’s game that some female players worried about their long-term prospects at the club in the event they kicked up too much of a fuss.

United’s sponsors, although anxious about United’s impending judgment on Greenwood, did not become a determining factor either. A senior source from one company who endorse United felt, regardless of their personal views, it was inappropriate for a partner to involve themselves in matters between an employee and its employers. They also feared it could set a precedent to become involved in other cases where ethics come into view at other organisations they sponsor.

But, following the Guardian report, United’s female players found themselves the victims of social media abuse on the eve of England’s World Cup quarter-final against Colombia. In response to posts from United’s official women’s account about the game, which England won 2-1, users petitioned Zelem, Earps and Toone to allow Greenwood’s return. The messages were seen by players and The Athletic has also been told that some of the posts were more threatening, to the extent one agent has considered enlisting cybersecurity support for his client.

Also on August 11, a new account sprang up on Twitter, named Female Fans Against Greenwood’s Return. This group of Manchester United supporters told The Athletic they were preparing a series of protests to make it clear they do not want Mason Greenwood to be reintegrated into the club’s plans.

The fans, who are all regular Old Trafford match-goers, made their feelings clear outside the stadium before United’s opening game of the season against Wolves.

A banner, in United’s colours, read: “Female Fans Demand No Greenwood Return – End Violence Against Women.”

All of a sudden, the vacuum that had been created by the delay to the August 4 announcement had been filled by stories of exasperated female supporters and the abuse of United’s women’s players online.

Those ‘hostile’ to the decision

United’s plan to bring Greenwood back, though, remained intact and dates before September’s international break were pencilled in for the announcement. This would have allowed the women’s World Cup to finish and afford United’s women’s players time after the final before the club explained the decision.

On Thursday, August 17, the charity Women’s Aid wrote directly to United to express their concerns. They received a phone call from the club on Friday lunchtime, with both sides feeling the conversation was constructive on the issue of abuse and the education of players.

Just hours later, The Athletic reported further details which confirmed the extent of the club’s planning around Greenwood’s return. These included the severity of internal dissent, that a series of domestic abuse charities were assumed to be “hostile” to the decision and how the club’s internal process had not engaged with any charities specialised in violence against women.

Women’s Aid condemned United publicly on social media, just hours after their phone call. Their tweet read: “‘Hostile’ is an inappropriate way to describe domestic & sexual abuse charities in stakeholder mapping, but especially in this case.”

Women’s Aid staff had been told by fans who protested against Greenwood’s return at Old Trafford on Monday, August 14 that supporters of all ages approached them to thank them, with some saying this situation has triggered difficult memories for them of abuse they had personally encountered.




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