Co-chairman Jim Phipps has today outlined Sheffield United’s reasons for their dramatic U-turn over allowing convicted rapist Ched Evans to train with the club.
United revealed in a statement yesterday that they had withdrawn their offer to Evans, their former striker who was jailed for five years in 2012 for the rape of a teenager in a Welsh hotel room.
The request, from the PFA, was designed to get Evans fit again after serving half of his sentence in custody. But after an unprecedented, and unexpected, response of outrage, United have withdrawn their offer.
“We’ve taken this action because we think it’s the only way to protect the long-term interests of the club,” Phipps, speaking at a media briefing at Bramall Lane, said.
“We know that in the short term it will irk some of our fans. But many of our fans wanted him back, another group didn’t and the division in our family on that issue was one worth noting and not deepening, for the limited benefit of letting a footballer who isn’t one of our current players train with us.
“We decided we shouldn’t let our club be taken down for the limited benefit of having him train with us.”
Patrons of United’s Community Foundation, including Dave Berry and Charlie Webster, quit their position after United agreed to let Evans train with the club while Jessica Ennis-Hill, the 2012 London Olympic heptathlon champion and United fan, vowed to ask United to remove her name from one of the Bramall Lane stands if the Welsh international was to be offered a contract.
“We treated the inputs of the celebrities associated somehow with the club as much as every other source of input, and we had lots of them from all around,” Phipps continued.
“We acknowledge that Jess is a great woman who has achieved great things, an Olympian of great note and we’ve honoured her with a stand named after her, but I know for a fact that her inputs were not the vital ones.
“She made her point, others made her points in other ways. But Jessica’s stance was not a significant factor for me.
“Her opinions registered with me but from the inputs we received, the majority were in favour of Ched’s return and they were coming from our fans. But mainly I engage with our fans.
“It was a very difficult decision to decide to do something that we knew our fans would not like, or at least a very large group of our fans in the first instance.”
Phipps revealed that United’s sponsors had been attacked online over their stance, and the issue had even come up in questions to the Prime Minster at the G20 Leaders’ Summit recently.
“How did that happen?” the American continued.
“It did go beyond any bounds that we might have imagined. I’m newer to this than perhaps I should be, but I have been advised by so many people that this particular matter has gone beyond anything in recent memory.
“It’s certainly a test case for matters of this kind. We didn’t expect the response would be as it was.
“We could have said no. But that would have been the coward’s way out. There is a principle in this whole matter that is worth something. That footballers should be treated as equals before the law.
“It was worth the effort to try and establish that principle. We already had some headwinds when we made that decision. We didn’t expect those headwinds would turn into a hurricane category five, with a tsunami attached.
“We believe rape is a heinous crime. But there’s been a trial, Ched was convicted, and he served his sentence. At that stage, subject to conditions of his parole licence, he has a right to making a livelihood.
“In fact, he has an obligation to do so.”
Phipps - brought to the club as principal advisor to United’s co-owner Prince Abdullah, before stepping into the co-chairman role - admitted he was “frustrated” at the outcome of the whole Evans saga.
“Am I frustrated about what’s happened? Yeah,” Phipps added.
“But I’m a person who embraces facts and the facts say that we can’t continue on that path and the cost of promoting the principle we believe is most important in this whole matter is too high for the club to bear so we’ve moved forward.
“It can’t be gainsaid that the influence of sometimes mob-like behaviour has made it a lot harder to make the decision to allow Ched to train, and allowing the club to act in accordance with the principles we have articulated.
“But we decided it was going to be too costly to the long-term interests of the club. Not just about money - in terms of feeling, goodwill, the essence of what we are as a club. It would be too costly.”