The most straightforward decision in all of this – even if it never felt that way – was the announcement Manchester United made on Monday afternoon: Mason Greenwood has no future at Old Trafford.
A far more difficult question remains unanswered: what does football do with Mason Greenwood now?
It would, in the words of Manchester United, “be most appropriate” for Greenwood to resume his career away from Old Trafford.
In the eyes of others, it’s not appropriate for Greenwood to resume his career full stop.
“Some survivors are telling us they don’t want to see him playing football again, they don’t want to see him cheered by football fans again, and we completely understand that,” Teresa Parker, a spokesperson for the charity Women’s Aid, tells The Athletic.
“Our work with the PFA (Professional Footballers’ Association) has really shown that when you’re talking about issues around anti-racism, anti-sexism and anti-misogyny, a player’s values and responsibilities are really important.
“So if he (Greenwood) comes back, we want to make sure that values are upheld and the big organisations – the Premier League, the PFA etc. – work together to prioritise this as an issue so that you have a framework and there is less harm and abuse moving forward. There needs to be a really clear message that it’s not tolerated.”
It is a good thing Parker mentioned the PFA because the players’ union are saying nothing themselves about Greenwood, which feels reflective of football’s stance more generally.
For clubs, there are all sorts of moral dilemmas to consider when thinking about signing Greenwood and in the majority of cases there will be little inclination for owners, executives, sporting directors and managers to spend any time having those conversations.
When a member of staff at a top European club recently floated the possibility of signing Greenwood on loan, before United released their statement at the start of the week, it was dismissed out of hand.
And when The Athletic asked a senior figure at one Premier League club, who spoke on condition of anonymity this week owing to the sensitivity surrounding this subject, about whether Greenwood could stay in England, their reply was equally emphatic: “No, no, no, no, no. We all kind of assume that it will be something like Saudi.”
That is a widely held view in football, but there are no indications right now that Saudi Arabia will emerge as a viable option for Greenwood. United have yet to receive interest from any clubs there, which is perhaps not surprising when the country is trying to change the way it is viewed by the rest of the world.
Indeed, Saudi Arabia is currently waiting to hear whether it has been successful in its bid to host the Women’s Asian Cup. Naturally, any move for Greenwood would be damaging from a PR point of view.
In truth, that will be the case everywhere.
Richard Arnold, United’s chief executive officer, explained in an open letter to supporters how the case “has provoked strong opinions, and it is my responsibility to minimise any distraction to the unity we are seeking within the club”.
Arnold has essentially outlined what every club will experience if they try to sign Greenwood this summer – a public outcry, intense media coverage and, internally, the sort of reaction that risks upsetting supporters, staff and, in some cases, players, too.
Yet the reality is that someone somewhere is sure to sign Greenwood and that in itself fuels a tricky debate about what is – to borrow Manchester United’s word – “appropriate” for a footballer who has been through trial by social media but not convicted of any offence in a court of law.
The circumstances of Greenwood’s case are highly unusual in that respect, bearing in mind that the public were able to sit as judge and jury 19 months ago after seeing and hearing the images and audio that were released on social media.
Greenwood was subsequently charged with attempted rape, assault, and controlling and coercive behaviour. A year later, the Crown Prosecution Service said it was discontinuing its case against Greenwood because there was “no longer a realistic prospect of conviction” after key witnesses withdrew their cooperation from the investigation. Greenwood denied all the alleged offences.
In Greenwood’s view – and this was there in black and white in the statement that he released on Monday – he has been “cleared of all charges”. But that is not the case: the charges were dropped. Indeed, Women’s Aid believe Greenwood needs to address those comments before returning to football.
“I think the first step needs to be acknowledging there is a big difference between being cleared of something and having charges dropped,” says Parker.
“The way that (statement) is framed… it minimises what people have seen. If you’ve experienced abuse and you’re very attuned to the idea of gaslighting and the narrative changing, that’s what survivors are picking up on: ‘Wait a minute, we’ve seen this, we’ve heard this, he’s cleared and he’s an innocent man’. That language and those nuances make a big difference.”
Man Utd said Mason Greenwood didn’t commit the offences he was charged with. Did they go too far?
Court was the place for Greenwood to be ‘cleared’ and there are people with lifelong experience of the criminal justice system, as well as a love of football, who think it would have been far better for Greenwood (as well as victims of violence) had he gone through that legal process rather than be in the position he finds himself now.
That position is complicated and presents so many awkward questions when trying to work out what exactly Greenwood, who has admitted to “mistakes” and said he will take his “share of responsibility for the situations which led to the social media post”, should or shouldn’t be able to do next.
In fact, the debate is a minefield. Some people, for example, will argue that the audio and images are evidence enough and that Greenwood has no right to enjoy the privileged life of a professional footballer as a result. Others will question the logic of giving a man a second chance in life provided he works as an electrician and doesn’t pull on a pair of football boots again.
What nobody would dispute is that Greenwood’s public image is in tatters.
“I think 95 per cent of clubs will say, ‘This is a poisoned chalice, I’m not going to go anywhere near him’,” Sean Bai, former director general of Valencia, tells The Athletic.
“But there might be clubs who say, ‘We are a club that are convinced we can successfully rehabilitate him and he can become an ambassador against the things he has committed’. The most powerful message is always from those who have committed an offence and then they turn around and say, ‘Hey, that is wrong and I’m going to stand up for this cause’. But, of course, I think we all probably agree that the chance of that is quite small.”
Bai talks about football clubs being in touch with their fanbase when considering transfers and understanding how the supporters connect and identify with the players that represent them on the pitch. On that basis, he admits he would not have contemplated signing Greenwood if he was still working at Valencia. “Socially, I don’t think in the context of Valencia he would have been a good fit given this incident,” he says.
The reference to rehabilitation is interesting. Greenwood talked in his statement about intending to be a “better person” but it is unclear whether he believes that he needs to address his behaviour through outside help or if he has been receiving any form of therapy and counselling up until now.
Again, the fact Greenwood has not committed a crime makes the subject of rehabilitation, and punishment for that matter, more complicated than it otherwise would be. In short, Greenwood’s story has no closure.
“I think it’s the right thing for him to leave Manchester United, but I do think he should be given the opportunity to play again,” says a therapist who is on the Sporting Chance network and asked to remain anonymous given the nature of his work.
“How much does someone need to be punished before everyone says, ‘OK, get on with your life’. Some people will never allow it. Some people will accept it. I think he should have a chance to have another career, but it has to come from him to know that he’s done something wrong. He needs to process whatever has got him to that stage. My suggestion would be therapy.
“A young man who has done wrong, I would love to work with him, but I would personally not take him if someone from the club called me and said, ‘In the build-up to this announcement, we’d like him to see you’. If he really wasn’t wanting to come, then it would be a waste of time – (in that scenario) the guy is there in body but not in mind. He’s mistrusting. It’s lip service and more of an interview than a therapy situation. He’d have to want it himself and realise the gravity of the situation.”
It is easy to overlook the fact Greenwood’s reintegration into football requires support from team-mates, too, not just the senior figures and decision-makers at the club where he signs. Nobody should take that for granted.
Mason Greenwood and Manchester United: The U-turn – what happened and why
Dressing rooms are strange places and jokes can be made about the most crude and uncomfortable subjects, but Greenwood’s situation has the potential to cross a line that rarely exists.
One ex-professional footballer, speaking anonymously to avoid betraying confidences, told The Athletic how he was so incensed when a club signed one of his former team-mates, who had just been released from prison after being convicted of a sexual offence, that he contemplated picking up the phone to the manager in question and asking if he had lost his moral compass.
“I felt like saying, ‘You’re willing to take this lad on to save your own job, knowing full well that he could have sexually harassed or assaulted a woman that could be your daughter?’”
Greenwood has already admitted that “people will judge me” and “think the worst” because of the material that was posted on social media. In all likelihood, he was thinking of the wider public rather than other footballers, but it remains to be seen how he is received at a new club.
The ex-professional who told the story above about his convicted former team-mate, and who spoke on condition of anonymity, is deeply sceptical. “If you bring him (Greenwood) into a dressing room, you might have 50 per cent of the squad saying, ‘I can’t be seen with him’. How does a manager deal with that? It’s a nightmare scenario. You’ll have an issue in any dressing room that will cause a divide.”
Greenwood is not alone in attempting to piece together his career after a contentious legal case.
In July, Benjamin Mendy was found not guilty of rape and attempted rape. An earlier trial, at which Mendy was also found not guilty, had revealed lurid details about his lifestyle (his own defence barrister called it “appalling”), including admissions that he was “direct” with women and “often” had unprotected sex. Yet within five days of the retrial, Mendy had signed for French side Lorient.
Simon Corney, the former owner of Oldham Athletic, has first-hand experience of what it is like to try to sign a player whose reputation has been shredded.
In 2007, Corney signed Lee Hughes for Oldham. Aged 31, Hughes had just been released from prison after serving three years for causing death by dangerous driving. Hughes had been a prolific goalscorer for West Brom before ploughing his Mercedes into the back of another car, killing a father of four and then fleeing the scene on foot.
Eight years later, in January 2015, Corney also tried to sign Ched Evans for Oldham following his release from prison. A former Wales international, Evans was a convicted rapist at the time. It was not until October the following year that he was acquitted of rape following a retrial.
Clearly, no two cases are the same and it is important to underline the fact Greenwood has never been convicted of any offence, unlike Hughes and Evans before the latter was found not guilty.
But Corney’s reflections now are interesting because they provide an insight into the dilemma that any football club owner faces when weighing up whether to pursue a player whose ability is not in question but whose behaviour off the field would discourage most teams from going anywhere near them.
“If you said to me out of the two, which one do you regret more, it’s probably Lee Hughes,” Corney tells The Athletic. “I went to HMP Featherstone to meet him there. I knew he was going to go somewhere (a professional club). He had served his time. I knew I would get a lot of flak, but there was an element of ‘I’m going to get a £20,000-a-week player for £1,500 a week’. There is a part of me that at the time was kicking myself and I’m possibly regretting it a little bit more now.
“I truly believed he deserved a second chance. He served his time in jail. And what is he meant to do – become homeless? At what point do people say, ‘That’s enough?’
“I’m not saying I had the right to decide what is right or wrong morally, but there was definitely an element of ‘I’m getting a really good footballer that I could never afford because I’ve been a bit smart and jumped the gun and gone to meet him in prison’. He probably would have taken anything at the time.”
Asked why he regrets that decision now, Corney replies: “I probably let the football element matter to me more than the moral element. I also knew that I was going to upset people – that’s where the regret is. The family that was involved, I was going to cause them some grief knowing that he’s coming back to play football, to have a decent life. If it was a family member of mine that had been killed by him, would I have felt that he deserved a second chance? The answer is, of course, no.
“Having said that, he was excellent, he did a lot of work in the community that people don’t know about – and he did that willingly – and he was a fantastic character around the place.”
Oldham’s pursuit of Evans was far more controversial because of the nature of the crime for which he had been convicted at the time. Indeed, the storm that followed Oldham’s pursuit of the former Sheffield United player threatened to bring down the club and, ultimately, led to the transfer collapsing.
“I met with his (Evans’) father-in-law, who was very, very bullish,” recalls Corney. “He kept saying to me, ‘Simon, you don’t know – he’s innocent, he’s innocent, he’s innocent. Yes, I’m devastated, but it’s not what’s reported’. At some point, I saw overwhelming evidence that he didn’t do what he was accused of.”
In the eyes of the public, however, Evans was guilty and Corney found himself under siege to such an extent that he upset his own family.
“My mum, who I hadn’t argued with until I was 43 years old, told me: ‘You can’t do it, it’s wrong, it’s disgusting’,” Corney remembers. “I had MPs calling me up. Fans were protesting. We had death threats. Sponsors (threatening to pull out). It became too much. The situation was untenable.”
Society has changed a lot over the past few decades. In March 1999, Graham Rix was sentenced to 12 months in prison for having sex with an underage girl. Rix was Chelsea’s youth team coach at the time and was reinstated at the club upon his release six months later, becoming first-team coach under Gianluca Vialli.
Even allowing for the fact Rix admitted his offence, regretted his actions and served his time in prison, it seems unthinkable now that a Premier League club would make the same decision as Chelsea did back then and also that there would be so little reaction in the outside world.
Indeed, when Rix gave an interview to the Independent in 2013 and reflected on the fact he had also managed Portsmouth, Oxford and Hearts after returning to work for Chelsea, the thrust of that piece was that it was much harder for him to get a job a decade or so later than it had been upon his release.
In other words, society was no longer so forgiving and tolerant. Another way of looking at it would be to say that football clubs had started – and ‘started’ is the key word – to move with the times.
Fast forward another 10 years and, for better or worse (and plenty would say worse), the court of social media sits in judgment 24/7.
In the case of Greenwood, social media provided a platform for the audio and images to be released that exposed his alleged behaviour, but it was also a place for the Manchester United players who were representing England at the Women’s World Cup to be abused when it was reported they would be consulted on whether Greenwood should play for the club again.
There is no easy answer to the question of where all of this leaves Greenwood right now. You get the impression that English football would be happy for him to be someone else’s problem. Picking up on the talk of Greenwood potentially moving to Italy – something The Athletic’s James Horncastle has explained would be much more problematic than people imagine – a leading football agent says: “It’s so xenophobic, it’s like, ‘Ah well, the Italians are OK with that?’”
It is hard to believe that anyone is ‘OK with that’, but that doesn’t mean Greenwood should never play football again.
“I think if you come back into a role where you’re going to be idolised by many young fans and hero-worshipped, what does that mean to the club and what does that mean to the industry? So I think it’s not a case that there’s no way he can be rehabilitated, but it’s (more) what is appropriate?” explains Parker.
“And I would ask for anyone who is involved in any decisions around that to be really mindful of any communication around this about the impact on survivors because people have been affected by what they’ve seen online and people continue to be affected.
“The one thing we’ve found in this case is that not every voice you hear is aware of the size of the issue. There were people coming up to the protesters outside (Old Trafford) before Manchester United’s game against Wolves saying, ‘This is reminding me of something from my childhood’. They’re not putting that on Twitter.
“So this is a really significant issue, it’s wider than you think and there will be people everywhere who have experienced abuse or they’ve witnessed it as a child. So don’t underestimate the scale of the people who are affected and just be really mindful of that.”
(Top photo: Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images; design: Eamonn Dalton)