Introducing Alex Greenwood: From being ‘wrecked’ by online abuse to becoming fearless at Man City

EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: The England international opens up about vile abuse, frustrations at Liverpool, how she grew at Manchester United, the different level at Lyon and Manchester City’s title ambitions

Melissa Reddy
Senior Football Correspondent
Monday 01 March 2021 11:08
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<p>Alex Greenwood is confident City can keep pace with Chelsea in the title race</p>

Alex Greenwood is confident City can keep pace with Chelsea in the title race

Alex Greenwood has been attached to the professional game since the age of seven.

Closing in on a half-century of caps for England, she is one of the country’s most decorated and experienced players having represented a selection of its storied clubs — straddling the Merseyside and Manchester divide, while also sweeping clean with behemoths Olympique Lyonnais Feminin. 

There is receding space in the centrefold of the home she shares with boyfriend, Sheffield United’s Jack O’Connell, to house her accolades. 

Greenwood is a champion of Europe and a champion of the women’s game itself. Yet, bar loose knowledge of her relationship status, there is very little revealed about the girl from Bootle turned national treasure. 

That has been by design; a consequence of the toxic culture in football that fuels the sickening abuse resident on social media platforms and every other avenue going. 

READ MORE: The ‘life-changing experience’ in the US for one of England’s brightest

Greenwood has long opted to be generic, to hide the person beyond the shirt. She has portrayed solely through a series of training and matchday snaps, but that did not prevent the poison seeping through.

“The abuse is completely draining,” she tells The Independent in her most revealing interview to date. 

“I’ve always known negativity comes with the territory and I can accept criticism about my performances, but it is the personal attacks and threats which I just can’t understand.

“Tweet me about my game and say I was terrible, that you think I was awful on the pitch. I have no problems with that. Even if I wasn’t, that’s completely fine, because you’re entitled to your opinion. I watch matches too and go, ‘Oh, he’s not having a great afternoon. She’s been poor in this match.’ 

Alex Greenwood in action for England against Northern Ireland

“When it becomes personal, then it’s unacceptable. And more than not, the abuse is personal.”

Greenwood’s first real taste of the venomous commentary was in reaction to her eyelash extensions during the Women’s World Cup in France, which she rightly labels “absolutely ridiculous.”

That, however, was mild in comparison to the mountain of hate which greeted her unveiling as a Manchester City player last September following her exit from Lyon.

READ MORE: Casey Stoney says social media and government must fight ‘disgusting’ racist abuse aimed at Lauren James

As the former captain of Manchester United, Greenwood expected grief over the move. “I’m a football fan and so I get this is not like changing any other job - moving from one newspaper to another, from one accounting firm to another,” she says. 

“There is emotional investment and money spent from supporters. I understand the frustration.”

What Greenwood did not anticipate and could not comprehend was an overflow of comments wishing ill towards her and her family. 

“I don’t think people were aware of how badly it actually affected me, because I didn’t let my football suffer,” she says. “It was taking a lot out of me on a personal level, but I was playing the best stuff of my career so the assumption was that I was fine. 

“I was wrecked. Performing well was probably my way of working through the lows. I know there will be many saying you have a choice on whether to read the abusive comments or not, but come on! 

“Even if your notifications are off, every time you go on social media to engage with your friends or  whatever, it’s there.

“And naturally as a human being, the negative ones stick. Those are the ones that play in your mind. 

“But over the last few months, I’ve really been working on focusing on the support and encouragement rather than the hate. 

“I am happy with who I am and I’ve realised how important it is to show the person behind the player, because I don’t want kids coming through to feel they have to hide themselves in any way.”

Greenwood does not want to be forced into a shell anymore, or to be voiceless. The horrendous racist abuse Lauren James, her friend and former United team-mate, is subjected to on a daily basis “makes me absolutely sick. We have a duty to confront these issues. 

Alex Greenwood celebrates winning the Champions League with Lyon

“It’s massively important to use our platforms to force change for the better. What Marcus Rashford has done for the children in this country is just unbelievable. 

“There’s Megan Rapinoe who speaks out for equality. When she asks questions and doesn’t get answers, she asks questions again just like Marcus did. We are all seeing the positive impact that can be made.”

It will be to everyone’s benefit that the self-imposed shackles have been removed and Greenwood  can share her brilliance away from the pitch. 

Whether it’s talking about the evolution of full-backs or the difference between defending on the flank or at the heart of defence, she is a great listen. 

Her intelligence is not limited to tactical explanations. Greenwood is fierce and forthright when analysing her path to this point. “If I’m not going to be honest, there’s no point in speaking,” the 27-year-old says before openly delving into a range of topics. 

Greenwood rewinds to her “agonising decision” to leave Everton, who had just been relegated, as a teenager. She rattles off the names of Mo and Keith Marley plus Andy Spence as pivotal to her development into an elite player. 

“Looking back, I had to be selfish and think about my career, but I didn’t know how to do that,” Greenwood admits. 

“I was still really young. I remember speaking to family and saying, ‘this is all I’ve ever known’. 

“I knew I had a very good chance to go to the 2015 World Cup, but I really didn’t want to leave Everton. 

“I took on board all the advice I got and there were a lot of offers, including the chance to go abroad, but I was sold by the direction of Notts County.”

Her boyfriend Jack was on his way to Brentford at the same time, which aided the decision-making process. In 2016, Greenwood had the opportunity to join the club she grew up supporting: Liverpool. It was meant to be a fairytale period, but is one clearly framed by frustration. 

“I saw a tweet the other day listing the players we had at the club when I was there and the talent was frightening. How didn’t we win more? I’ll never know. 

“I was probably a little immature, but I used to want to know why we weren’t training at better facilities, why we were playing on 4G pitches. It just wasn’t good enough for the squad we had. Scott Rogers was the manager and he was knocking on doors, but not getting any answers. 

“When I was leaving Liverpool, I took a meeting with the chief executive purely to speak about the state of things. Nothing was going to convince me to stay, but I thought about the girls I was leaving behind and they deserved better. 

“It’s a club that is very close to my heart. It’s my city. It’s my home. I wanted the best for them but to see how little investment and interest that was put into the team was disappointing and heartbreaking. 

“We could have won titles and dominated with the right amount of support but the best players left to lift trophies elsewhere at clubs who took the women’s team more seriously.”

Greenwood was so disillusioned by Liverpool that she departed despite not having her next destination sorted out. She went on holiday with Jack and decided to only think about the future when she returned. 

“That lasted all of three days before I got a message from Casey Stoney,” Greenwood takes up the story. 

“It said I want to have a chat with you about joining United. I said to Jack, ‘there’s no chance. I can’t go to a league below, it’s just not possible. My England career will be in doubt.’ 

“Jack was great and told me there was nothing to lose from having a conversation with her. 

“I told my agent I’m probably not going to sign, that I respect Casey and just want to hear her out. Within 30 minutes of the meeting at Old Trafford, I couldn’t wait to pull on the shirt. 

READ MORE: Football ‘needs to wake up’, the women’s game isn’t a ‘step down’

“The ambitions the club had for the team and the vision Casey had for me just blew me away. 

“I hadn’t been excited for a long time because of the situation at Liverpool and now I was.”

Greenwood thrived as captain of United.  “Casey said to me ‘you have a responsibility to get this club to where it needs to be. It was a huge year in my career, growing up and being a leader.”

Everything had fallen into place for her. “I was living 20 minutes away from my family and had a lovely home with Jack. I had everything you could ever want. I was captain of a massive football club. I was happy.”

And then Lyon came knocking. The French giants had a deal lined up to sign Greenwood after her debut season with Liverpool, but it fell through due to a complication with another contract. 

She never thought she’d had the chance to join them again but they were back and bending to her every will. Greenwood did not want to leave the North West but it was too gigantic of a career move to turn down so she insisted she would only consider a one-year contract.

To her surprise, Lyon agreed. 

“Even though they’d given me what I asked for, I was sitting in my hotel room in Norway during pre-season thinking “what am I doing? Is the right thing for my life.”

What was Jack’s advice? “The football side in him was like, ‘you have to go, there’s an opportunity to win the Champions League and you’d be stupid not to take it. You have my full support.

“And then obviously the boyfriend side of him was like, ‘I’m going to miss you, we’ve got a great home here.’ We had just got a dog and we knew it was going to be challenging. But we told each other if we can get through this, we can get through anything.”

Greenwood’s settling-in period in France was no fun. “I struggled during the first three to four months off the pitch,” she concedes. 

“It was hard to adjust to the lifestyle, the language. I was not in a really good place, to be honest. But on the pitch, I came alive.

“I loved walking into training and working with the best players in the world every day. 

“I could feel my game going to a new level and that kept me sane off the pitch a little bit. 

READ MORE: What it takes to build a women’s football dynasty

“By Christmas, I had picked up French, which helped me settle and I gained loads of new friends.

“On the football side of things, they are incredible. The ambition, the delight they get in being the best in the world. It’s different class and I did think about staying but after winning the Champions League, I knew I could come back to England knowing I’d achieved what I wanted.”

The objective for Greenwood now is securing more silverware with City and England.

Gareth Taylor’s side are just two points behind Chelsea in a riveting WSL title race. 

“I knew it would take a bit of time for things to get into groove with a new manager, a new way of playing and some fresh faces,” Greenwood says. 

“But some of the stuff we were playing in training and on some matchdays was just ‘wow’. 

“And I said to myself, ‘God, if we click properly, we were going to be a really strong unit. 

“That happened after Christmas. We believe we can beat any team on our day. 

“Chelsea are the targets right now because they’re top for good reason but I’m really excited over what this team can do.”

Whatever triumphs are to follow, Greenwood can revel it in without having to hide the fine person behind a fine player.

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