Mason Greenwood admits his heart began to thump. It was March of last year, Manchester United were a goal down on aggregate at Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League last 16 and there were three minutes of the tie to play. Ole Gunnar Solskjær was looking at him and then he was telling him he was sending him on as a substitute. For his professional debut.
It takes a brave manager to make that kind of decision but, at the same time, it takes a special player to merit such trust. We all know how it ended in Paris, Marcus Rashford’s controversial stoppage-time penalty taking United through on away goals and leading the club to appoint Solskjær on a permanent basis. But what has possibly been forgotten is the part that it played in launching the extraordinary story of Greenwood.
“I took a lot of belief from that, a lot of confidence to say that the manager has got the confidence in me to put me on in that state of the game,” Greenwood says. “I’m just glad he did because it’s helped my career and things are more calm now. I am used to it now because the pressure was high in that game. Not many people can say they made their debut in such a special game.”
Greenwood can say plenty of other remarkable things, with the top line concerning the numbers from his breakthrough season in 2019-20. The 18-year-old scored 10 times in the Premier League and only one player in the competition’s history has scored more in a single season at that age – Michael Owen for Liverpool in 1997-98 with an astonishing 18.
Greenwood added five more in the Europa League, and it has brought him to the point where Gareth Southgate had to give him a first England call-up for the Nations League ties against Iceland and Denmark. As Southgate said, Greenwood’s form and maturity made it “impossible to leave him out”.
Greenwood might have been nervous at PSG – how could he not have been? – but the most striking aspect of his rise to prominence has been his composure, especially in front of goal. The Bradford-born striker does not panic or snatch at his shots; rather he gives the impression that finishing is the most natural thing in the world to him. His technique is smooth and easy yet sharp and lethal.
Solskjær has called him “one of the best, if not the best, finisher I have worked with and seen”. Wayne Rooney, the former Manchester United and England captain, says Greenwood is “probably the best finisher at United already – in goalscorers, you can just see it from day one”, adding: Harry Kane and Michael Owen had the knack and it’s the same with Greenwood.”
The praise is nice to hear but for Greenwood what matters is remaining grounded, giving himself the platform and the mental space to show off his clinical edge.
“The biggest thing I learned from my first season was to be level-headed, don’t let things get to you, always be concentrated and ready when you’re on the pitch because as soon as you lose concentration then anything can happen.”
How does Greenwood deal with the burgeoning hype and expectation? “It’s pretty easy. The players at United get taught to ignore it – just carry on doing what you’re doing because everyone will be supporting you when you’re doing good but maybe when you’re doing bad, not many people will be supporting you. It’s all about staying calm.”
Greenwood counts himself fortunate to have a manager such as Solskjær and a teammate such as Rashford, whom he describes as the biggest influence on his career.
“I’d say Marcus because he’s come through the same pathway, he’s helped me a lot. He’s been in my position and knows how it feels. The pathway is really important and there is a clear pathway at United as you can see with Marcus, Scott [McTominay], Jesse [Lingard] and Paul [Pogba] – all coming through the ranks.”
Greenwood sidesteps the questions that he does not want to answer – about whether he still lives at home with his parents, about Harry Maguire, about Lionel Messi possibly coming to Manchester City.
But his conviction is evident when he talks about United “starting to be ready to push for the top places” in the Premier League; about wanting to break goalscoring records and be “remembered forever”; about the Black Lives Matter movement and taking a knee before matches.
“We will likely be doing that [before the Iceland and Denmark games] because it’s a big thing,” Greenwood says. “A lot of people watch football so it will send a good message out there and, for my part, I’d like to see it [taking a knee] next season, as well.”
Greenwood also clears up a big question when it comes to his game. Which foot does he favour because, at times, it has been difficult to tell? “When it comes to it, I prefer to use my left.”
Greenwood can feel his second top-level season coming into view and, as every young player knows, it can be harder than the first. “I’m aware of that but Marcus has just said to go out with a smile on your face, work hard and show what you can do. I’m looking forward to it.”