Manchester United’s plan to bring back Mason Greenwood was so advanced that the club even prepared documents outlining the type of images that should be taken of the player during training sessions and planned how manager Erik ten Hag should handle questions during an anticipated media storm.

According to sources with knowledge of United’s planning, who remain anonymous because they are not authorised to speak publicly, the club’s preparations for Greenwood’s return also included an assessment of the expected sentiment of external figures, listing individual football pundits, journalists and politicians and stating whether they would be for or against Greenwood’s reintegration. The planning divided these people into categories to the effect of “supportive”, “open-minded” or “hostile”. The club’s document listed a series of domestic abuse charities assumed to be “hostile”.

The Athletic’s story on Wednesday that United chief executive Richard Arnold held a meeting with the club’s executive leadership in the first week of August, in which he informed them United were planning to bring back Greenwood, has caused unrest inside and outside the club, with supporters voicing their opinions in letters and on social media, and intense staff meetings.

Greenwood, 21, has not played for United since he was arrested in January 2022 after a recording and images were released on social media of an alleged sexual attack.

Charges against Greenwood for attempted rape, controlling and coercive behaviour, and assault occasioning actual bodily harm, all of which he denied, were dropped in February of this year. The UK’s Crown Prosecution Service said: “A combination of the withdrawal of key witnesses and new material meant there was no longer a realistic prospect of conviction.” After the criminal case ended, United stated on February 2 the club would “conduct its own process before determining next steps”.

Mason Greenwood, Manchester United

Greenwood arriving at court last November (Cameron Smith/Getty Images)

Earlier this week, United said in a statement that “the welfare and perspective of the alleged victim has been central to the club’s inquiries”. United’s process was led by Arnold, assisted by the club’s legal counsel Patrick Stewart, communications chief Ellie Norman, football director John Murtough and the chief operating officer, Collette Roche.

The internal process has not consulted any charities specialised in supporting women in cases where alleged domestic or sexual abuse has occurred.

A scheduled announcement for Friday, August 4 regarding Greenwood’s future was delayed. United had planned to engage with key stakeholders such as sponsors, the fan advisory board and the women’s team in the two days leading up to August 4. It was also at this stage that United’s planning had given consideration to the possibility of briefing charities to support women who report sexual abuse on the explanations behind their proposed decision. The continued involvement of Manchester United female players at the World Cup was believed to be a factor behind the delay.

The Athletic’s reporting of United’s intentions on Wednesday has triggered a significant backlash on social media from football supporters who are opposed to Greenwood’s return and the club’s sentiment trackers, which monitor supporter feeling online, have plummeted in recent days.

On Thursday, the prominent British television presenter Rachel Riley warned she would not continue to support the club if Greenwood returned and her social media posts were sent between staff members at the club.

I’m with Em, I won’t be able to support United if Greenwood remains at the club.

As an example, when it comes to VAWG, less than 1% of rapes reported to police lead to conviction.

We’ve all seen and heard enough.

Pretending this is ok would be a huge part of the problem.

— Rachel Riley MBE 💙 (@RachelRileyRR) August 17, 2023

The Athletic has also been told by sources close to the club, who will remain anonymous in order to protect their positions, that senior Manchester United executives held multiple intense meetings with staff after we reported on Wednesday that some employees feel ashamed by the club’s decision. Some staff members have discussed resigning in the event United continue to pursue the plan laid out by Arnold, while others have considered coordinated action, with some staff even exploring a strike.

The most extreme measures, however, remain hypothetical until the club formally communicates a decision, while it is also the reality of a situation such as this that aggrieved employees are more likely to speak to journalists than those who are either on the fence or supportive of the decision.

United’s concern on Thursday and Friday, however, was sufficient for crisis meetings to take place, which involved United executives seeking to justify a return for Greenwood to staff, while also claiming no final decision had been made. Many staff were left with the impression, though, that the plan to bring him back remains.

Read more: Mason Greenwood and Manchester United: The charges, investigation and planned return

One point that is cutting through to the club’s executive leadership centres on staff members asking how they are supposed to justify a decision to bring back Greenwood to their friends and families. United said in Wednesday’s statement that “we also have responsibilities to Mason as an employee, as a young person who has been with the club since the age of seven, and as a new father with a partner”. Some staff also wondered why the club having a duty of care to Greenwood means him playing for the club again, suggesting that it is possible to look after him while not playing.

Manchester United Supporters Trust, MUWSC, which supports the women’s team, and the Rainbow Devils have each sent out surveys to their members. More than half of the membership of the LGBTQ+ supporters group Rainbow Devils have responded in the first 24 hours — a significantly quicker response than when members were asked about the potential Qatari ownership of United.

The Athletic has also opened its own survey and given subscribers a chance to express their views on the matter given comments are turned off on pieces relating to Greenwood for legal reasons.

Fans have been sending impassioned emails to Arnold on the topic, some of which have also been posted on social media. Others have been shared with The Athletic by concerned fans. The club has been responding to the emails by telling supporters that United “are extremely mindful of their views” but added that the club “also believe that our decision in this case should be based primarily on the findings of our investigation”.

It remains to be seen as to whether United’s decision is impacted by the response, with staff expecting an announcement on Greenwood’s future before the end of this month.

In Wednesday’s statement, the club said a decision had not been made. In subsequent correspondence with supporters, United referred to a “final decision” not having been made.

United’s internal unrest increased on Wednesday when the club simultaneously issued a press release and an all-staff email about the Greenwood situation. The club’s statement had not been planned and represented their response to learning of The Athletic’s intention to report on Arnold telling his executive leadership about the club’s plans to bring back Greenwood. In the statement, the club claimed a decision had not been made.

United have, over the past six months, prepared extensive documents modelling scenarios for any outcome of an investigation, including a loan move away from the club or a parting of the ways, but the plan communicated by Arnold to Manchester United’s most senior staff a fortnight ago centred on Greenwood returning to the club.

It included guidance on how head coach Ten Hag should respond to the highly sensitive questions that would be expected during press conferences following Greenwood’s return and how, after a certain period of time, he should begin to talk about Greenwood as though he is a regular member of the playing squad. Both Ten Hag and the club’s football director, John Murtough, are supportive and encouraging of Greenwood’s return.

The plan to stage-manage Greenwood’s return went to the lengths of detailing the type of training images that should be taken of Greenwood and how they should be transmitted on club channels. The plan also included the possibility of Greenwood himself doing an extended interview in a few months’ time, once he has bedded back into the club. The medium — whether in-house or via an external broadcaster — of the interview is not clear.

United’s planning for Greenwood’s return also contains extensive ongoing psychological and physical support, which includes the player being offered a form of counselling or therapy.

A Manchester United spokesman said: “Manchester United has planned for various potential scenarios in relation to the future of Mason Greenwood. The Athletic has been leaked selective elements of one such scenario plan from several weeks ago. This is a difficult and sensitive case. It is entirely proper that we have taken a careful and thorough approach to planning for the various potential outcomes, including how we would engage with stakeholders and explain the decision after it is made. As previously stated, we are in the final stages of that process and will bring it to a conclusion as soon as possible.”

_ (Top photo: Naomi Baker/Getty Images)_