Sheffield United fan STEVE KAY looks back at the Ched Evans affair and asks how the situation could have been handled better, and by whom.
It was one of those times when everything that could go wrong did go wrong. We felt like Captain Scott, Dr. Wilson and Lieutenant Bowers: we had just seen our closest rivals pip us to the post, and now our last match had failed and we sat in the dark and waited for the inevitable end. I am talking about the end of Sheffield United’s 2011/12 season. Over melodramatic? – A bit, perhaps. But we had experienced these same feelings before.
In 93/94 we held in our hands the prize of remaining in the Premier League until 15 minutes to go on the last day of the season. 2-1 up against Chelsea. They equalised, but the point was still enough, and 3 other results – Everton, Ipswich and Southampton – were still in our favour. We looked safe. Then in the last minute it all crumbled, turned to dust and ran through our fingers. Chelsea scored again, but we were still OK – until Hans Segers’ dodgy keeping intervened and Everton pulled back from being 2-0 down to win 3-2.
Then in 06/07 a similar thing happened: on the last day of the season everything went wrong and a certain Argentinian ringer scored against a Manchester United side whose best players were left out (an Argentinian ringer who Ferguson signed a few weeks later). There was more salt in the wounds; David Unsworth scored a penalty against us that day. A year before he had celebrated promotion with us and had been a vital part of our success. And earlier in the 06/07 season, before he left for Wigan on a free in the January window, he had missed a penalty when we played Blackburn: that one goal would have kept us up. In fact, any goal – just one, miserable, sodding consolation goal in any match – would have kept us up.
Prior to the 11/12 season Sheffield United had been involved in five play-offs including three finals, having lost every time. We follow the most under-performing club in Europe – if you do a plot of trophies to attendances. I’m not asking for anyone’s pity, we don’t want it. I’m merely stating facts and setting the scene. Are we bitter and twisted? Probably. Psychologically scarred? Almost certainly.
So back to 2011/12 season. On the 20th of April 2012, our 29-league-goals striker was sent to prison for rape. We were in second place, two points ahead of Wednesday. We lost the next day to MK Dons, then dropped four of the remaining six points, finishing third on 90 points; 17 points ahead of Stevenage who we had to play before meeting Huddersfield (who we finished nine points ahead of) at Wembley. None of us believed we would win, until perhaps fleetingly during the penalty shoot-out when Huddersfield failed to score any of the first three. But no, we still blew it: just a little tease before the rug was pulled from under us – again.
So, Ched Evans’ behaviour and his gaoling left a deep scar, letting the club and fans down badly. We owed him nothing.
It should go without saying, that none of this is to trivialise the effect on rape victims; what Sheffield United fans have felt is nothing compared to that. Many football fans are guilty of the madness of elevating the game beyond just being a game; that misquote of Bill Shankly getting tripped out far too frequently.
In regards of the Evans’ saga, I feel obliged to make it clear where I am coming from before anyone flies off the handle, and to state up-front some of my pro-feminist credentials. At first, I wanted to write an article about a new local women’s team, part of whose ethos is to fight discrimination, but that was too similar to another pitch for Issue 7 of The Football Pink, so, as a Blades fan, the Evans’ affair was suggested to me. I therefore approached this piece with much trepidation because the affair provoked such emotion. Evans may maintain his innocence, but he was found guilty of rape. I believe firmly in the jury system; there is nothing to replace it in a democracy. That jury heard all the evidence – the armchair experts did not. We should not challenge that jury’s verdict. There are judicial ways for that to happen. If there are grounds for appeal then it will happen, but that does not change how things currently stand: he is guilty of one of the most appalling crimes.
During last autumn it became possible to adopt only one position: that of total outrage over the decision to allow Evans use of the facilities at the club. Any suggestion that there might be nuances to this debate and you were labelled as a “rapist-sympathiser.” People were harassed and bullied into adopting this position and several celebrities felt obliged to sever their connections with the club’s Community Foundation as a result. Through football, the SUFC Community Foundation does fantastic educational and health work around the city of Sheffield with adults, boys and girls from all backgrounds; so it is very sad that they were dragged into this. Sheffield United is a family club and has won recognition for its work. It is a club that cares about its roots in the community, its history, its legacy, about fairness, its staff, and its fans. It has never been a ruthless, money-grabbing club that puts on-the-pitch success above all else (sadly, some would see that as proof of a lack of ambition).
It was modern media whipping up the storm, and social media which prevented any cool consideration of this case. Many fans were too immature to think it through properly, and some of the views expressed were disgraceful. Things were said and posted online that are hopefully now regretted. It is one of the curses of instant messaging that people are constantly outraged by everyone else and would rather shout them down than try to understand, poised over a hair-trigger – always ready to unleash bile. The silent majority of fans have just kept quiet, not wanting to upset people: perversely, all this access to media sometimes actually has a negative impact on free speech.
So what were the facts? Sheffield United were requested by the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA) to allow Evans to use the facilities at the training ground to regain fitness with a view to continuing in his career somewhere. He was not back training with the squad as most people assumed, or the media suggested. He was not on a fast-track back to the first team in a matter of weeks. He was just using the facilities. Was it a mistake to let him? In light of the backlash and the damage it did to the club’s standing, undoubtedly. And that reaction should probably have been anticipated. Following this up a week later by retracting that decision was damage limitation and necessary to stop the vilification of people stating an honest view, like Jess Ennis-Hill – someone who genuinely can be held up as a role model. That original decision also risked destabilising the current team and their bid to escape from the quick-sand that is League 1.
There was never a question of him returning to first team football this season – even purely in footballing terms (and I am not dismissing the moral argument about whether it is right for a rapist to return to a position of role model) there was no way anyone could expect him to return to his form of 11/12 any time soon (it must also be remembered that he had failed to impress in his previous two seasons). I do not believe it was the potential ability of the player that over-rode the club’s moral judgment in any way. It was certainly not money – the club had no investment in the player (contrast this with other clubs’ decisions in previous controversial cases). All the evidence is that Sheffield United tried to do the “right thing” taking into account factors such as rehabilitation; although some maintain they were really trying to sneak him in via the back door. We will probably never know for sure, but the former fits the facts better.
Coming back to the question of role model: I, along with 20-30,000 others, hoped he would be found ‘not guilty’ back in 2012. This was not from the standpoint of not viewing the crime as serious or diminishing what he was alleged to have done. Not just for the sake of the team; but also because how do you explain to a 7-year-old boy why his hero was in gaol in those circumstances? That was, and still is, very difficult. Being a football fan makes no sense when you look at it rationally. Footballers are rarely worthy of the term ‘role model,’ but still you cheer them on and idolise them. Is football different in that sense? Is it the one area in life (not covered by legislation) where a convicted criminal shouldn’t be allowed to return to their former profession? Where extra-judicial punishment or mob-justice is acceptable? And for what crimes should it apply? Are professional footballers not equal under the law? Also, why was there less of a storm when Lee Hughes was released after killing someone and disabling two others in a hit-and-run. A hit-and-run that people suspect was to avoid a breath-test? People found guilty of assault, even with racial elements, have been welcomed back to their clubs.
These questions are bigger than any single club. Football as a whole likes to think it is amoral and not involved in politics. Is that acceptable? FIFA washes its hands of all the construction worker deaths in that it causes indirectly by not managing World Cup bids responsibly. Some people expected Sheffield United to take the whole of this decision on extra-judicial punishment onto themselves, trying to balance the respective weights of outrage on either side of the scales, rather than having football as a whole, wider society or Parliament deciding. You cannot accuse Sheffield United Football Club of anything other than having been caught in the middle and trying to make the right decision – albeit, perhaps, naively.
EDITORIAL – Since the Blades decided to end their association with Evans, and having flirted with Hartlepool United and then Maltese club Hibernians, events over the last 24 hours have moved this story on further, and now it’s League 1 Oldham Athletic who have catapulted themselves into the hurricane of controversy surrounding the convicted ex-Wales striker. Their apparent ‘imminent’ signing of Evans has already persuaded some of the clubs’ sponsors to reconsider their deals with the Boundary Park outfit. It’s remarkable that yet another football club has decided that being connected to such a divisive individual who was found guilty of a heinous offence is deemed to be worth such a massive gamble. Their reputation and integrity in the eyes of supporters all around the country, not just their own, and major financial backers is now on the line, and should they proceed with giving Evans a contract, they risk a backlash of monumental proportions – all in the name of a few goals. Surely nothing merits that level of damnation?
STEVE KAY – @SteveK1889