HE’S BACK. Whatever your opinion on the most divisive player to ever wear a Sheffield United shirt, Ched Evans owes the club. And some.
The loyalty shown by Blades co-owner Kevin McCabe over the last five controversial years to a man who let United down like no other, is extraordinary. So too, if reports are true, is the deal the striker and his agent have struck. A signing-on fee said to be in the region of £1million, £10,000-a-week wages, appearance money accompanied by a bonus for scoring ten goals per campaign.
This for someone who has played professional football for just one season of the past five, was injured for a great deal of it, has appeared only eight times in 2017 and scored the last of his seven goals for relegated Chesterfield on March 4.
That aside, his reported £500,000 transfer fee given the player’s potential and the last-ditch need to prove himself, it is easy to understand why United manager Chris Wilder has been persuaded that Evans is worth a gamble. If McCabe and co-owner Prince Abdullah bin Mosaad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud are so keen as well as happy to pick up the wage bill even if it proves a costly error, from Wilder’s point of view what is there to lose?
Should Evans hit the 15 to 20-goal mark in United’s long-awaited return to the Championship – and that remains a big if – his signing will be regarded as astute. It would also raise the stakes, making an early bid for the play-offs and a route to the Premier League more likely. If that were to happen Evans would appear a bargain and have sent his transfer value spiralling. Win win
The fact remains, however, the 28-year-old is still trying to resurrect a stalled career five years after the Blades cancelled his contract following conviction and jailing for rape. He enjoys cult status amongst many United fans. Quite why in a football sense is at best misplaced. Judging from comments by a small minority on social media who enthusiastically wage a foul-mouthed war degrading women, disturbing at worst.
Evans, released from prison after serving half of a five-year sentence for a crime he always remained adamant he didn’t commit, has since had the conviction quashed by the Court of Appeal. A retrial last October found him not guilty of raping a 19-year-old woman at a North Wales hotel in May 2011.
The Welshman acknowledged on his own website set up to help clear his name, that “his behaviour was morally unacceptable but consensual”. Some still find the lurid and well-documented events in middle of the night near Rhyl, watched by low-life friends though a window, repulsive enough to deny him a return to United. A club which trades on family tradition.
The public outcry that raged when the Blades offered to let him train at their Shirecliffe training ground upon his release in October 2014 was a valid arguement. It no longer has foundation. A jury in Cardiff judged Evans is innocent.
It would have been insensitive and inappropriate to do so beforehand when football, put in perspective, was an inconsequence. But now Evans is free of the judiciary and an innocent man, his record as a footballer and particularly his contribution at Bramall Lane is there to be judged.
SUPPORTER: UNITED CO-OWNER KEVIN McCABE HAS SHOWN AN EXTRAORDINARY PERSONAL LOYALTY TO STRIKER EVANS
The striker’s popularity and the influence he appears to have on McCabe, as sole owner and now co-owner, is based purely on one season in the third tier of English football. A quick glance at Evans’ career record and it is plain to see apart from seven months in the sun when he scored 35 goals in 42 appearances – a breathtaking achievement – the 28-year-old has been distinctly below average.
Add the indisputable fact that Evans was responsible for completely destabilising United in their hour of need. The consequences of what he accepts was degenerate but not criminal behaviour 11 months’ earlier, dealt the Blades a body blow they never recovered from. It almost certainly changed the course of history as the club entered into one of its darkest periods which only now has been brought to an end.
In fact, stats show the former Welsh international – 13 caps but just one goal, scored with his first touch on his debut in 2008 to defeat Iceland 1-0 in Reykjavik – has led something of a charmed life. Manchester City discovered and developed Evans before giving him a chance to show what he could do in the Premier League.
But not before an encouraging season-long loan to Championship Norwich where he scored 10 goals in 29 appearances before returning to the Etihad. One goal in 16 Premier League outings and three starts later, convinced City he wasn’t for them.
Blades boss Kevin Blackwell, however, had seen enough to persuade McCabe to part with an eye-opening £3million and bring Evans to the Lane on a three-year contract. Blackwell compared his signing to Alan Shearer, saying at the time: “My first-team coach Gary Speed played alongside Shearer at Newcastle and he says Ched reminds him of Big Al in many ways.”
There was little evidence of that for Blades fans. Just four goals where delivered in his miserable first season at United, then of the Championship, in 38 appearances. A ratio of one strike every nine-and-a-half matches.
Evans was regarded as anything but a talisman. He was proving to be an ill-judged, expensive flop. Collective groans around the Lane regularly accompanied his failing contribution. Nine goals followed in 2010-11 (36 appearances, ratio one in four) as United were relegated to League One. An improvement yes, but opinion had not changed and United plunged into football’s backwater.
Then came the season everyone remembers. With 35 goals he almost single-handedly spearheaded an immediate return to the Championship under Danny Wilson. Awaiting the verdict of his trial, Evans’ last strike secured a 3-1 home win over Leyton Orient. United were second in the table with 88 points and four clear of third-placed Sheffield Wednesday with three matches remaining. A week later Evans was behind bars and United faltered. A six-match winning run, nine unbeaten, was brought to an end. Without Evans United managed to add just two points to their total.
It is still painful to recall the Blades amassed 90, usually good enough to secure automatic promotion but city rivals Wednesday took advantage to claim the second automatic promotion place behind champions Charlton Athletic. United, badly missing their new-found golden boy, went on to a gut-wrenching goalless draw against Huddersfield in the play-off final at Wembley. Lost after extra-time on the 22nd penalty, blasted over the West Yorkshire side’s bar by last man standing, goalkeeper Steve Simonsen.
You can argue that United should not have been so reliant on Evans. Lee Williamson was the only other player to reach double figures in front of goal (13) in the league. Richard Cresswell (nine) and Chris Porter (five) followed. But they were and that player ultimately contributed to untold heartache for no tangible reason. Other than at the age of 23 and away from football he was basically living up to and exceeding a stereotypical image. One which besmirches the majority of dedicated footballers, whom like the rest of us, are not perfect but go about their lives with at the very least a modicum of responsibility and decency.
Mention the name Ched Evans and those who employ him suddenly begin to sound like paragons of virtue. When the nationwide storm erupted following United’s initial invitation for the player to train, they talked of the “responsibility of a duty of care” for the man they effectively sacked by cancelling his contract. It was reported by The Sunday Times that McCabe personally paid £170,000 to Evans so he wasn’t out of pocket. A claim McCabe has still to deny. Duty of care? Would United have felt ‘responsibility’ for a sacked employee if the same circumstances had happened a year earlier to a misfiring but well paid striker? Or would it have been seen as a great opportunity to get him off the books and save a year’s salary?
Chesterfield director Ashley Carson said this week: “He’s still got a career he’s trying to build. I know he’s had conversations with the manager of Wales who said he wouldn’t even look at him if he wasn’t in the Championship. And there is also potential earnings going forward.” Flattering to think Ched’s career and financial well-being are major considerations.
Carson added more tellingly: “Ched was up for playing here next year, that wasn’t an issue but you’ve got to look at both the best interests of Chesterfield FC and also Ched Evans.”
Nothing to do then with the fact Evans signed an extension in January to his one-year contract at a club deep in financial crisis and mired at the wrong end of the League One table, thus ensuring the Spireites would generate revenue from his impending departure talked about privately well in advance. Chesterfield, guided by ex-Blades boss Wilson who has since been sacked at The Proact, gave Evans a chance to resurrect his career before his retrial began. They are entitled to earn their reward, but at least be honest about it and don’t take your supporters for mugs.
As the team has transformed under Wilder, many Blades fans thought the relationship between Evans and United had passed. The club had moved on. Clearly it hadn’t. Some of those excited by confirmation recently that Wilder would be moving quickly to strengthen his squad for the Championship challenge ahead with proven quality at that level, were disappointed to discover that Evans’ is the first name on the list. Others see it as a positive move.
Certainly Wilder’s no-nonsense approach and reputation for improving players will only benefit the man who harbours an ambition to show Manchester City were wrong to let him go by playing at the highest level for club and country once again. It’s safe to say Evans needs no further motivation and he has three months to prepare and start the season fully fit. Whatever his wages or loyalty shown from above, however, if Evans can’t cut it Wilder won’t play him. Nor will he tolerate a ‘big-time Charlie’ to upset team spirit, although there is no evidence the forward’s character fits that description. His reported financial deal may make waves though.
Now the striker has a golden opportunity to rekindle his dream. Whether he’s up to it – indeed has ever been – is another matter. Gary Caldwell, who succeeded Wilson as Chesterfield boss in January, said: “From not playing football it’s difficult to come in and hit the ground running for a full season. If he wants to apply himself and work hard, he has the qualities a centre forward needs to be successful.”
Evans starts his second life at the Lane much diminished as a wild card. The hope is he becomes a trump card. For that reason most Blades, even some sceptics, are happy to say deal me in.