CHED EVANS revealed how he has driven past Bramall Lane on five separate occasions in pure anticipation since agreeing early last month to rejoin Sheffield United.
“I just wanted to look. You forget how big it is. It’s a bit surreal thinking I’ll be soon be playing there again. It brings back weird feelings, good feelings,” said the 28-year-old striker who officially became a Sheffield United player on June 10 after his contract expired with Chesterfield on June 10.
“It’s my club. Going back is a dream,” he added. “The majority of the fans have been brilliant with me throughout what happened. I'd like to repay them by getting back to where I was, the form I was in when I left them.”
Evans served half of a five-year jail sentence after being convicted of rape, a conviction that was overturned in 2016 by the Court of Appeal. In a subsequent retrial he was found not guilty.
But those who still question the verdict irritate the former Wales international who scored 35 goals for United in 42 appearances in 2011-12 before being put behind bars. “It does annoy me when people still say that I’m not innocent,” he said.
“My case went to the Criminal Cases Review Commission, some of the cleverest people in the country, who deemed it fit to be sent to the Court of Appeal where three judges quashed the conviction. Then it went to a retrial and I was found not guilty.”
The Blades generated a storm of protest in Sheffield and across the country after offering Evans the opportunity to train at Shirecliffe on his release from prison. Jessica Ennis-Hill, the city’s Olympic heroine, demanded that her name be removed from the Bramall Lane stand.
Evans acknowleges that as he was viewed by the law at the time to be a convicted rapist, heptathlon gold medal winner Ennis-Hill “had every right” to say what she did. “If I saw her, I wouldn't make a fuss of what happened,” he said.
Full interview by the Daily Mail's Mike Keegan below.
Ched Evans is yet to set foot inside Bramall Lane after he completed his move back to Sheffield United earlier this month.
On five occasions he has, however, gone out of his way to drive past his former and now future home ground.
"I just wanted to look," he says. "You forget how big it is. It’s a bit surreal thinking I’ll soon be playing there again. It brings back weird feelings, good feelings."
Now 28, Evans was 23 when he last pulled on the red-and-white striped jersey of the Yorkshire club. In the more than half-decade that has passed, his story has been written and rewritten. Released by the Blades in 2012 after he was wrongfully convicted of raping a 19-year-old woman in a Rhyl hotel, Evans spent half of a five-year sentence in prison.
He later had that conviction quashed and was found not guilty at a retrial. Now, after an injury-hit year at Chesterfield — the club who gave him a chance when others would not — he is a Sheffield United player once more and is keen to make up for lost time.
"It’s my club," he says. "Going back is a dream. The majority of the fans have been brilliant with me throughout what happened. I’d like to repay them by getting back to where I was, the form I was in when I left them."
Evans had scored 35 goals in 42 games before his 2011-12 season was cut short by his conviction. Without their star striker, United’s League One promotion push faltered and ultimately they were defeated in the play-off final at Wembley.
Was there any hesitation to go back given the club’s decision to release him? "Not really," Evans says. "If you look at the scrutiny they came under you couldn’t really blame them. Public figures, the media, threats to the staff, you couldn’t really create an issue out of them reacting to that in the way they did. I think anybody under that pressure would have done the same thing."
Evans is wary that, despite the fact that he was found innocent, there may still be objections.
The 2012 Olympic champion and United supporter Jessica Ennis-Hill had asked for her name to be removed from a stand at Bramall Lane when Evans was linked with a return to the club in 2014 following his release from prison.
Does he have a message for her? "If I saw her, I wouldn’t make a fuss of what happened," Evans says. "I believe she was advised to do it. I"m sure she was asked to speak up on the issue. At the time she spoke out I was wrongly convicted and she had every right to."
Following the Blades rather hasty retreat, a move to Oldham collapsed amid a backdrop of similar outrage from the public.
Chesterfield were the club brave enough to take Evans on and he returned to action with a bump on his debut.
"I had my two front teeth knocked out at Oxford," he recalls. "The referee had told me, "You"re in for some s*** today, lad". I went up for a header and I got elbowed in the face."
The Kassam Stadium aside, Evans says opponents have not used his wrongful conviction and time inside to wind him up.
"Since the not guilty verdict even the abuse from the crowds has died down," he says. "I think most people now realise I just want to get on with my career, although you do get the odd shout which is fine. Being at a football match can do funny things to people."
Evans, who has expressed sympathy for his accuser, does not want to dwell on the past but adds that there are frustrations.
"What happened, happened," he says. "It would be a waste of time having hatred or anger burning inside you. I"m not one of those to live in the past. If I thought about what I could have done over the five years it would eat away at me. I could have been thinking about that in prison and it would have made it worse, it would have killed me.
"It does annoy me when people still say that I’m not innocent, I just made 12 members of a jury think I wasn’t guilty. That’s not right.
"My case went to the Criminal Cases Review Commission, some of the cleverest people in the country, who deemed it fit to be sent to the Court of Appeal where three judges quashed the conviction. Then it went to a retrial and I was found not guilty."
At this point Karl Massey, father of Evans’s fiancee Natasha and the man who spearheaded Evans’s campaign, interjects.
"It should never have gone to a retrial," says Massey. "The Crown Prosecution Service knew they had no chance of winning but had to try to save face."
Many have questioned Massey"s support for Evans. So why did he choose to stick by him? "I didn"t instantly," he recalls. "It took a few weeks. The forgiveness came when I realised he hadn’t raped anyone.
"Anyone can make a mistake, a moral error of judgement, at some point in their lives — especially when they are drunk. This was about the conviction.
"When Ched was convicted he was not a rapist, ever. That’s when I started to unravel what had happened. We all loved him. It didn’t stop me wanting to kill him at the time.
"The biggest misconception is that I did it for my daughter. If they’d have split up I wouldn’t have stopped. Ched was sent to prison for a crime he did not commit. I love Natasha, but I didn"t do it for her, I did it for Ched."
Evans is grateful for Massey"s support. "He"s been unbelievable," he says.
United re-enter a Championship with the division dominated by a few clubs benefiting from parachute payments from the Premier League. Despite a huge fanbase and substantial backing, the Blades are among the league’s have-nots. "From a personal point of view I want to get back to where I was when I left," Evans says. Should that happen and result in a Wales recall, Evans, who is yet to speak to coach Chris Coleman since his retrial, is ready.
"It would be nice to be called up but it would have to be on merit," he says. "Pulling on the Wales shirt would be massive. I'm a proud Welshman and watching how well they have done over the last five to six years under the philosophy Gary Speed brought in has been great. I was part of that and I"d like to be part of it again.
"Playing alongside the likes of Gareth Bale, Aaron Ramsey, Joe Allen — it would be an honour."
Off the field, Evans, who has a 16-month-old son with Natasha, has another fixture to arrange. "Maybe next year, or the year after, we"ll get married," he says. "Something low-key, somewhere warm."
Did he ever think, during his time behind bars, that he would be back at United and in this position? "Funnily enough, in jail I had a lot of hope," he says. "It was when I came out and saw the backlash — that was when it was hard to see a way back.
"It"s taken five years but we got there. Now I can look forward."
UNITED BOSS WILDER ROLLS THE DICE AND A DIFFERENT TAKE ON EVANS' RETURN TO BRAMALL LANE – Click images to read.