Ian Herbert: Ched Evans may not be helping himself, but has he not served his time?

It’s treacherous when we decide which criminals are entitled to start again

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The Independent Football

It feels risky to tell any story about Ched Evans the footballer as opposed to Ched Evans the rapist. He’s that toxic a subject. But there was a Ched Evans the footballer once, before he embarked upon the course of events that concluded with him committing that most despicable and terrifying of crimes.

His tendency to be behind the pace on events was often a source of amusement when Evans started making his way in football, and you could see why when he turned up for a press conference at Cardiff’s Vale Hotel, shortly before his World Cup debut against Azerbaijan in September 2008.

The then Manchester City player was quizzed about how, in the preceding 48 hours, his club had been bought by the Abu Dhabis, become unimaginably wealthy overnight and had promptly lavished £26m on Robinho, who would be a rival for his starting position. There had been no Sky Sports News in the players’ rooms at the team’s Vale base and Evans was blithely unaware of any of the events which had upended the football world and his club. He just looked at his questioner blankly. It was as much as some could do to contain their mirth.

The question, now that Evans has been released from jail, is whether he is entitled to try to return to that kind of time and place; to rediscover an old persona with Sheffield United. The noise and emotion of the sporting world make it hard to hear the case for him returning to a highly paid job as a footballer, though that doesn’t mean it should not listen. A judge decided what Evans’ punishment should be: five years in prison, of which he has been released after serving two and a half. It’s a treacherous road to travel when we decide which criminals are entitled to start again. Who has that entitlement? Only those on a working wage? Only those out of the public eye?

Evans has not helped himself, so far. A deeply depressing conversation with him published in yesterday’s Sunday Mirror made you wonder why a 25-year-old earning more in one week than a working wage pays out in a year can’t find some professional support to help him appreciate how pathetically self-absorbed he sounds. Someone from that vast world of football PR might have told him he does have things to say, if he could only see beyond his own ego to realise the fact.

Evans’ family have sought help from Don Hale, the investigative journalist who has worked on miscarriages of justice cases. Hale feels that significant aspects of evidence have not been considered in this case.

I last met Hale on a bright February morning in 2001, when his work over seven years had just resulted in the Court of Appeal overturning the conviction of Stephen Downing for the 1973 murder of legal secretary Wendy Sewell in a graveyard at Bakewell, Derbyshire. That day felt like a good one for justice, and Hale, who dominated its news agenda, received an OBE for his work. Now the Criminal Case Review Commission (CCRC) has agreed to make the Evans case one of the very small proportion put its way – it received 1,470 last year – which it agrees to re-examine. It has very limited resources.

Hale’s credibility on this occasion has not been enhanced by the string of football stories he has written for Sunday newspapers about Evans in the past eight months, none of which relates to the evidence he claims to have unearthed. But the CCRC case review, which will be  fast-tracked, gave Evans grounds to say yesterday that he does not feel he should be criminalised for maintaining he is innocent. There was no talk about that in the Sunday Mirror piece. Nor was there a real acknowledgement that to have blagged the key to a north Wales hotel room, where a team-mate was with a young woman, was an indefensible  act. And that what followed was reprehensible.

It would also have been edifying to learn that this young man wanted to use this experience and his profile to visit the schools and educate young men in matters of sexual consent. Instead, he wanted to talk about his girlfriend’s steadfastness, express regrets about his infidelity, and to throw more mud at his victim – who we know has gone into hiding, driven from her north Wales home by the Twitter cesspit, after Evans’ conviction. For an individual who wants to resume a football career, it has been the most dismal fare: nothing to give sport some compunction to want him back.

There is another Evans, if he could only find it within him to let that individual be known about. The individual I have been told about in the course of my inquiries these past days is a classic example of the small-town footballer – he hails from rural St Asaph, in north Wales – who finds a type of fame and an unhealthy amount of money. Evans is awkward in company, shy, uncommunicative, easily led; not one of the sharpest tools in the box. But the football community does have a way of intuiting who are the dark forces in the game: the ones to steer clear of and employ at your peril. Four individual sources well enough placed to know have told me that Evans is not one of them. “No, there was never a sense he was a bad one,” said one of those four. He did not want to give his name, of course, because you get burned by the most slender association with a sportsman such as this. The testimony does not take away the horror of the crime for which Evans has been convicted. It does not absolve the past. But it does have a relevance to what happens next.

It will be an entirely understandable outcome if Sheffield United decided to cut their losses and refuse to take Evans back. The club will be entitled to feel that its reputation is damaged by doing so. But it will be a bolder and more enlightened club if it does not turn him away. I wouldn’t choose to be in the company of Ched Evans. Neither, I imagine, would you. But he has served his time.