Sir Alex Ferguson is sitting on a chair. Blue shirt, grey jacket. The question from Gary Neville seems to surprise him a little.
‘Which young player in world football do you rate the highest?’
‘Oh. Mason Greenwood. He is gonna be a top player.’
That video interview was shot just two years ago but Ferguson’s seal of approval should have surprised nobody. He had been excited about Greenwood, a young Manchester United forward, for years.
Back in 2016, three years before Greenwood made his debut for United as a 17-year-old substitute at Paris Saint-Germain, Ferguson had sat at a League Manager’s Association lunch and told former colleagues: ‘I think we have found one’.
Others at Old Trafford were similarly enthused. Neville himself was one. He described Greenwood on film as ‘the best….off the scale’. Nicky Butt, treble winner and former United academy head, was another.
Manchester United believed Mason Greenwood had the potential to be one of the greatest players they’ve ever produced – on a par with the likes of Ryan Giggs or George Best
But now the 21-year-old forward’s career lies in tatters after he left Manchester United, with some sources wondering if he’ll ever play football again
Legendary United manager Sir Alex Ferguson confidently predicted greatness for Greenwood
Butt told Mail Sport earlier this year: ‘I said to Ryan [Giggs] that Mason is the only one near to what he himself was at 17. He was that good. Ridiculous. Left foot, right foot. Big, strong, quick. Everything. Purely football? A genius.’
That Greenwood debut made him at the time the second youngest player to represent United in Europe since Norman Whiteside 37 years earlier. As it happens those two names were mentioned in the same sentence this week.
‘Norman was the opposite of Mason,’ said a well-informed source.
‘He was a man when he was 17. Mason was not. He was always a complex lad. Fragile with a childlike brain. Seventeen going on 14 really. It doesn’t surprise me that he has struggled. Having said that, nobody could have seen that video coming.’
Video. With Greenwood, it’s everywhere. Videos of his youth team goals. Video of his first team goals. Thirty six of those in just 83 starts. Video of Ferguson. Video of Neville. And then the video that would appear to have ended it all almost before it had begun.
‘I wanna f**k you, you t**t …,‘ says a man’s voice on the footage posted online in January 2022.
‘I don’t care if you want sex with me
‘I asked you politely, and you wouldn’t do it.’
Greenwood leaves court in Manchester in November last year having been charged with attempted rape, actual bodily harm and coercive behaviour – the case against him was discontinued in February this year
Greenwood scored 35 goals in 129 matches for United, including this one against Astana
Greenwood was arrested and charged with attempted rape, actual bodily harm and controlling and coercive behaviour.
The case against the 21-year-old was discontinued a year later but he has never denied that this was his voice. United have now made it clear he will not play for them again. There are many who doubt he will ever play again at all.
‘I don’t think he is equipped to come back from this,’ said a source with close knowledge of the situation.
‘There are players who would be able to think: ‘I have been cleared so stuff you’. They would just get on and score goals for someone.
‘Mason is not one of those. He’s immature. I really think he’s finished.’
After Greenwood and his England team-mate Phil Foden broke lockdown rules by inviting to local girls to their room on an England trip in September 2020, both issued statements of contrition. One may have been more sincere than the other.
‘Phil was devastated,’ revealed an England source.
‘Mason? He couldn’t really understand what he had done wrong and said so on the plane home.’
This is Greenwood summed up in short form. Talented enough to play for England as a teenager but nowhere near mature enough to understand the responsibility that came with it. Ditto Manchester United.
Greenwood and Phil Foden invited two Icelandic girls into their hotel room – in breach of Covid quarantine rules – during England’s trip there in 2020
20-year-old model Nadia Sif Lindal Gunnarsdottir and her cousin were invited into the hotel
Those present on his one and only England trip said this week he barely said a word to anyone.
A driver used to ferrying high-profile footballers up and down the country once tried to strike up a conversation with the young lad with his hood up in the back only to be told: ‘Just drive’.
Stand-offish. Aloof. Monosyllabic. Those are the words used by several sources to describe Greenwood this week. But one football figure went further.
‘If Paul Gascoigne was playing now, with camera phones and everything and was being told he couldn’t drink publicly and couldn’t play tennis during a hot afternoon at the World Cup, he would still do it,’ the source said.
‘Because his brain isn’t wired like everybody else. He doesn’t have bit that tells him to conform or to listen or to stop. There are others like that, too, and one is Mason Greenwood.
‘Some of them, when they are so talented in one area, seem to suffer from other parts of their personality not really developing.
‘Mason has a childlike mind. He is being judged like an adult when in reality he is much younger.’
Gareth Southgate brought Greenwood off the bench for his senior England debut in Iceland
There were hopes Greenwood could be a long-term successor to Harry Kane for England
United knew they had a special talent on their hands before Greenwood was even ten-years-old.
Scouts watching another child at Idle Juniors – a club close to Greenwood’s Bradford home – saw him playing by the side of the pitch. When they returned to watch him make his debut, Idle won 16-1 and Greenwood scored every single goal.
Fast-tracked through the United system at development centres in Halifax and Huddersfield, he eventually arrived at the Cliff in Salford where he impressed reserve team manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer enough for the Norwegian to say privately: ‘This feels like another Giggsy’.
A young Greenwood poses with the European Cup in a childhood snap
The staging posts of Greenwood’s early progress are easy to track. A hat-trick for United’s youth team against Chelsea is still described by the Manchester Evening News as an ‘I was there’ moment while Butt recalls another, earlier, day away at Liverpool.
‘We were getting beat 2-0 and he turned it round on his own.
‘You are looking at him thinking: ‘How can this boy not be the next big thing?’.’
Greenwood scored two free-kicks and set up another goal that day in a 3-2 comeback win.
Butt’s excitement was mirrored throughout the club and he adds: ‘When Jose Mourinho was manager he was saying: ‘Get him for me’ and I had to explain he was actually still in school…’
Against all of this, however, there were already identifiable problems. As a young player, Greenwood was not unaware of his own ability and his put downs of less talented players could be brutal.
He once threatened to leave for Manchester City during the middle of a training game and, after what was believed to have been a row with his girlfriend, simply didn’t turn up for a week.
On another occasion, he arrived refusing to take off his hat. Underneath was a scar believed to have been caused during another lover’s tiff.
There were incredibly high hopes for Greenwood as he progressed through United’s academy
Greenwood skips past an opponent while playing for United’s Under-18 side back in 2017
‘None of it was really bad stuff, certainly not on a scale of what we used to have with someone like Ravel Morrison,’ said a source close to United.
‘They were just small things about how you train or behave in a particular situation.
‘Not big things but enough to make you go: “Wow. I can’t believe he has done that”.’
Morrison was another great young talent at United but was ultimately sold after off-the-field troubles.
United were aware enough of Greenwood’s special talent and also of his vulnerable, unpredictable character to afford him close and individual attention.
His father Andrew, an engineer, has always been the key influence but even he once asked the club for help, admitting his son simply was not listening him.
Greenwood Snr maintains a good relationship with United’s director of football, John Murtough, that dates back to the latter’s days as academy manager.
It is partly because of his father’s role in his career that Greenwood has never had a particularly well-known agent.
John Murtough, United’s football director, maintained a good relationship with Greenwood’s father Andrew
Greenwood scores against Brighton at Old Trafford during the lockdown season of 2020-21
The Greenwoods have turned down big money approaches from those seeking representation and also a tickle back in the day from Italian giants Juventus.
Greenwood’s football certainly progressed quickly. He emerged as a key part of Solskjaer’s team as United finished second to City in 2021 while after scoring a typically well-struck goal in a lockdown win at Brighton the season before, Mail Sport was moved to describe him as ‘Mase the Ace’ across its back page.
Emotionally, however, nothing changed and by this stage Solskjaer was having to cover for him publicly as stories about poor time keeping and worse began to emerge.
The police felt the need to visit United’s training ground on one occasion, for example. Jesse Lingard even was asked to look out for him.
Greenwood missed games for unexplained reasons. United were even concerned about his sleep patterns.
‘His behaviour wasn’t great during lockdown,’ says one source from the agent world.
‘There were house parties. He was driving his car around late at night. Stuff like that.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer covered for Greenwood on several occasions when he was United boss
‘You do get issues with lots of young players and United care about them.
‘The attitude is: “He is one of their own, he’s a great player and whatever they need to do to help they will do”.
‘That doesn’t go as far as cover ups. Yes, Ole may have been excessively protective. Some players thought that. But that’s only in hindsight.
‘He cared about Mason. He had issues. There always seemed to be stuff in the background with Mason and Ole looked out for him.
‘A lot of it was stereotypical player stuff and only now do you look back and wonder if they were indicative of more deep seated issues.’
One lockdown party that reached the public domain occurred just eight days before that solitary England appearance in Iceland.
Neighbour Sean McKay, who lived next door to an Air BnB rented by Greenwood in Salford, told Mail Sport: ‘One night a group of kids were at the front door shouting: “You are a sh*t footballer. Let us in or we will break your legs”.
Greenwood lost his way with his off-field behaviour during the difficult Covid lockdowns
In football, there have long been two characterisations of Greenwood and they extend to inside Manchester United as well.
One paints a picture of an unpleasant, unforgiving bully. The other of an immature, inarticulate young man simply not equipped to deal with the stresses and strains of the attention, pressure, focus and indeed wealth that comes with professional football at the top level.
At United, as at all Premier League clubs, academy players undergo sexual consent training as part of their in-house education. Greenwood was part of that.
At Carrington, the club’s player welfare programme has in recent times been extended to include help with relationship issues among other things. That extends to the first team also.
Nick Cox, the club’s current academy manager, believes firmly that the club should not be seen as a ‘sausage factory’ given that the vast majority of young players will not make it.
All of the club’s players – at every level – were offered practical and emotional support during Covid lockdown.
One characterisation of Greenwood is of an unpleasant, unforgiving bully, the other is of an immature character ill-equipped for the demands of top-level football
With all this in mind, this week the one word that kept coming out of United was ‘sadness’. For both Greenwood – now a young father – his family and of course the girl who made the original complaint.
Recently yet another Greenwood video emerged. This one was of the player, suspended from United, training in a park with his father and an entourage of associates. Greenwood’s baby was thought to be present. It’s a sad scene.
Greenwood is going through the motions literally and metaphorically on the footage – weak, laboured shots often ballooning over the crossbar in to the long grass behind. A great talent simply trying to cling on.
There has been too much bravado from camp Greenwood over the years for sure.
From the day his father had to be told to stop shouting so aggressively on the touchline of a youth game to the impression gained by England manager Gareth Southgate and his staff that Greenwood only wished to be called up for his country if he was guaranteed a starting spot.
Southgate had, as it happens, identified Greenwood as the next Harry Kane some time ago and was happy to give him and United as long as was felt necessary before inviting regularly into the fold at St George’s Park.
Greenwood became a father back in July, posting a black and white picture on Instagram
Greenwood was filmed taking part in some shooting drills on a pitch with his father
‘We had issues with his readiness and his maturity but never his talent,’ reveals an FA source.
‘The Greenwood family were probably more awkward than some of the others. With Mason and his dad in particular, they thought there would be a lot of attention around him coming into the England squad.
‘It was: “If he isn’t going to play and start then we are not sure it’s a good idea”. It was that type of attitude.’
Away from all that, though, many at United simply saw a lost boy and one story sticks in the mind. On United’s pre-season tour of Asia four summers ago, Greenwood scored a goal against Inter Milan.
The next day at a sponsor event at Singapore’s Fullerton Bay Hotel, the 17-year-old was asked a question by the compere but could not seem to even open his mouth to answer.
In the lift down from the roof top, he simply asked a member of the United media team if he could be taken somewhere quiet where nobody could see or try to talk to him.
‘We did try and protect him in that way,’ reveals a source now. ‘He wasn’t ready for any of that.’
Greenwood pictured at a United sponsor event for Maui Jim during their 2019 pre-season tour to Singapore
There will be many who have no interest in this side of this story. After all, once you have heard the words on that video from January last year they can never be unheard.
There is another still out there, too. One where Greenwood asks a woman whether she wants ‘daddy’s di*k’. All of this and more constitutes the baggage Greenwood now carries forward in to his life.
There has been much talk this week about whether he will ever be offered a route back in to football. What is perhaps just as pertinent is to ask whether he is mentally and emotionally equipped to take one anyway. Several sources have this week simply said ‘no’ to that question.
Indeed there are those who know him who think his case would have been better going to court. Then the evidence and context that United say has led them to believe in his innocence would have been heard.
Inside Old Trafford, incidentally, they don’t say Greenwood was the best since Giggs or Whiteside. No, they say he was the best since Best.
Such a promising career has come crashing down and it remains to be seen if Greenwood plays top-level football again
Nobody could save George from himself either and now Greenwood – living with his parents in Cheshire – is also adrift, just without the public sympathy.
Ferguson was among those who was first aware of Greenwood’s burgeoning talents. The best youngster in the world, he thought. Maybe the great Scot could have been the one to see him through?
‘No I don’t think so,’ said a source.
‘Not even Fergie could have saved him. I think Mason Greenwood was lost from the very start.’