Missing Evans puts Sheffield United's strike strategy for Championship under the microscope

Sheffield United's striker Ched Evans' fitness issues have left the Blades in limbo as Championship kick-off approaches
Ched comes to us with targets to achieve along the way. With a full pre-season with us we believe he can provide us with options up front and score goals
— Chris Wilder

CHED EVANS played just 17 minutes of Sheffield United’s six-match pre-season schedule, flagging up concern about the 28-year-old’s forward’s fitness.

It also brings into sharp focus the Blades strike strategy with just a matter of days remaining before the Championship season kicks-off. Has there been an over-reliance on what Evans can bring?

Manager Chris Wilder revealed recently that among his transfer targets is another forward, possibly two. Evans, hampered by fitness issues at Chesterfield, and now in his second spell at Bramall Lane, is making the task a top priority irrespective of his plight maybe just being an unfortunate coincidence.

Last season free-scoring United amassed 92 goals on their way to a club-record 100 points and the League One title. But all is not quite as it seems if you subtract top scorer Billy Sharp’s contribution of 30 from that total.

His strike partners Leon Clarke (6), Caolan Lavery (4), Matt Done (3), now transfer-listed, and James Hanson (1) produced only 14 league goals between them. The other 48 came from across the team led by wing-back Kieron Freeman (10), Mark Duffy (6) in midfield and loanee defender Ethan Ebanks-Landell, now at MK Dons (5).

Former Sheffield United midfielder Stefan Scougall was popular at Bramall Lane.

WORRYING STAT

Stefan Scougall's four league goals from midfield last season was only bettered by two United strikers.

With United on the brink of starting life in the Championship, it’s a sobering thought that the slight and popular frame of Stefan Scougall, pictured, the midfield man who moved as a free agent to Scottish Premier League St Johnstone in June, scored more goals (four league, five in total) than all but two of United’s strikers. That despite having last played in January.

Blades manager Chris Wilder said when a £500,000 deal to re-sign Evans was finalised with Chesterfield in early May: “Ched comes to us with targets to achieve along the way. With a full pre-season with us we believe he can provide us with options up front and score goals.”

That clearly hasn’t happened and those options remain very much an aspiration. Evans is apparently now debilitated by a hip injury. This has precluded him from all but what amounts to a cameo role towards the end of United’s 1-0 win against La Liga club Malaga in Spain, the second of the Blades warm-up fixtures for the looming challenge.

Since then Evans has rarely been mentioned, but a growing number of Blades supporters are beginning to question what role he can be expected to play having almost completely missed the assessment period his boss deemed so important.

It shouldn’t be forgotten either that Evans was widely regarded as a £3million flop during his first two seasons in the Championship at the Lane after arriving from Manchester City.  Four goals from 38 appearances in his first campaign, nine from 36 in the second.

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' former boss at Chesterfield Gary Caldwell

The striker’s football reputation is forged by the 35 goals that followed after United’s relegation to League One. That and ten  from 29 appearances in a Championship season at Norwich whilst on loan from City nine years ago.

Last term Evans returned to football with Chesterfield following four years out of the game. Much was made at the time of his efforts to remain in good shape but his season at the Proact Stadium was universally accepted as a disappointment. Hampered by injury to a heel, however, he still managed 29 appearances and seven goals for the Spireites.

He was also absent in order to attend a retrial after his original conviction in 2012 for rape was quashed by the Court of Appeal prior to arriving at the Proact. A jury in Cardiff found him not guilty. The stress and mental toll on Evans, who served half of the original five-year sentence in jail, should not be underestimated.

But his stop-start progress only unsettled the club’s unsuccessful fight to avoid relegation to League Two. It prompted Chesterfield manager Gary Caldwell to say: “He’s been unfit for the majority of my time here and it’s been a frustration that he’s not played as much as we’d have liked. But you have to accept what his body has been through.

“From not playing football it’s difficult to come in and hit the ground running for a full season. I think his body has found the effects of that difficult. I think a summer and a pre-season will help him kick on again for next season.”

Caldwell added, strangely when talking about an experienced player proven in football’s third tier at least: “If he wants to apply himself and work hard, he has the qualities a centre forward needs to be successful.”

Evans, finally given the chance to re-establish his career by former Blades boss Danny Wilson sacked by the Spireites along with assistant Chris Morgan in January,  was last deemed fit to play for Chesterfield on March 4. Since the beginning of the year he made just eight appearances for them. The last time he scored a goal was December 10.

HARDLY A SURPRISE

Wilder’s first addition to the squad after winning the League One title was hardly a surprise. United co-owner Kevin McCabe appeared to have formed a well-documented supportive relationship with the player ever since United cancelled what remained of his contract in 2012.

Indeed, such is that relationship it was even suggested that Evans arrival had been foisted on Wilder by his bosses, something which Wilder denied. “If that was ever the case, then I’d shake the chairman’s hand, wish them the best and say ‘thank-you’ before walking out of the front door. Just like I walked in through the front,” he said.

“Ultimately, it was my decision and mine alone to get Ched. I’ve seen and heard things claiming otherwise but, quite simply, they aren’t true. I wouldn’t bring in anyone I didn’t want here or who I didn’t think could make a difference.”

Even McCabe has acknowledged Evans’ fitness problems. “The only thing with Ched is that he did not have a great season last year with Chesterfield,”he said. “But I do say that he was very good until early on when he got injured. As Ched freely admits, he was playing at Chesterfield at times when he wasn’t fully fit.

“I think a fully fit Ched Evans will be quite a striker, along with Billy Sharp, young Caolan Lavery and Leon Clarke. He could be a revelation – and big James Hanson, too.”

CHOICE

McCabe added the caveat which now seems more relevant: “You already have combinations. Whether that is stopping Chris getting one or two more, it is his choice.”

As mentioned previously on ViewFromTheJohnStreet.com, Evans’ return is a gamble, but one worth taking. The inability to play his part in Wilder’s pre-season preparations, however, has for once almost certainly caught the manager off guard.

Maybe given the striker’s track record at Chesterfield and their manager Caldwell’s warning it shouldn’t have come as such a surprise. At Eastleigh last week, United's sixth and final preparation fixture, Wilder used 21 players, including two on the transfer list, Done and John Brayford. Evans wasn't amongst them.

His latest fitness issue maybe just an unfortunate coincidence. He undoubtedly has the potential to go at least someway to fulfilling expectation. He could even prove to be the buy of the season.

But, the striker’s personal struggle aside, as it stands all the stats say United have a problem.