Mason Greenwood’s Manchester United case, explained

Manchester United‘s investigation into the circumstances around Mason Greenwood‘s arrest, on suspicion of attempted rape and assault in January 2022, boiled down to one key question: did the club have grounds to terminate his contract? After a six-month internal review process and some public backlash, the answer they settled on was “no.”

That prompted a second question: should Greenwood be allowed to resume his playing career at Old Trafford? The answer to that, the club announced on Monday after a week of tangible concern regarding his possible return, was another “no” — but only after it considered his reintegration back into the squad right up until the last minute.

As a result, the 21-year-old forward, who had been suspended from training and matches for 18 months, is now set to leave United either permanently or on loan.

If an agreement isn’t reached with another club before the transfer window closes on Sept. 1 — sources confirmed Tuesday that there is interest in signing Greenwood — United will look to arrange a mutual termination of his contract, which expires in 2025. United believe Greenwood to be innocent of attempted rape, engaging in controlling behaviour and assault — crimes he was charged with in October 2022, before the case collapsed four months later — but there is no expectation he will ever play for the club again.

Club felt a ‘duty of care’

United launched their own investigation in February 2023 after the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) announced that the criminal charges against Greenwood had been dropped. The decision, according to the CPS, was based on “a combination of the withdrawal of key witnesses and new material that came to light, which meant there was no longer a realistic prospect of conviction.”

Greenwood said in a statement on Monday that he had been “cleared” of the charges when in reality the criminal proceedings were discontinued.

United’s internal process, conducted by a panel of senior executives and chief legal officer Patrick Stewart, focused on Greenwood’s initial arrest, made by Greater Manchester Police after images and an audio file were circulated online in the early hours of Jan. 30, 2022. United accept that their investigation was limited — in part because they didn’t have access to all the evidence gathered by the CPS but also because they were reliant on the cooperation of the parties involved — but believe they know enough to establish that Greenwood did not assault the woman who accused him and did not demonstrate coercive behaviour.

Sources close to the investigation have told ESPN that the woman who accused Greenwood — she is guaranteed lifelong anonymity under UK law — did not engage directly but that the woman’s mother did take part, and that both agreed with the investigation’s findings. According to sources, United took into account that the woman did not report Greenwood to police — GMP initiated contact with her — and that she withdrew her allegations and her involvement in the police investigation in April 2022.

It was also decided by United’s panel that Greenwood had cooperated with the police investigation, including handing over the passcode to his phone so it could be examined. United were provided with explanations for the images and audio file by Greenwood that were not contested by the woman’s family.

The club have insisted privately that if they’d reached the conclusion that Greenwood had committed the offences he was accused of, they would have immediately terminated his contract. However, having decided that he didn’t, the question then became whether he should be reintegrated at the Premier League club.

Sources have told ESPN that manager Erik ten Hag believed, purely on sporting grounds, that there was a place for him in the squad but accepted that the final decision would be determined by other factors. Ten Hag was informed only on Sunday after the decision was made by CEO Richard Arnold late on Friday night, with the players told ahead of the official announcement on Monday. But as late as the first week of August, according to sources, United were strongly considering allowing Greenwood back.

United’s official explanation for keeping his return on the table as an option is that they felt a “duty of care” to a player who had been at the club from the age of 7, but there is no escaping the conclusion that it also came down to the fact that he is an extraordinarily gifted footballer.

Greenwood made his senior debut at 17, and no player has scored more goals for United as a teenager — he’s ahead of Wayne Rooney, Marcus Rashford and Cristiano Ronaldo — and in both 2020 and 2021, he was voted one of the best young players in the world as part of the prestigious Golden Boy awards. But even during the peak of his performances on the pitch, Greenwood’s off-field behaviour was being questioned. After making his England debut against Iceland in September 2020, he was axed from the squad along with Manchester City midfielder Phil Foden for breaching COVID-19 restrictions by meeting two women in the team hotel.

Still, the need for a player as good as Greenwood in the current United squad — he was added to their retained list before the 2023-24 season — has been heightened by Ten Hag’s team struggling to score goals for the past year, and sources have told ESPN there were plenty of strong opinions on the football side of the club that he should be given another chance.

Our ‘view has evolved as our process progressed’

United decided not to look at Greenwood’s alleged past indiscretions as part of their internal process, but did look at similar cases from the entertainment, music and media sectors — including the fall-out after Raith Rovers’ decision to employ David Goodwillie. The Scottish club released Goodwillie, who had been declared a rapist by a judge in the ruling for a 2017 civil case, before he had played a game after an angry backlash to his signing in September 2022.

United dispute suggestions that, at any point, they decided to bring back Greenwood only to change their minds due to external pressure, although Arnold admitted in an open letter to fans on Monday that it “was one of the outcomes we considered and planned for.” He also said his “view has evolved as our process progressed.”

According to sources, United had planned to announce their decision in the week ahead of the first game of the new season against Wolves but delayed it while they consulted “key stakeholders” including fans, sponsors and the women’s team, some of whom were still taking part in the 2023 Women’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand.

During the delay, which lasted a week, sources have told ESPN that a number of club employees became increasingly concerned that Greenwood would be allowed back, with some privately admitting they would have to consider their own positions at the club. Politicians and other personalities — including television presenter Rachel Riley, a United fan — were among those to voice their opposition, and in a sign of the fierce debate around the case, a group of United fans staged a protest against his potential return ahead of the Wolves game.

In the end, United’s statement on their decision to cut ties with Greenwood hinted that rather than a decision made on moral grounds, it was made mainly because of the expected controversy surrounding his potential return.

“All those involved, including Mason, recognise the difficulties with him recommencing his career at Manchester United,” read part of the statement. “It has therefore been mutually agreed that it would be most appropriate for him to do so away from Old Trafford.” In Greenwood’s statement, he referenced the “distraction” that his presence at United might cause. Both statements have received heavy criticism since their release, particularly United’s firm assertion that Greenwood is not guilty and Greenwood’s claim of innocence while also admitting to unspecified “mistakes.”

“Right decision, horrendous statement,” Riley wrote on social media Tuesday. “The only people in a position to ever assert guilt or innocence are trained, qualified, experienced experts. This goes far beyond the scope of what Man United were tasked with.”

Speaking on Monday, former United defender and TV pundit Gary Neville also criticised United’s handling of the situation, expressing his view that the club were wrong to let their own employees conduct the internal investigation, rather than convening an independent panel. United’s view remains that they did their best with a complex situation and that any outcome they reached would have received criticism.

The overriding feeling after a case that has lasted more than 18 months is that United arrived at the right decision, although there remain strong doubts about how they got there.

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