United planned Greenwood return amid fan protests: reports
After charges of attempted rape were dropped, reports suggest Manchester United had been planning to announce Mason Greenwood's return. Some fans are ardently opposed to the decision
Manchester United began the 2023-24 Premier League season with a narrow 1-0 win over Wolverhampton Wanderers at Old Trafford on Monday night, a match preceded by supporter protests against the potential return of striker Mason Greenwood.
Greenwood, 21, was arrested in January 2022 after an audio recording emerged on social media of an alleged sexual assault, accompanied by images and video footage of apparent injuries.
Following a police investigation, Greenwood was charged with attempted rape, controlling and coercive behavior and assault occasioning actual bodily harm, all of which the player denied.
In February 2023, the United Kingdom's Crown Prosecution Service dropped its case against him, saying that "a combination of the withdrawal of key witnesses and new material meant there was no longer a realistic prospect of conviction."
Greenwood has been suspended by Manchester United since his arrest. The club has also been conducting its own internal investigation before deciding whether or not to allow him to return to the first team, for whom he scored 35 goals across two-and-a-half seasons from 2019 to 2022.
Greenwood return planned but decision postponed - reports
A decision was expected to have been made by the start of the new season and, as The Athletic reported on Wednesday, August 16, it was expected to be that Greenwood would be allowed to return.
According to The Athletic, the intended date for the announcement was to be Friday, August 4, and it was intended to involve a video in which United's chief executive, Richard Arnold, would explain the decision to both club employees and the general public.
Arnold was reportedly expected to explain that Greenwood would be brought back into the first-team set-up but would not be doing any work with the Manchester United Foundation, the club's charitable arm, in the short-to-medium term.
However, the announcement did not go ahead.
Later on August 16, United made their first public statement on the issue, saying: "The fact-finding phase of our investigation is now complete and we are in the final stages of making a decision on Mason's future. Contrary to media speculation, a decision has not yet been made and is currently the subject of intensive internal deliberation."
The club also acknowledged "strong opinions" provoked by what it called "partial evidence in the public domain," adding that its own investigation had "drawn on extensive evidence and context not in the public domain."
United's England players targeted at World Cup
Finally, the club confirmed reports that its final decision would be "communicated and explained to internal and external stakeholders" - believed, according to widespread British media reports, to include major sponsors, the club's fan advisory board and its women's team, three of whom are currently representing England at the World Cup in Australia and New Zealand.
Before and after England's quarterfinal win over Colombia, goalkeeper Mary Earps and midfielders Ella Toone and Katie Zelem were targeted on social media by apparent Manchester United fans petitioning them to support Greenwood's return.
On the ground in Manchester, however, other female supporters organized a demonstration ahead of the Wolves game behind a banner reading: "Female fans demand no Greenwood return. End violence against women."
"The message to Manchester United is: 'Think about what you're doing. History is going to judge you,'" One of the organizers, who are all long-time United season ticket holders, told The News Movement outside Old Trafford.
"We feel that there is a lot at stake here. Footballers are huge role models for children and young people. Does Mason Greenwood deserve to earn a living? Yes. Should that be at Manchester United, where he's a role model to millions of children and young people across the world? Absolutely not."
'The charges have been dropped'
While other male fans agreed, one countered: "The police have had a go, and the charges have been dropped, so, for me, nothing has happened, and there's no case to answer."
To that argument, another protester, giving her name just as Em, told "The News Agents" podcast:
"A process is a process, and a contract is a contract, but, for me, this is not a contract issue; it's an ethics issue, a morality issue. If we want to move the sport forward in terms of proper respect for diversity and inclusion, then you have to take a more grown-up stance and back the supporters."
Another protest organizer told The Athletic: "This is a tipping point for the club. Are they going to side with commercialism and trophies and money? Or are they going to take the side of match-going fans, and the club being a social and community institution that we can be proud of and proud to have as part of our identity?"
Manchester United fans split
The discrepancy between opinions voiced, often anonymously, online and those held by people on the ground is an increasingly common one in modern professional football.
Just in the last month in Germany, a section of Borussia Dortmund supporters raised objections to the signing of midfielder Felix Nmecha, who had drawn criticism for a series of homophobic social media posts.
But the issue is particularly acute in England's Premier League, where clubs make billions of dollars from global broadcast rights and sponsorship deals but still rely on local supporters to actually physically attend their matches in the cities where they are based.
A similar split can also be observed on issues such as kickoff times being scheduled particularly early or late to suit television audiences, the prospect of a European or even global Super League and, most acutely in the case of Manchester United in recent months, the issue of a potential sale of the club to Qatar.
"My primary sense is that, in Manchester, among those supporters who go to the games, people don't want [Greenwood] to play, but how that plays out on social media and across the rest of the world, I'm not too sure," summarized Em, who also called for more vocal support from United's male supporters.
"There is support, and there is vocal support," she said. "As so often, it's women leading this, but I'd like to see more men be vocal about it. Some of them are, and we're grateful for that. But there's a lot of silent acceptance."
Does Erik Ten Hag want Greenwood back?
With United's England internationals set to remain in Australia for the Women's World Cup until either the third-place playoff on August 19 or the final on August 20, a decision from the club on Greenwood in consultation with the women's team has been put back.
Indeed, with the England players then set to go on holiday, it's possible that an announcement won't be made until the September international break.
Either way, it is understood that, while the women's team and other stakeholders will be asked for their opinions, those opinions won't ultimately reflect the final decision, which will be made by chief executive Richard Arnold based on the outcome of the club's internal investigation.
Asked during United's preseason tour of the United States earlier this month, head coach Erik Ten Hag said: "Of course, I have said my ideas and opinions, but it's a club decision. We all have to accept that."
Potentially still short of a striker, despite the signing of Danish forward Rasmus Hojlund, it is understood that Ten Hag is open to the idea of Greenwood bolstering his squad's attacking options.
Further complicating matters is United's current financial situation. With the club having recently been fined €300,000 ($327,850) by the European governing body UEFA for what the club described as "a minor break-even deficit" during the four-year period 2019-2022, the return of a prolific young striker who is already contracted to the club has an obvious sporting and financial attraction.
The question being asked by those United supporters protesting outside Old Trafford is, therefore: what is more important?