UPDATE: Sam Baldock, brother of Blades defender George, has joined Reading from Premier League Brighton, to partner Marc McNulty.
THIS is the tale of two strikers. Both finished seasons as top scorers for Sheffield United and players who passed like ships in the night last summer to experience very different fates.
Remaining hope that Ched Evans can recreate anything like the form that enabled him to score 35 goals for Sheffield United six seasons ago is for eternal optimists. The decision to send him on a season-long loan to League One Fleetwood with an option to recall after six months can only be interpreted as a recognition the 29-year-old’s career at Bramall Lane is in the last chance saloon, as reported here in May.
Even his boss Chris Wilder who has consistently backed the faltering former Welsh international, is beginning to sound non-committal. “Hopefully Ched has a decent six months and then we can assess it in January and go from there,” he said.
Realistically it is all but over even if Evans avoids further fitness problems and rediscovers his touch – he last scored a competitive goal on December 10, 2016. Fast forward 19 months and a combined total of 24 appearances for Chesterfield (11) and United (13) have been fruitless. As Irony would have it his final act in a Blades shirt was to score the only goal in last week’s friendly win in Portugal against Maritimo.
United should have long since moved on in the strike department by the time his loan on the Fylde Coast expires. Indeed, if he were to be welcomed back with open arms it would almost certainly indicate they have endured a difficult Championship season.
It is more likely United are hoping his move to Joey Barton’s Cod Army will help add value in order to recoup as much as possible from a deal last summer which just hasn’t worked out. "Coming to Fleetwood is a great opportunity for me to get out, play games, and score goals and I feel like I'm ready to do that," said Evans after training with his new teammates for the first time.
His departure was announced in a briefly worded statement on United's website headed 'Duo depart'. The other being 18-year-old midfielder Regan Slater who has been loaned to Carlisle United, also for the length of the season.
Marc McNulty, meanwhile, regarded as a spare part and surplus to requirements at Bramall Lane last summer, signed for Coventry City. He spearheaded their promotion from League Two, scoring 28 goals. A tally from 51 appearances that has just won the 25-year-old a four-year contract at Championship Reading. He scored his first goal for them, a late equaliser in a 2-2 draw against Turkish side Besiktas this week in Austria.
McNulty was inexplicably cast aside after finishing 13-goal joint top scorer in his first season at the Lane under Nigel Clough after signing from Livingstone for a fee believed to be £125,000. He famously hit the winner against Premier League Southampton which set up a two-leg League Cup semi-final thriller against Tottenham.
A change of manager and Nigel Adkins packed him off to Portsmouth for the season (12 goals). Wilder, didn’t seem impressed either. McNulty spent six months at Bradford City only being recalled as emergency cover.
“Growing up I would never have believed I would have had the opportunity to play for such a big football club,” the Scot tweeted to Blades fans on his departure from the Lane.
For a player who was either overlooked or cast aside for most of his three seasons on United’s books, ’Sparky’ displays the kind of attitude that Wilder demands of his players. Which makes it all the more surprising that he didn’t give the striker a chance.
McNulty explained after being released: “In my first season I finished joint-top goalscorer at United with Jamie Murphy. He got a move to Brighton and he’s now in the Premier League (Murphy has since joined SPL Rangers). I didn’t start many games but I expected that and I was happy.
“I thought my second year would be when I’d kick on. Unfortunately, there was a change of manager and he brought in two new strikers. He told me I wasn’t going to play. No matter what club I’m at I need to play and be involved every week.
“I went on loan to Portsmouth and I can’t speak highly enough of them. That’s probably where I played my best football and I loved it there. There was another new manager at Sheffield [Wilder] and he wanted to play one up front. Billy Sharp was the captain and he’s done fantastic so I didn’t think I had any right to play ahead of him.
“I went on loan to Bradford and it didn’t work out there. The manager called my back to Sheffield United in January and said I’d get a little sniff. The boys did that well – they didn’t lose a game – it was hard for me to play. Sometimes you need to just applaud the boys who are in front of you. I didn’t really have an argument to play.”
Conspiracy theories abound but Wilder says that the decision to re-sign Evans last summer from Chesterfield was his alone. The striker arrived with fitness issues well publicised by Chesterfield. He was eventually granted three months off to have surgery to an ankle. On returning he was a peripheral figure, almost forgotten.
Evans and Sheffield United have been entwined in a curious relationship ever since that fateful season when he was scoring goals for fun before being jailed and serving half of a five-year sentence for a rape he did not commit. A guilty verdict that was overturned on appeal and a charge from which he was acquitted in a retrial.
The physical cost on the sportsman, not to mention the mental ordeal of being wrongfully imprisoned and then fighting to clear his name, has understandably taken its toll. "When I got the not guilty I'd been living with the anxiety for four-and-a-half-years," he said in a radio interview earlier this year. "I found it mentally tough. There was a transition from one day being a convicted rapist, the next day, everyone had forgot about it."
United now appear to be dropping the pretence and facing up to what some say is a vanity project at the behest of co-owner Kevin McCabe who seems to have struck up some kind of bond with Evans.
Others see the player’s return to the Lane as a cut-price gamble worth taking on the slim chance of rediscovering a goal machine. Which given the cost involved of recruiting proven strikers, wasn’t a bad idea.
Whatever the motive the facts speak for themselves. As mentioned, Evans last scored a competitive goal in December 2016, for Chesterfield, and due to injury issues played no part in the final two months of their battle that season to avoid relegation to League Two.
He has since made a total of 13 fitness interrupted appearances for United, three starts, with no return. And even going back to his first spell at the club, for two Championship campaigns he was widely regarded as a £3million flop from Manchester City. The first of those 33 appearances produced only four goals; the second 35 (9). It was only when United dropped to the third tier that Evans suddenly prospered.
Wilder has made all the right noises, insisting after every set back Evans is an asset and has an important part to play at the club. Both those claims now appear to have been made in hope rather than conviction.
Evans arrived last summer to a muted fanfare. Blades fans hoped to see a glimpse of the player they once knew but have been sadly disappointed. He made encouraging noises about wanting to win back his place as a Wales international, but couldn’t even establish himself in United’s squad.
Moving forward the player has the opportunity to prove the doubters wrong and give Wilder and McCabe payback for what otherwise will be a misplaced loyalty towards him.
Unless that happens, for the good of the club – and ultimately for Evans who until now has been living in a fool’s paradise in top class surroundings as United have made huge advancement on the field – it will be time to wish the player well and finally cut ties.
McNulty, meanwhile, will hope to have already proved a point in this his first Championship season, by the time of his expected return to Bramall Lane with Reading in February. A warm welcome is assured. The Blades are due at the Madejski Stadium in December.
Given that Sparky in my and many others’ opinion received a rough deal at United, it would be remiss not to wish him well.