Thursday, 30 October 2014

Sheffield and Football: A Blueprint for the future

Image by goalsoul -

Back in June it was announced that a shortlist of three cities had been made from over 22 applicants, all wanting to be England's first "City of Football". Last month it was revealed that Nottingham was to be given the crown and £1.6m of Lottery funding. This immediately led to local gnashing of teeth. Yet again Sheffield ignored and then the question was asked, rightly given the city’s reticence in adequately selling itself, did we even apply?

After several tweets to various bodies and not a lot of response I finally found out that Sheffield had applied, but the bid was ultimately unsuccessful.  The City of Football initiative was an opportunity for cities to propose new ways of opening up football opportunities for everyone. In that regard it could be argued that Sheffield doesn't need that help. These cities showed a commitment to get more people playing the sport at grassroots level, a possible area of weakness for them, but not for the Steel City. In effect the title is a bit of a misnomer, maybe the name “City of Football Development” would have been better.

But this got me thinking. Sheffield knows its place in the global game, but does the World really know about Sheffield's contribution? We all assume it does. FIFA made Sheffield FC one of only two clubs to receive their Order of Merit (alongside Real Madrid) in 2004, but there is little recognition by national football authorities. The more I thought about it the more I realised that people in this country don't know enough about Sheffield's place in football history, never mind people in the rest of the world, and over time that position will only be increasingly marginalised. Sheffield has a unique selling point and not enough is made of this.

As far as Sky Sports are concerned football history started in 1993. If they do not have the footage then it didn’t really happen. The FA celebrated its 150th anniversary in 2013 and their celebrations focused on the formalisation of football in this country, you would never know that football had been codified and played competitively for some 6 years prior to that. Not by teams such as the Wanderers and Royal Engineers who replayed the first FA Cup final at the Oval, but in the smog and grime of the Steel City under the watchful gaze of football pioneers, Nathaniel Creswick and William Prest.  

Only last Friday Sheffield FC celebrated 157 years, their twitter timeline a series of retweets from football fans and clubs from across the globe wishing the club well. Yet a look to the @FA timeline showed no recognition, no congratulations. Two days later the Football Association twitter feed announced its 151st birthday; “On 26 October 1863, the Founding Fathers met to form the first set of rules”. A link to the FA website led to an article talking about the formation of the Association and the codification of the first Laws of the Game. Sheffield air-brushed from football history, possibly because they didn’t fall in line with the FA after its formation.

So to this post. This blog is called A United View, but for once it is A Sheffield View. This is not about us versus them, Blade versus Owl, Red versus Blue, it's about working smarter for each individual club's benefit, the collective benefit of all clubs and the city overall. To make this work, we need clubs, media and fans pulling together, along with local government and sporting authorities.

Obviously on-pitch success brings with it greater attention, not just within the UK, but worldwide. That point should not be under-estimated. Sheffield football would be a more marketable product and attractive to outsiders with top level football. Hopefully we will not have to wait long for that to be remedied. Readers may have differing views as to who they want to see fix that issue. In the meantime there is no harm in putting a plan together.

Much of this can be put in place now. Much of what I am proposing has as much benefit to local football followers as those from outside of the city, but it provides a structured and  coherent platform to move forward from, something that the city and the sport lacks at present.  They are in no particular order but pick out the selling points and action points to achieve positive change.

The Basis - Sheffield Football; Past, Present and Future

Image by goalsoul -

Sheffield is a city of football firsts. The city, the clubs and many undervalued individuals were pioneers in so many ways, more should be known about them. Aspects of the game that are taken for granted now originated in the Steel City. Sheffield clubs participated in other first time events, although some took place outside of the city.

The World’s first football club – Sheffield FC

The World’s second football club – Hallam FC

The World’s first derby game –Sheffield FC v Hallam FC

The oldest ground still in use - Sandygate

The oldest professional football ground still in use – Bramall Lane

The first codified rules of the game – The Sheffield Rules

The introduction of throw ins, corners ad crossbars to football

The first football cup competition – Youdan Cup 1867 – won by Hallam FC

The first floodlit football match – 14th October 1878, Reds v Blues (Sheffield FA Representative match)

The first club called United

The only club with Wednesday in the name

The first football radio commentary – Arsenal v Sheffield United, 22nd January 1927

Image by goalsoul -

Each is part of a richly woven story of Sheffield football, alongside famous players, stories, joy, disappointment and tragedy. This is a story that needs to be told. The sub-plots at each club just adding to the narrative.

It is too easy in football to look back with fondness and a sense of pride, especially at a time when on the pitch success has been limited. Therefore it is worth remembering that the future is just as bright and in the youth of the city there is another achievement to be proud of. The Sheffield Junior Football League is the biggest in the country, possibly Europe, with 992 teams and over 12,000 players registered.

What promise for a successful future and what a platform to build on in the world of youth football. The FA, for all their many faults clearly see improving grassroots facilities as important and in choosing Sheffield as the pilot for a new scheme they clearly recognise the depth of the thriving junior and local leagues.

The first part is to map out all of the existing football facilities and establishing what the needs of the city. The second stage sees the FA work with the council, County FA, professional clubs, local league and clubs and other local partners to understand what investment is needed in facilities to ensure football in the city can thrive. Ostensibly this will see investment in more 3G pitches leading to better facilities, better playing conditions, better player development.

With such an impressive heritage and a solid base for the future, what changes can we make to maximise the returns on this superb infrastructure and compelling story.

  1. Get the Sheffield Club(s) back in Sheffield
With two football league clubs and a further 4 down to Step 10 of the football pyramid, there is something for every fan and every budget in Sheffield. Looking beyond the city boundaries there are a further 11 clubs in South Yorkshire and another 6 within 25 miles of Sheffield city centre.

This sounds great until you realise that not all of the 6 Sheffield based clubs are playing in Sheffield. For the city to develop their football offering and suitably back their claims to be the City of Football then all teams should be playing here, not least the World’s Oldest Club that takes the city’s name.

Sheffield FC have played at the Coach & Horses ground in Dronfield for 13 years and whilst within a Sheffield postcode, it is outside the city boundaries. The Coach & Horses is a neat little ground developed by the club with the added bonus of the pub attached which provides, pre-match drinks, half time refreshment and post-match solace in a pint. The fact remains they don’t play in Sheffield.

Handsworth Pararmore play out at Worksop in Nottinghamshire, 16 miles from the club’s junior set up in the Sheffield suburb from which they were born. Unable to develop their existing junior facilities at Olivers Mount, the club are seeking a site for a new ground and community facilities in Handsworth and finding plenty of challenges en-route.

Yet, whilst this has happened, the city council and sporting authorities are facilitating other sporting clubs finding a permanent home in the city. On the site of the old Don Valley Stadium (once home to Sheffield FC) there will be a new community stadium built, for use by Sheffield Eagles and while I wouldn’t want to decry the Eagles and their important role in the city, the community and the city’s sporting offering, one can only wonder why the city leaders are not so welcoming and open to football. Could there not be a smaller scale football ground in the complex, also with the benefits of the EIS and University Technical College?

  1. Club Co-ordination
It's a simple thing, but co-ordinating match days and kick off times could have a positive impact for Sheffield football watchers. Clearly you will find very few people who choose to attend both Bramall Lane and Hillsborough, but why not make it easier to watch their club and another local side. A move away from 3pm Saturday kick-off would upset the traditionalists, it would need the agreement of respective leagues and opponents and some fixture co-ordination, but what an opportunity it would provide.

At a much higher level Tranmere Rovers played on Friday nights for a  number of years to avoid clashing with an Everton or Liverpool fixture and whilst Friday nights are an option what about Saturday lunchtimes? A 12 o'clock kick off at Sandygate would give time for fans to head on to Bramall Lane or Hillsborough. A similar kick off time at Bracken Moor would allow fans to have a couple of beers, watch Park Steels and head on to Hillsborough.

Then there are midweek dates. Last season Sheffield FC Chairman Richard Timms held an Ask the Chairman session, inviting questions at both a Q&A and online. A point I raised was that many midweek fixtures for Club clashed with United fixtures, stopping me from attending their games. With Wednesday having moved their midweek night from Wednesday to Tuesday; would it not make more sense for Club to play on Wednesday nights? Again giving more people the chance to attend? If only on an irregular basis, it would still add vital funds to the club coffers. The suggestion was acknowledged, but Club fixtures remain on a Tuesday night.

The same applies to Handsworth, Hallam and Stocksbridge. It is harder for these clubs, reliant on part time players with other commitments, to make these changes, but it is something that could have incremental financial benefit.

  1. Media interest
The Star has a "Grassroots" pull out section with reports, results and fixtures from all levels of the football pyramid and Sunday League details as well. Yet Radio Sheffield have only taken an interest in our teams outside the Football League when Sheffield FC have participated or organised a special event; such as the Pioneers Cup, or when they played at the San Siro.

The previous Sports Editor at Radio Sheffield had little interest in sport beyond local professional football, with other city sporting teams struggling for detailed coverage and support. The incumbent Sports Editor recently bemoaned the lack of local football, with United, Doncaster and Chesterfield’s League One games hit by international call-ups and Championship games already postponed. He pondered how he was going to fill a Saturday afternoon sports show.

I tweeted him, pointing out it was a national Non-League Day and there could be a great opportunity to broadcast live from a local club, with features and interviews in and around match-day. Other reporters could be elsewhere in the region. I didn’t get a response.

There was a time when Radio Sheffield used to broadcast results and reports from non-league games on a Saturday, breaking away from the phone-in for 5 minutes for Brian Bradley's round-up. Now they would much rather let someone speak about a game they haven't been to, or try and wind up opposition fans with their wonderful "banter" and trolling.

Although it is great that the clubs get the news coverage, it wouldn't take much to read out the results of South Yorkshire teams. It isn't as if there is a need for someone in the office to ring around the clubs to collate them, social media updates will do the job.

You could argue that social media has replaced some of the more traditional reporting of papers and broadcast media. Why worry about reporting on the radio when if someone is interested they could quickly get a score update from a twitter or Facebook account, but I think there is more to it than that. It is about creating a feeling of credibility and importance about our local clubs and their history. The Star, Radio Sheffield and now Sheffield Live TV could play a role is establishing that feeling that these clubs are still vital to the city.

I remember the Manchester local television station Channel M had a weekly football show on Saturday mornings, showing non-league highlights and interviews from the football league clubs. There is no reason why Sheffield Live TV could not have a similar football show each week.  Much has changed in terms of technology and media since the Channel M show. A lot of non-league clubs now video their games and have audioboom or videos of post-match interviews. It doesn't take expensive technology and can easily be shared to a wider audience.

For those who are finding themselves and their families priced out of attending professional football, they need to know there is a compelling alternative.

  1. Capturing the history and success – Museum of Sheffield Football
Going back nearly 20 years there were local media reports of Sheffield looking to build a World Football Museum. I recall plans for a giant football shaped structure off the M1 near Meadowhall. Whilst I was at University, around the same time, a number of academics were involved in either that, or a similar project, and i had initial discussions about being involved. Sadly it never progressed.

Sheffield would have been a natural home for a Football Museum, either on a World or National stage and the fact that the National Football Museum has been at Preston and now Manchester does not seem right given Sheffield's place in football history. A visit there sadly shows little mention of Sheffield FC or the city’s role in the development of the game.

With the National Football Museum seemingly settled in the Urbis building in Manchester, maybe Sheffield should look at having its own museum, charting the birth of football and the city's deep rooted involvement. Sheffield United has a great little museum - Legends of the Lane, Sheffield FC have a display of artefacts at the Coach & Horses ground, but there must be much more to display. Wednesday has no museum or public display and Hallam must have items which tell a story, given the club’s age and history.

I accept that bringing this all together in one place would not be easy. There are huge benefits to the clubs in keeping such displays in-house, for United the Legends of the Lane is a key part of stadium tours and a place to house hospitality guests on match day. But what about using exhibition space in the city centre to display artefacts create an interactive story telling of football in Sheffield? Exhibits could rotate around; visitors encouraged to go and see further club specific displays at each ground.

The city centre has so many empty spaces. There are display areas in the Millennium Galleries that could host permanent exhibitions. Could the clubs work together with the Sheffield & Hallamshire FA to deliver it? If another city had the football heritage Sheffield has there would be brown signs off the motorway and Parkway, there would be places to visit - to celebrate and learn, there would be football trails to the historic sites.

  1. Leveraging junior football and player development
With a thriving junior football league, impressive facilities across the city and further investment planed, there is a real opportunity to build on this competitive structure and hosting capabilities. Sheffield could host a high quality international youth competition.

Each year Sheffield United send representative sides to the Milk Cup competition held across several towns and cities in Northern Ireland. They have played against sides from across the world and in 2009 beat FC Porto in the semi-final, before losing to Manchester United in the final.

Our top junior sides have travelled to Belgium, Netherlands and Germany and taken on the best junior sides. Why not have a tournament here? With the added attraction of potentially playing on historic grounds. A cup competition for youth football in the city that introduced the first knockout football cup competition.

  1. Building on the Pioneers of International Football
The city has already made good football links and these could be used to further promote the city and its clubs. Although little mention is made of Ferencvaros and Chengdu Blades these days, United still have links with Central Coast Mariners and now have a connection with Fenerbahce through board member Selahattin Baki.

The city itself is twinned with Bochum and Donetsk surely giving opportunities to broaden those links through football.

Sheffield FC have initiated the Club of Pioneers; identifying the pioneering clubs who formed first in their respective countries. Following the lead of Sheffield FC, club such as Recreativo Huelva, Genoa CFC, Koninklijke Haarlem FC have been identified and fielded representative sides of former players and fans in competitions between the two. Attracting small bands of vocal followers to each other's grounds.

The idea of the Pioneers Cup provides not only a great marketing opportunity for Sheffield FC but for the city as a whole to support such a tournament and welcome new visitors. This tournament could be developed into a full pre-season competition over 3/4 days.

These club links again could be vital in facilitating a sizeable youth tournament in the city. It could also create real opportunities to bring new people to the city to learn about Sheffield's place in the development of football.

  1. International links - exploiting them
If you go to the Welcome to Sheffield website, click on Visit Sheffield, the Top 10 attractions have nothing football related. Click on the Attractions in the sub-menu and you are offered Sport as a choice. Click on Sport and the header says "In Sheffield, sport is more passion than play. Which is not surprising in a city which boasts the (….did this originally say Don Valley Stadium?) and where some of the world's best athletes train." It then takes you to Climbing and Golf Courses. A sub-menu to the left offers a link to Sport to Watch.

Four clicks from the Home page you finally read the following:

"You shouldn't be surprised by the range of sport you'll see in Sheffield, and you'll probably have heard of Sheffield as 'the first National City of Sport' but did you know that there's a lot more than that to thank the city for?    Sheffield is home to the oldest football club in the world... recognised by FIFA, Sheffield FC has been in existence (sic) since 1857.  That means we can genuinely claim Sheffield as 'the home of football'"

A huge claim tucked away in the website. Like the people of the city, proud, but we don't like to talk about it. Sheffield is a city that doesn't like to shout about its success, lest some outsiders hear about us and come and spoil it. Nor do we mention all our clubs or history, with United, Wednesday and Sheffield FC all benefiting from links on the city’s marketing website, but nothing for Hallam (steeped in history of their own), Stocksbridge or Handsworth. This lack of profile has to change and can be easily remedied.

Figures compiled by VisitBritain during 2012 show that 900,000 football supporters visited Britain last year. Football tourists collectively spent £706m, or £785 per fan – £200 more than the average visitor to Britain – with many arriving during the traditionally quieter period for tourism between January and March.

Four in ten of those who attended a match said watching sport was their principal reason for visiting the UK. Football was also found to encourage visitors to explore beyond London. Unsurprisingly, the stadiums attracting the largest number of overseas fans were in the north-west, but that doesn’t mean Sheffield couldn’t offer an alternative.

The ability to travel overseas and take in several matches (at different levels) over the course of a weekend is proving increasingly popular. Yes, people want to go and watch Dortmund, Barcelona, or Real Madrid. Yet on that same trip they will be just as likely to pay a visit to the vibrant terraces of Preußen Münster, L’Hospitalet, Alcorcon and get as much enjoyment out of that game and experience. "The Football Tourist" is a market Sheffield ought to be primed to exploit. Staggering fixtures and kick offs would of course be needed.

If you can make Sheffield a football attraction, the city can build on this Throw in the city's reputation for Real Ale and breweries and you have a heady combination that should attract ardent football watchers. Giving football fans a bigger reason to visit. Making the city a doubly attractive destination of choice.

Whilst the opportunity to tie in to the Kelham Island brewery/pub scene, or the city's wider real ale trail is certainly a positive link, more could be done to encourage visits alongside other big events, such as the month long Last Laugh Comedy Festival in October, or the Off the Shelf literary festival. The city could develop a wider strategy to capitalise on football tourism, encouraging fans to stay and explore the city and surrounding areas, use local businesses and visit tourist attractions.

The Off the Shelf festival offers a really good opportunity. Other cities are developing a Sports/Football Writing festival (events in London, Manchester and Bristol immediately spring to mind). These events combine authors and journalists, alongside former sportsmen telling their stories and talking about how they found their voice, their style in writing. Why not put on a week devoted to football or sports writing as part of Off the Shelf, rather than the odd event? Time it for a week when there are midweek fixtures, so from Saturday to Saturday there are football related events and matches across the city.

  1. Show the city’s pride
Whenever there is a big event in the city, banners appear at the top of lampposts around the city centre advertising the event with branding and imagery. Why not do the same to sell the Birthplace of Football?

Utilise the big banner on the side of the Central Library/Graves Art Gallery. Welcome to Sheffield – The Home of Football.

Contract a designer to make something vibrant and eye-catching. I would suggest the guys at goalsoul, the Sheffield based designers inspired by the eclectic and rich cultural tapestry of football around the world, who still show pride in their home city in many of their designs. Their artwork, telling the stories in images and words, is used in this post and many of their t shirts and art prints celebrate Sheffield football; the clubs and the history, as well as the stars and the lesser known heritage of the world game.

So there you go. Eight initial ideas, just over 3,700 words. I am sure you, as a reader and Sheffield football fan, could add more. If you can, please add them in the comments section to this post. I would like to think of this as a live post for new ideas to be added, new initiatives to gain attention.

So what now? These are ideas, some quite simple to implement and some with little incremental cost. We need to get this post shared, to clubs, to council, to the local FA, to the city’s cultural leaders and marketers. I am not saying this Blueprint must be followed, but it could initiate a discussion that leads to some actions being taken. I am sick and tired of our city under-selling itself, of our clubs not thinking creatively about how they market themselves. For a city of football firsts, we should not accept being viewed as second best, or mid-table fodder. Sadly I feel that we have been negligent to date and allowed this to happen.

As a city we can choose to sit back as cities such as Leeds or Manchester show some foresight and take another leap forward, with new investment, new innovation and define themselves as "go to" cities, leaving us further behind. We can moan about Liverpool, Nottingham, Newcastle or Bristol attract investment and develop. Or we can look at what defines us as a city, where history was made and where we can support and develop clubs and sport for the benefit of us, the clubs and the city as a whole. 

This is more than just supporting United and Wednesday, it is about supporting grassroots football and ensuring it is maintained and preserved. The last thing we want is to be focusing on the history, because the history is all we have left.

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.