By Dan Heard
Following his retrial at Cardiff Crown Court at the beginning of the month, former Wales international Ched Evans was found not guilty of the rape of a nineteen year old girl in 2011, a crime for which he served two-an-a-half years of a five-year sentence in prison.
At the time of his conviction, Evans was one of the rising stars of Welsh football, with 13 caps and a single goal against Iceland in 2008 to his name.
He is now twenty seven, with what some might argue the best years of his career lost, and looking to rebuild not only his personal life, but also his life in football. His route though back into the game has been blighted by contract withdrawals, false promises and an incredible backlash from supporters, clubs, politicians and the media.
While in prison, Evans met with representatives of his former club Sheffield United (who now could see legal action taken against them by Evans for the termination of his contract and for potential lost earnings), including chairman Kevin McCabe and then-manager Nigel Clough, to discuss a return to training and even the possibility of re-signing following his release.
Ultimately, this never happened, with fans and a number of prominent individuals, such as Olympian Jessica Ennis-Hill, threatening to withdraw their support of the club should any deal take place. This became one in a long list of clubs to offer Evans an olive branch, before snatching it away.
In December 2014, months after meeting his former employers in prison, Hartlepool manager Ronnie Moore expressed an interest in signing Evans, who before his conviction had scored thirty five goals in one season and had been named in the League One PFA Team of the Year.
Moore was slated by a local MP for his comments, before the club’s board of directors issued a statement distancing themselves from the Rhyl-born forward. By January 2015, speculation began to mount that he was preparing to kick-start his career at Maltese side Hibernians, who had apparently offered him a deal for the remainder of that season, but due to his status as a convicted sex offender on licence at the time, he was eventually barred from working abroad.
Later that month, League One side Oldham Athletic abandoned an ambitious attempt to sign him, claiming a backlash from sponsors and even death threats directed towards Evans and members of the board caused them to pull the plug.
This was perhaps the most controversial of offers, as Evans would have been playing for as little as four hundred pounds a week, while the club’s manager at the time, Lee Johnson, expressed grave concerns about the potential deal.
A petition by the club’s fans against his signing reached sixty thousand signatures in a matter of days, while ten teams across League’s One and Two issued statements saying they would not pursue deals to sign him if available.
Even Conference side Grimsby Town, the same team that had previously signed Evans’ friend Clayton McDonald, who was acquitted in the same case, later withdrew an offer of a contract after deciding it was too ‘high risk’. Wherever he turned, he was seemingly turned away just as quickly.
But in June of this year, he was finally handed an opportunity to return. Danny Wilson, who was in charge of Sheffield United the season Evans was convicted, signed him on a one-year deal for League One side Chesterfield.
In August, he stepped out onto a pitch to play in a professional game for the first time in over four years, and duly scored a twenty-five yard free-kick in their draw with Oxford United.
Looking fit and sharp, it was almost as though he had never been away from the game. So far this season, he has four goals in seven matches, and is looking to return to action this weekend as the Spireites take on Scunthorpe, after missing the previous two weeks due to injury and, of course, the retrial.
With his name now clear, he will no doubt be looking to rebuild and recapture the form that saw him net forty two goals in a hundred and three games at his previous club.
But is that a realistic target, and just where will he go from here? Though eager to get back to playing for a club, Evans will no doubt want to force his way back into the international reckoning before his career is over.
Had his conviction not happened, he would most likely have been signed by a club in a higher league, possibly even the Premier League, due to his age, potential and impressive goal return, which would also raise questions of whether or not he would have been in contention for Wales during their Euro 2016 qualifiers and even the squad for the tournament itself.
Unlike Sam Vokes or Hal Robson-Kanu, Evans is a natural number nine, a starter and a proven goal scorer at club level. He would certainly have added to his thirteen caps, and undoubtedly to his goal tally for his country too.
Realistically, at this point in time he shouldn’t be looking any further than this season at Chesterfield though. If he can, as I say, recapture his goal scoring form in the short-term for his new side, push them up the table and into contention for promotion, then a new deal would be on the cards, maybe even interest from other teams again and genuine interest this time.
Then, and only then, would Wales consider calling him up. Recently, Chris Coleman’s men, though an excellent unit, have shown there’s little strength in depth beyond their starting eleven. Having someone like Evans back in form and back in a side to call on would make things very interesting.
Now that he has been cleared, I have looked at things purely from a footballing point of view, and believe he can be an asset for whoever he plays for, club or country, but only time will tell if that’s true.