Premier League club Manchester United has come under mounting criticism by women’s support groups, fans and media for their handling of the Mason Greenwood case, with one fan group describing it as “shocking” and an “absolute shambles”.
United announced on Monday that England international Greenwood will leave the club by mutual agreement, with the 21-year-old forward suspended since January 2022 over allegations relating to a young woman after images and a recording were posted online.
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Charges against Greenwood for attempted rape, assault and coercive control – which he denied – were discontinued by United Kingdom’s Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) in February. The CPS said there was “no longer a realistic prospect of conviction” after key witnesses withdrew their cooperation from the investigation. United then conducted an internal investigation into the matter.
Last week, The Athletic reported that United’s CEO Richard Arnold told the club’s executive leadership in the first week of August that United was planning to bring back Greenwood. The report led to a backlash from fans, charities and MPs, and the club subsequently announced they would not reinstate him.
In a statement on Monday, United said the club had completed the investigation and concluded that “the material posted online did not provide a full picture and that Mason did not commit the offences in respect of which he was originally charged”, before adding that it would be “most appropriate” for him to continue his career away from the club due to the “difficulties” with playing for United again.
Ex-United captain and Sky Sports pundit Gary Neville criticised the “pretty horrible” handling of the case.
“When you have significant and difficult situations like this, it requires an authoritative leadership, that comes the very top and Manchester United don’t have that,” Neville said.
The club did not respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment in response to Neville’s remarks when contacted on Tuesday.
Campaign group Female Fans Against Greenwood’s Return said the handling of the case was “an absolute shambles” from the leadership.
“They’ll make it look like this has been a well-considered decision, not just a reactive attempt at covering their own backs and preventing further backlash,” Carly Vandella, who is part of the group, told Al Jazeera.
“I think the way the senior leaders and the owners have handled it has been shocking. It’s shown how out of touch those who run football clubs are with match-going fans and some of their own employees.”
Casey Evans, a football journalist based in Manchester, said the reported attempt to reintegrate Greenwood and the eventual U-turn “belittled the seriousness of the situation by making it purely about the reaction of their customers rather than the morality of the case”.
Simon Lloyd, writer and author of the memoir United With Dad, said while the right decision was ultimately made by the club, the process was “unnecessarily long” and appeared to ignore a lot of concerns held by many supporters.
“It’s taken too long for a start and the fact there’s been a supposed U-turn brought on by fan reaction shows there’s a lack of understanding of the supporters,” Lloyd said.
“We’re all well aware that the club has long been a business and that fans only really matter in an economical sense to the owners, but that, to me, is the most startling thing.”
According to The Athletic’s report, United’s initial plans for Greenwood’s return included an assessment of the expected sentiment of external figures, listing individual football pundits, journalists and politicians and stating whether they would be in favour of or against his comeback.
The planning divided these people into categories of “supportive”, “open-minded” or “hostile”, and the club’s document listed a series of domestic abuse charities assumed to be “hostile”.
“To me, that’s an insult to all victims who have gone through some form of domestic abuse in their life,” said Conner Roberts, host and owner of the All For United and the All For United WFC podcasts.
“As a victim of it myself a few years ago it’s made me feel so disconnected with the club.
“It does feel like the people at the heart of this decision-making process, including Richard Arnold, had decided earlier on that the plan is to bring Greenwood back into the side [before] consulting with other fan groups and domestic abuse charities ahead of a decision.”
‘It doesn’t look good’
Neville, who played for United from 1992 to 2011, said the club should have carried out an independent investigation.
“On an issue like domestic abuse and violence against women, there needs to be independence,” Neville said on Sky Sports. “My view on issues of this importance and severity is they should be dealt with independently by a panel because it’s been clear that Manchester United have not had the skill and the ability to deal with this situation properly. It’s been well above their grade of experience and ability.”
According to Crime Survey for England and Wales (CSEW), in the year ending March 2022, an estimated 1.1 million adults – 798,000 women and 275,000 men – were victims of sexual assault (including attempted sexual assault). The CSEW data was based on six months of data collection between October 2021 and March 2022.
Shaista Aziz, co-director of campaign group Three Hijabis, said football, at large, needs to take responsibility for gender-based violence.
“The very serious issues of violence against women and girls and gender-based violence are structural issues in football and wider society,” Aziz said. “Football needs to put processes in place to change cultures in the game that will address these issues.
“We urge [football clubs] to reach out to gender-based violence specialists and work in collaboration with us to develop training and processes that will enable football to tackle these issues at all levels of the game.”
Vandella also called for the “meaningful rehabilitation” of players who have engaged in abusive behaviour.
“As Women’s Aid said in their statement, players are often idolised by fans, so the way that alleged domestic abuse cases are treated in clubs has a huge impact on public understanding about what is accepted and tolerated in society,” she added.
Though United and Greenwood have mutually decided he will not play again for the club, he remains an employee and has two more years left on the contract he signed in 2021. United has promised to help him find a new club.
“While it doesn’t look good and many fans would have hoped that they would sever ties completely and immediately, in reality, this seems like the best-case scenario,” Evans said.
“Hopefully, the situation can be resolved quickly but I would say that once the chapter has been closed, United fans should not forget that their voice mattered nor the lasting effect this process has had on the club’s image.”
If you or someone you know is a victim of domestic abuse, these organisations may be able to help:
In England, contact Refuge’s National Domestic Abuse Helpline on 0808 2000 247
In the US, contact National Resource Center on Domestic Violence at 1-800-537-2238 or email at nrcdvTA@nrcdv.org
Other international helplines in 46 countries can be found here.