My sole experience with Chesterfield FC was overseeing their relegation on the computer game Football Manager before I got the sack. But this week they have impressed me more than I could ever impress my virtual squad. They are the first club to sign former Sheffield United striker Ched Evans since he was released from prison in 2014, after serving two and a half years for raping an intoxicated 19-year-old woman. Evans has always denied the charges, and in April, he had his conviction quashed by the Court of Appeal. He now faces a retrial in October. Against this backdrop, Chesterfield have given Evans the chance to ply his trade as a footballer again.
Having served his time, it seemed only fair that Evans should try to rebuild his career, which by any measure had never been particularly exceptional. Various clubs flirted with the idea of taking him, but only until an establishment of politicians, sports stars and online petition signers had their say. When the BBC found out that he had been training with his former team mates, they made sure to report Evans’ potential return to work as headlines news. Prominent figures were quick to express their outrage and Evans’ hopes of a return to the game quickly disintegrated. Ever since, I have been gunning for him to get a job at another football club.
Until recently, it hadn’t looked hopeful. The clubs that expressed an interest were swiftly condemned for their actions. His former employers Sheffield United were the first to look into taking him back, even allowing him to train with them, until fashionable patrons of the club tendered their resignations, and Jessica Ennis-Hill demanded her name be removed from a stand.
Hartlepool, who were in a desperate state themselves, then made enquiries, until the town’s Labour MP Iain Wright warned against it, describing Evans as a ‘pariah.’ Oldham Athletic were also keen, but a 60,000 strong petition supported by Ed Miliband forced them to pull out. A team from Malta even had a pop, before the Foreign Office ruled out the move because they barred a sex-offender from working abroad. For Evans, every new opportunity was shut down as quickly as it appeared. As he said himself at the time, he had been defeated by ‘mob rule.’ The clubs that seemed keen to rehabilitate him came under pressure too – and most of them couldn’t take it.
This is why Evans’ return to work remains a victory for criminal justice. Chesterfield has defied those who think he should not be given a second chance. It sets a good example, because it shows a belief in the rehabilitation of criminals after justice has been served. The club has decided to ignore the predictable onslaught, and give Evans the opportunity to piece his life back together. Chesterfield FC say they have put a ‘great deal of thought’ into the signing. What they should really wonder, though, is having been out of the game for so long, is he still any good?