Manchester United must walk a narrow tightrope over Mason Greenwood and his potential return

Ian King
Mason Greenwood of Manchester United
Mason Greenwood of Manchester United

Manchester United have to balance a lot of different factors over the Mason Greenwood matter, and this explains why they’ve trodden so carefully so far.


The presumption of innocence has been a fundamental aspect of legal systems around the world since Roman times, but in the ongoing matter of Mason Greenwood it is worth considering what this actually means, since the stakes are so high. After a season which has been characterised by a degree of togetherness around Man Utd which had been notably absent for some time, the leaking has started again. At a time when the Glazers have been trying to squeeze an extra £1.5bn out of those who wish to buy the club, it’s a story that they might well have wanted to keep out of the public eye.

That particular line is commonly used by those who believe that Greenwood should be allowed to pick up his Manchester United career where he left off, with no ramifications from the events of the last year and a half. Why shouldn’t he, when he hasn’t even been charged with anything, never mind convicted? Of course, the counter-argument to this is that we saw what we saw and we heard what we heard, and it does seem that these two conflicting positions are now engaged in an attritional online battle.

But what does it even mean? The presumption of innocence is a principle of law. It means, essentially, that the onus of responsibility in any legal case should always be for the prosecution or claimant to prove their case or claim to secure a prosecution or judgement. In criminal cases in England and Wales, that means that it has proved to be ‘beyond reasonable doubt’. In civil and private litigation the burden is set slightly lower, on a ‘balance of probabilities’.

It’s equally important to bear in mind what it doesn’t mean, too. It doesn’t mean ‘he didn’t do it’ (for the record, it doesn’t mean he did, either), and neither does it imply some sort of quantum legality in which an incident didn’t take place until the point at which the jury announces a verdict. The law doesn’t care for ‘did it/didn’t do it’. It has ‘guilty/not guilty’ (and the controversial ‘not proven’ in Scotland), but that is the end of a process. In cases of rape and sexual assault, the conviction rate is <1%. That doesn’t make >99% of women liars. It means the bar for securing convictions over these offences seems to be set so high that it’s extremely difficult to get one.

But regardless, the law doesn’t exist in vacuum and we can’t just wish the ongoing issues surrounding this case away. It is utterly unsurprising that Manchester United’s women’s team have already been reported as being against him returning to the club. They have almost barged their way towards the top of the game, despite only having been formed less than five years ago.

What might the outcome be with regard to the women’s team? A worst-case scenario should the club seriously drop the ball on this might include players requesting to leave en masse, while even a ‘best-case’ scenario of them grumbling but ultimately getting on with it would hardly be good for the club’s public image. And the reports of splits within the men’s team don’t seem like good news either, a potential distraction that Erik ten Hag could almost certainly do without.

Even if we set aside the rights and wrongs of the case for a moment, the potential PR ramifications are huge. Were the club to seriously mismanage this, it might well lead to United’s stock value being damaged. Manchester United are now worth so much that even relatively small fluctuations can knock tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars off the club’s stock price. While this may cause 99% of us to reach for our nano-violins for the Glazers, well, they really love money and this, we might reasonably assume, is part of the reason why the public statements on this matter from the club have from the outset been commendably curt and businesslike.

It has been reported that he has been offered a loan by an as yet unnamed Turkish club. It seemed fairly broadly accepted that resuming any playing career would likely have to be abroad. But it is the question of him returning to the Manchester United squad that is proving to be the most emotive. In an industry in which the best players are paid hundreds of thousands of pounds per week, it isn’t quite as simple as merely letting them get on with their job, which is what most of us would likely expect were we to find ourselves in identical circumstances.

There’s the fact that footballers are expected to be role models. There’s the fact that the amount of money they earn affords them a level of privilege that comes with greater levels of personal responsibility, and while that may suck for them, it sucking doesn’t alter that basic fact. There’s the matter of the quality of the education that players are getting, and the importance that clubs put upon that education when they are essentially fine-tuned to be as close to winning machines as possible.

These should be jumping off points for a discussion, rather than presented as some sort of proof. What should being a role model entail? What greater levels of personal responsibility are reasonable for players and what aren’t? And there’s the broad question of what can be done seek to eradicate these stories from the game, or at least to reduce them to the lowest possible extent. What should education for players look like? Will clubs actually put in the hard yards, and will (or can) the importance of this education become part of the DNA of football, rather than something that is looked upon by some with scorn?

So what does happen to Greenwood next? It remains as up in the air as ever, and the answers to the questions raised by his story may even come too late for him. Perhaps that was decided at the precise moment that the police made their first public statement on the matter. Perhaps, some might argue, it came earlier.

He could theoretically get sacked. He could be back on the pitch at Old Trafford, or in Turkey, or somewhere, before the end of this season. And what happens over Manchester United’s position? They’re up for sale, and while hopes of a quick one are receding faster than Avram Glazer’s hairline, it remains a possibility. Would new owners continue to tread the cautious path taken by the club so far? Why would they need to, if they weren’t in thrall to stock market prices any more?

Social attitudes have changed and this, coupled with women’s football’s vertiginous rise over the last five years, has changed the maths. Women’s football now has influence and reach, and should Manchester United’s women’s players shout loudly enough in the event of Manchester United reaching a conclusion which they find abhorrent, they will and should be heard.

And those running the club might be terrible people who shouldn’t be allowed within five hundred miles of Old Trafford and/or fired from a cannon in the direction of Jupiter, but they’re not daft. They already know this, and that’s why they’re treading so carefully. Presumption of innocence or not, Greenwood’s reputation will almost certainly never recover from this – not fully. The results of Manchester United’s internal investigation and what they do or don’t do as a result of it will determine what happens to theirs, as they’re already fully aware.