Monday, 13 October 2014

Something we will never be united on

It has been discussed on television - from the news channels to The Wright Stuff and Loose Women. The radio phone-ins, both local and national, have debated the issue. There have been opinion pieces and interviews in the written press. Social media has allowed people to express their views, some more eloquently and less abusively than others. Since Ched Evans was sentenced to 5 years in prison for rape in April 2012 his case and potential return to football have been frequently covered by the media.

One place you will not have read much about the Ched Evans case is here on this blog. Following the guilty verdict and United's defeat at MK the next day I wrote this piece, the only reference you might have seen since is in response to self-appointed fans' representatives speaking to the media. I took the view that this was a discussion only worth having nearer when he was released and there is something to discuss.

While the club have remained largely silent on the subject recognising that this is something to be discussed in the as and when and not before, the opinions of those who support Evans case for innocence and would support his return get louder. With United losing 1-0 to Leyton Orient and struggling to put away chances that could get us back into the game last Saturday, the chants started and were probably louder than at any point so far. "Super Ched" and "He's coming home" were sung with gusto by a number of fans at the back of the Kop and the chants were picked up by others joining in elsewhere in the stadium.

This was no way a majority of fans, despite the vociferous volume. A look around saw many people around me on the Kop shift uncomfortably. Several female supporters shook their heads. The desperation and belief we are lacking a regular goal scorer increases the belief for some that Evans might be that man.

I sat there wishing we could use that passion to back the eleven on the pitch, wishing we had signed a 20/30 goals a season striker, firing United towards a much needed promotion, yet that just hasn't been the case. Or maybe we have  and Marc McNulty needs to be given a decent run in the team? Three managers have failed to solve the striking conundrum which, if answered, would have meant the calls for Evans to return would not be as numerous and loud. The dilemma facing the club now may not have been a dilemma at all.

So what are the issues as I see them?

Is there any need for debate?

My first question is does the manager want to sign him and does he want him part of his squad? If the answer is "No", then the debate should end there. I don't think a club should impose players on a manager, regardless of the history with that player, or the possibility of regaining some of the "lost value" of that player somewhere down the line. Sadly I feel that the latter is playing a part in the minds of some of our decision makers. That alongside maintaining a competitive advantage i.e. better to sign Evans and take the flak, rather than him signing for, and potentially being successful at, a rival club.

If the answer to the question is Yes, Nigel does want to sign him, then my personal opinion is we shouldn't, although I suspect I am increasingly in the minority here. As I said before, the longer we go with unconvincing performances and a lack of goal threat from our front players the more likely those undecided fall into the "Sign him" category and the sway of opinion moves. 

I would have liked to see the manager and club show interest in signing other talented League 1 strikers who have been available, been signed by rivals and would have had an impact from Day 1 at the club. The fact that Kieron Agard, Will Grigg and Simeon Jackson (three examples) have gone elsewhere represent missed opportunities for me.

Only the manager and board can say whether we had any interest or not. But if we (club or manager) are placing their hopes in a striker who hasn't played for over two years and is nowhere near match fit, at the expense of ready-made candidates, I would be hugely disappointed.

The Brand (or as fans would see it, the club's name and standing)

Much of the club's limited comment has been focused on damage to the club and brand. A brand is a difficult concept for fans to accept. It's our club, not a brand, but we need to accept it is a business and tarnished business names do suffer financially and operationally. From the owners' perspective they need to sell the club to sponsors, business associates and potentially new investors. I can see why brand and standing will be one of their key considerations.

Adidas have reportedly said they would be fine with Evans returning to United and they may well feel they can make that statement in the here and now, but do they really know what the negative publicity may be like?  Do any sponsors, business associates or club officials really know?

This isn't a local issue; it is national and one where the focus isn't going to move away for a while yet. Certainly whilst Evans - as is his right - is fighting to prove his innocence and seek grounds for an appeal.

We are potentially entering new ground here, the first professional footballer to return after serving his punishment for a rape charge. As I mentioned in the introduction, the debate on television, radio and in the newspapers and social media has been frequent since his jailing, it will only multiply in number and the intensity of scrutiny increase post-release.

In terms of the club's name and standing, we hardly did ourselves any favours signing repeat and violent offender Marlon King. The Tevez affair seemed to harm our club more than it really should have done. Fans seem keen to adopt a Millwall-esque mentality of if the wider public don't like us, who cares. Yet I suspect the guardians of the club care. We are no longer "The Family Club", the moniker adopted by the club in the 1980's, but very few clubs could claim to be.

United under scrutiny

My position on Evans is based on two strands of thought. I'm struggling with moral issues, which I will come back to, but more importantly I can only see his return having a disruptive impact on the club and there is no certainty regarding the impact he will have on the pitch. The ensuing media focus, the division of opinion amongst fans and the unavoidable criticism from many quarters can only be a bad thing for the club and players.

Never is it more important for a club to be United and there has been great work done in the last few months by the club and board to build this. Obviously relative success on the field also helps.
Recent comments by the manager regarding the club's transfer activity and digs about money did no-one (board, fans, the manager himself) any favours and showed cracks that need healing quickly.

I fear the return of Ched would leave gaping chasms to try and fill. We could ostensibly lose fans through the gate on this issue. I know some would say "Stuff them" - I have seen that on forums and social media, but can the club afford to alienate long-standing fans on this issue? Clubs increasingly find that once fans are "lost" it is increasingly difficult to get them back.

On Pitch Impact & Fitness

Any player returning after a two and a half year absence will not be match fit, will not be match sharp and will be prone to injuries as a result of their lack of preparation. Even if we signed Evans it could be months before he is in a position to play. Surely there is better use of club finance and resources?

Lee Hughes took his place in the Oldham Athletic team less than two weeks after leaving prison. He failed to score for 7 games and then required an operation, eventually scoring his first goal three months into his return. The following March he was injured again and out for the rest of the season.

Anyone can keep fit, but getting yourself conditioned to avoid niggly injuries, to have the alertness to anticipate the cross trajectory, the movement of your marker, that's completely different. There is also a mental fitness required. More so when returning to football in the manner he potentially will be.

Evans has proved to be a confidence player, when he was good he was brilliant, but for two years he was awful. It is easy to forget that his one good season saw him supported by team mates, several of whom are playing at a higher level. Many of the other goals and assists that season came from Lee Williamson and Kevin MacDonald (now playing in the Championship), and Stephen Quinn and Matt Lowton (both with Premier League clubs). All hugely influential in the way we played and key to the success of the club and Evans' incomplete season.

A return will be in a different role in a different formation and whilst playesr like Jose Baxter and James Wallace have undoubted quality for League One, Evans would miss the hard running and hold off play of a strike partner like Richard Cresswell. At times derided by United supporters, he slogged away for his fellow strike partner's benefit that season.

The moral argument

Views on morality are personal, any judgement that determines whether actions accord with right or good conduct, are bound in an individual's personal beliefs and personal code. Morally, I wouldn’t want my son and daughter cheering on and idolising a convicted rapist and that is what he is. I accept that others don't share this view, although I wince when I see supporters speaking and writing in terms of "shades of rape" rather than acknowledging that, by the law, that rape is what it was.

Yes, his conviction is subject to a further appeal to the Criminal Cases Review Board, but from what I understand it could be two years before that is heard and the likelihood of a case being referred back to the courts is limited. With no contrition or apology it makes the position of any employer even harder in the ensuing period. For a parent who had to explain what had happened (as best you can) to Evans, his return and potential glorification cannot sit well. 

I accept that once someone has served their punishment they have a right to return to society and seek employment. However I have a real issue with the privileged position footballers seem to have on that score thanks to their potentially high value in their particular employment market. I know that neither I, nor anyone else in a professional position would struggle to find employment so easily (not that I would consider doing what he did) and would also lose our professional qualifications.

He will be on the sex offenders register. Only a player of perceived value  would find themselves employed at a football club with that marked on their record. We know that players have it much better than anyone else, this just heightens that uncomfortable awareness.

I have questioned whether I am being over-sensitive on the moral issues; I know some think I am. Football fills your senses with extremes of behaviour, both on the pitch and in the stands, which you wouldn't ordinarily expose yourself or your children to.

Then again, hearing offensive songs and witnessing violence on the terraces in my young years following United hasn't had an effect on me. I guess it is more down to parenting and life experiences as much as the words and actions of others. Yet, having said all this, my Dad is fine with Ched returning, which may seem at odds with what I have written, but perhaps shows how opinion can be split amongst members of the same family.

Petitions and Protests

One aspect of the current debate I cannot agree with is the petitions and claims that he should not return to United (and to United specifically). 140,000 have signed a petition to this effect and if someone has this view, surely it should be widened to all clubs? He could just as easily go elsewhere - say Championship or another League 1 club - and earn more than we might be prepared to offer. Surely that is as big an issue for the petitioners and protesters? A man earning significant rewards after such a crime. If you accept that, whether you like it or not, Evans will return to football, I see no difference between that being United or anywhere else.

If he does return

If his return was to happen it must be ensured that any deal must be on the club's terms, however much some might fear him going elsewhere and strengthening a competitor. Some fans seem to think we owe him, although I am not sure what we owe him. I also think a club statement that described us as remaining in contact as we were "offering a duty of care to a former employee" was ill thought out and is something that would be rarely seen in normal employment, if at all. Other supporters think he owes us.

The latter is perhaps more relevant, however we know that in football there is little place for feelings and a sense of duty; money rules. Without the case hanging over him back in 2012 he would have probably been sold in the January transfer window anyway. United would have then been just a club in his playing history.

Some fans chant "He's coming home", somehow forgetting the transient nature of football careers, very few players these days have a club they call home and statements from Evans' friends and family stating he want a return to United are as much about keeping his story alive and perhaps a realisation that re-starting a career may not be as easy as some might suggest. Why not make eyes at a former club, where you know you have support amongst the fans, at the same time stirring interest in others.

It is my view that we should not break any existing structures, nor should we upset existing squad members with any financial package offered. Unrealistic figures, based on his previous contract, have been mentioned in newspaper reports and whilst they are way wide of the mark, any package that is seen to be above average or rewarding could well provide further negative publicity for the club. A deal should be earned and not a given.

Mitigating the impact

There are ways in which United could sign Evans and look to deflect some of the attention in the immediate aftermath of release. An example would be to sign him and immediately loan the player out to a League 2 club to gain fitness and take the attention away from United. Whilst I see this as a smart move in principle I wonder if it might become a stick to beat the club with.  Given the moral arguments being posed, layering on top a view that United are protecting their "investment" in Evans may not be viewed positively.

Another issue regarding this approach would revolve around the acceptability to the player. Would he want to do this if he had offers of Championship or League 1 football? Would there be a club willing to take on the potential of goals, at a cost of the media attention and disruption? I guess there probably would, but again would the club/location be acceptable to the player and also the legal authorities? Would there be limits on his movement post release?

Other ways in which a deal could be structured could involve some form of community work, advising young people to learn from his mistakes. As many people have pointed out the situation Evans put himself into is probably replicated by many young people across the country every week on a night out. However his lack of contrition makes the rehabilitation by education difficult.

I respect the fact that he believes he is innocent, however the actions he undertook that night ought to be a lesson to young people more widely. There is also the possibility that his appearances anywhere (both on a pitch and undertaking any wider community/educational service) could be hit by protests and abuse, whether he is trying to do good by them or not. That would be unhelpful for any party involved, be it community, charity or club.

Another option might be to keep him and play him in U21/Development games, but I think this could be disruptive to the young players and their development. The negative focus on his appearances cannot help his team-mates.

So what happens next?

Will he return? Who knows? When the club said that a decision has not been made, I have a tendency to believe them. If an issue is this divisive and emotive for our support, I can only imagine similar, but maybe less vociferous, debates and divides exist elsewhere within the club. We are all individuals; no-one can claim to have a collective view representing all, be it in the street, the stands, the offices and boardroom.

No matter how much the media demand the club makes a statement and shows their intent, they are right to wait until they have clarity and confidence in their chosen plan of action. They will also need to have a plan in place to deal with the fall out of their decision and that is better made as they assess the feelings and focus nearer release day. The national focus will be one aspect, but whatever the decision there will be unhappy United fans.

This is a big decision for the club, that I think could make or break our season. I am sure most of our fans would agree with that thought, but there are many who would view it that way for different reasons. And on this we will never all be united. 


  1. if we don't sighn ched many more fans will stop going due to lack of ambition from the board

  2. Don't be silly, not sogning Ched will hardly be a sign of lack of ambition.
    Selling your best players in January is one thing. Not signing a player who hasn't played for three years is not a lack of ambition.

    Personally I would offer him a contract until the end of January to see how he goes, if another club want to gamble and a longer, more lucrative contract then good luck to both parties.

  3. But there are other strikers, Ched isn't the be all and end all. What's to say we won't bring in a quality striker in Jan? Not signing doesn't show a lack of ambition, it just shows that they didn't want the attention and drama signing him.would bring. It's a lose lose situation for the board really, I don't envy them. Either way UTB!

  4. Good piece though Ian. Difficuly to write. The moral argument is the hardest. I think he has done his time and whether what Ched believes happened is true or not, I seriously doubt he would put himself in that same scenario again and in my opinion I doubt he is a danger to women or society. He should be given a chance now he has served his time as the law of the land dictates.

    All that said - when I see comments by some of our less educated fans about the case it makes me wonder. They include it 'not been a bad rape' (seriously), 'she only wanted a payday' ('she' didn't even bring the initial case to the courts), 'loads of lads go back to hotels with drunk women, they must all be rapists' (as did MacDonald, which is why he is innocent and all these ypung lads who go back with a girl would not either in a similar scenario) and my favourite (or least) so far, 'I sometimes perform sex acts on my wife before she wakes up, so am I a rapist?' - yes you absolute horrible human you are.

    Do we really need these views churned up again and again, while they all self congratulate each other on social media about how correct their stupid warped view on the world is? Probably not, but these views exist in society whether we like it or not, and it is not going to change if we sign him or.not.

    So I would give him a modest contract to January or June with an option. Yes it will divide the fans, but I suspect the overall attendance wont waver too much if at all. As we saw with Hughes the media storm will soon pass onto the next story, league one football will not be the centrepiece of the entire media for much after the last of the leaves have fallen from all the trees. If a club wants to offer him more and he wants to take it, don't chase him. And whatever happens, five or so years down the line it will be ancient history and this club will still be going, still be the one I love.


  5. Excellent article and I agree with virtually all of it. One aspect which could effect the media hype is Evans himself. I understand if he wants to try and clear his name it becomes difficult to show remorse. However if he had a brain (or any of his advisors had access to one) then they should advise him to make a very clear statement which admitted he acted terribly and without any responsibility on the night, that he is ashamed of his actions and how he let everyone involved down but it was definitely NOT his intention to commit a crime (which he doesnt think he has) but he stands firmly against any form of rape and is prepared to donate x% of his salary to a suitable charity. After that he should conclude that he is not prepared to make any further comment lest it perjures his upcoming appeal. That at least would answer some of the criticism he is deservedly getting.

  6. I think the previous writer is totally correct if Ched apologises for his behavior even though he thought and believes it was concencual sex it will go a long way to helping his case to resume his career. I would like the management after all things considered including the feelings of the other players to give Ched a chance.

  7. An excellent and well written article fully exploring the dilemma. As a Leeds fan, I had similar anxieties over the Bowyer/Woodgate affair. Although this did nit involve rape, it was still a very nasty case involving a racist assault, and they were both high orofile Premiership players at the time. Leeds fans were split over whether they should ever play for the club again. Of course, they did not get custodial sentences, and football is littered with players with serious convictions who seem to find no trouble in finding employment whereas, as rightly pointed out by Ian, most of us would struggle to regain employment in our orevious field.

    And that us what defines this debate. Leeds were never going to sack Bowyer because he was a valuable asset that was worth milions in the transfer market. Had they sacked him, they would have got nothing AND he would then have signed for someone else. Until football clubs agree across the board not to employ players with serious convictions such as rape, racist assaults, murder(?), then us the fans will face this moral dilemma.

    I make no judgement on the Evans case as an outsider, only to agree with Ian that it seems your prime need is for a 20+ goal striker (whose isn't!) and that that person does not have to be Ched Evans. Whatever the outcome I wish you well, and hope to see you back in the Championship ere long.

  8. Excellent article. Many things concern me around this.
    The seemingly trivialising of the incident by some (including media) into some rapes are worse than others. Do we say to our kids 'Don't worry, rape is only bad if....'?
    When we discussed this at home earlier in the week we had the 'I don't want my kids singing the name of a rapist, especially one who shows no guilt or is sorry for what happened'.
    As someone who works in education I am concerned that someone who in any other job wouldn't be allowed to work without a DBS check (replacement of CRB) would be allowed to work with young people.
    Football is morally at fault, it is about time Clubs started to behave responsibly when such things like this happen.
    One thing I would have liked to have seen was a more robust questioning of the PFA Chairman as he was obviously speaking to protect the interests of a (former?) member, but shouldn't he be taking the moral high ground to make the case for footballers to truly take responsibility for their actions when they have done wrong and not expect to pick up where they left off.

  9. Excellent article its just not right to resign the messages it sends to the youngsters its OK to behave disgustingly and still live the dream he has done himself no favours with his arrogance
    I remember the police interview comments of along the lines we are footballers that's what we do ! I maybe one fan but I will be looking for something else to do on a Saturday afternoon after 40 years
    Phill neale utb

  10. u are not a fan then he didnt do nothing wrong us sheffield united fans should stick together fuck the rest whos saying we shouldnt have him bk if we carnt have him bk know one else should have him

  11. I have no problem with Evans being able to resume a football career, given that our judicial process is about rehabilitation and not retribution. That he is in a high profile profession is irrelevant in my view. He has been punished for the crime for which he has been convicted, and given that the state believes him no longer a threat to society should be free to resume his life as a free man, albeit under license for the next 30 months. His high profile has shown that conduct such as this is wrong and no matter who you are the punishment is severe, his profile serving to increase his notoriety for now and ever more.

    My issue is with whether he should be allowed to resume his career back at Sheffield United, and as a Blade, I say no. Not because of the inevitable negative publicity this would create for the club insofar as to be employing a convicted rapist for the reason I stated initially. But my problem with Evans stems from the fact that conviction or not, his behaviour while employed by Sheffield United was at very best gross misconduct and let the club down terribly. It is part of the reason we are still in the division we are in 2 ½ years later.

    In what other career would someone who has had to leave their employment due to said gross misconduct be welcomed back a couple of years later?

    That he scored 35 goals in 2011/12 and we need goals is the sole reason I believe that many Blades do want him back, and while I understand that I don’t agree with it. There are no guarantees that Evans would be anything like the player of 2011/12, he could be back to the rank average striker that helped us into League 1 in the first place. As an example of how this could go wrong, I remember the fans clamour for the return of James Beattie, and that was a disaster with two more red cards than goals in that second spell. Never go back…

    Now on the flipside, Evans may be an exception. After all, he scored all these goals with a possible jail term hanging over him. I personally would have had problems eating and sleeping with such a thing hanging over me, never mind play football, but not this bloke.

    As a club, I feel we have to move on and take a stand. While accepting Evans is to be a free man and able to resume his life and career, both club and player need a fresh start. We as a club owe him nothing. Let’s be honest about this, had Evans been found not guilty and we had not secured promotion, he would have left Bramall Lane without a backwards glance.

    Now if this means he signs for a division rival and resumes as he left off, then I can accept that. Players leave Sheffield United and do well quite often after all.

    I’m concerned that this issue could be left to fester and negatively impact Nigel Clough and the capable squad we have, that may have had a shaky start but have shown signs of improvement that I think will stand us in good stead for the rest of the season. We as a club require unity, and signing Evans will ensure that this club will not be United now, or for some considerable time. And he is simply not worth that risk.

  12. No winners in this situation, very well written post thanks