On 14 April 2012 Sheffield United beat Leyton Orient 3-1 at Bramall Lane, their sixth successive league win. The victory kept them in the second automatic promotion spot in League One, four points clear of their neighbour Sheffield Wednesday, with three games to play. The third goal that day was scored by Ched Evans. It was his 35th goal of a prolific season.
Six days later Evans was found guilty of rape, a verdict since quashed, and handed a five-year jail sentence. A reeling United took two points from their final three games and missed out on automatic promotion to Wednesday, then limped through the play-offs before losing dismally to Huddersfield on penalties at Wembley.
Evans was released on licence in October 2014. United, having lost again in the play-offs in 2012-13 and missed out altogether in 2013-14, were bumbling through another season of general mediocrity in the third tier. There had been murmurings of an attempt to re-sign Evans, whose contract had expired at the end of the 2011-12 season, more or less from the start of his incarceration so there was little surprise when, on his release, he was invited to train with the club.
A petition against Evans rejoining the club gathered 165,000 signatures, several prominent people quit their roles as club patrons, sponsors threatened to withdraw funding, while Jessica Ennis-Hill said she would ask for her name to be removed from the Bramall Lane end of the ground if they offered Evans a contract. The fan base was utterly split.
United begrudgingly gave up the attempt to sign the striker. Jim Phipps, co-chairman at the time, cited “mob-like behaviour” and “direct attacks on the club” as forcing the decision. “I’m upset we are not able to do what we wanted to do,” he added. The irritation was clear.
Evans was gone but certainly not forgotten. At a fans forum in May 2016, less than a fortnight after his conviction was quashed, the chairman and co-owner, Kevin McCabe, in his introduction before answering the usual questions on player sales and transfer targets after another failed attempt to get out of the third tier, was revealing about the psyche of the club.
“We should undoubtedly have escaped League One back in 2012, the slam dunk automatic promotion we were robbed of because of the unfortunate incident of Ched Evans.
“No other club get these extraordinary events that hit you at exactly the wrong time of the season. I do talk about it when I’m around football supporters from other clubs and they begin to talk about some of their incidents: they’re nothing like ours. They don’t have a Ched Evans issue, they don’t have a Carlos Tevez affair [who kept West Ham in the Premier League at United’s expense in 2006-7].”
Self-pitying claptrap, yes, but also an insight into a club who have never really got over losing out to Wednesday in the immediate aftermath of Evans’ conviction. A month after those comments Evans joined Chesterfield and in October he was found not guilty in a retrial. When Evans was substituted just after the hour on his former team’s visit to the Proact Stadium he was applauded by a large proportion of the Blades fans present.
Evans’ name had hung around United like a bad smell for more than four years. But since that November day at Chesterfield, the miasma has lifted, blown away by Chris Wilder’s superb, title-winning team. With one game to play they are one win away from reaching 100 points for the first time in the club’s history. The visitors to Bramall Lane on the final day of the season? Chesterfield.
Which makes the news this week that United are set to re-sign Evans an interesting bit of timing. It could be seen as serendipitous – the “wronged hero” finally coming home just as United tie the bow on the promotion that they missed in 2012. Or unfortunate: Evans, despite being cleared, remains a hugely divisive issue: his potential return has been far from universally welcomed.
That is in no small part due to footballing questions about his re-signing for a fee that could rise to £500,000. United are the leading scorers among the 92 league clubs. Billy Sharp, with 29 goals, is the top scorer in all four leagues. Leon Clarke has had a storming end to the season with six goals in his last five games. James Hanson was a significant signing from Bradford City in January.
Evans, meanwhile, who was part of the United side relegated from the Championship in 2010-11 and scored only 13 goals in 67 games for the club at that level, has hardly had an outstanding return – five league goals all season, a persistent ankle injury and another relegation on his CV are all he has to show for it.
Perhaps Wilder feels he can reinvigorate the striker as he has done with several members of a previously underachieving squad this season. Personally, though, it is hard to escape the sense that this smacks of a settling of scores well beyond the dugout.
John Ashdown is a life-long Sheffield United supporter