First, the facts.
Chedwyn Michael Evans is a convicted rapist. Now 26, he served half of a five-year sentence in prison, handed down after a jury found him guilty of raping a teenager in a hotel room after a night out in Wales. Now released, Sheffield United and Hartlepool have decided against offering him a return after a public outcry. Now, it is the turn of Oldham Athletic to decide if he’s worth the hassle.
Then, the victim. A 19-year-old student at the time, she has now been forced to change her identity five times and move away from her home town. Her father told a national newspaper that his daughter - the real victim here, remember - is living ‘on the run’. Evans, who is awaiting a review of his conviction and protests his innocence, has shown no remorse for his crime. He has made no attempt to instruct his ‘supporters’ to leave the victim alone.
And now, my opinion. Ched Evans should be allowed to resume his career as a footballer. By the time you read this, he may have done just that at Oldham. But as the Telegraph went to press, officials at Boundary Park were still deliberating and, as this saga rumbles on with protests and petitions on social media, Evans is becoming increasingly closer to being portrayed as a victim. His supporters believe it is, in fact, Evans’ life in ruins, rather than the victim’s because he wasn’t welcomed back to football with open arms. Hardly. Evans’ crime was despicable, reprehensible and, as United acknowledged in a statement concerning their former striker, ‘heinous’. Quite rightly, he was punished as a guilty man, in a court of law. This is not a column designed to either excuse what he did, or demean the serious subject of rape. To feel uncomfortable with Evans’ treatment since his release, is not to feel sorry for the man himself, or agree with his actions.
But this is not a black-and-white subject. Most of us live within the shades of grey, which exist between the baying ‘burn-him-at-the-stake’ mob and his blind followers who continue to protest that Evans did nothing wrong. [These people do exist, too. One caller on Radio Sheffield’s Football Heaven lauded Evans as a ‘hero’ shortly after his release, insisting that he had done all Sheffield United fans ‘proud’. Before being cut off].
It is similarly possible to feel that Evans, as a free man, of sorts, has the right to pursue gainful employment in any field he chooses, apart from the obvious restrictions like teaching. Similarly, unless the profession bars employment of anyone with a criminal record, football clubs have the right to offer him a second chance. That is the rule of the land, the society we live by. The same system that found him guilty in the first place. The institution we trust in to keep us safe.
But instead, that chance is being denied because of mob rule, a 21st century, online version of vigilante men on horses with pitchforks and flaming torches. Many still feel that prison should be a punishment but rehabilitation is key. If every offender who was released from prison was denied the chance to return to work, which way do you believe re-offending rates would go? Released bank robbers, murderers, armed robbers inevitably walk amongst us every day and we are none the wiser.
Evans’ celebrity status means that, everywhere he goes, for the rest of his life, people will know what he did. He will no longer be Ched Evans, formerly of Manchester City, scorer of goals galore for United, a Welsh international. He will be Ched Evans, the rapist.
This is life in the 21st century. Give a person a keyboard and a Twitter password, and they can effectively help decide a stranger’s fate; like the modern version of Commodus at the Colosseum choosing between a gladiators’ life or death with a thumb up or down. When did you or I ever have any power over Oldham’s recruitment process before? Now, we can sign petitions, lobby sponsors and effectively decide the future of a man we don’t even know, anonymously from behind our keyboards.
Labour leader Ed Miliband waded into the row this week, and insisted Oldham should re-think their decision. Ask old Red Ed how the excellent boss Lee Johnson - who deserves credit for fronting up to the media while the Oldham board shied away - can arrest his side’s slump in form, or find a way not to rely on striker Jon Forte, and he wouldn’t have a clue.
Nor should he, because it doesn’t concern him. Neither does Evans’ future. But when MPs start to get involved, the mob mentality grows more powerful by the day, but where will it end? Threats to boycott sponsors if the manager doesn’t play 4-4-2? Petitions and protests if a young starlet is subbed?
After all, the law of this civilised country is designed to treat us all equally regardless of gender, class, race or wealth. Hand a released criminal a job mopping floors in Asda and, if he does not reoffend, his rehabilitation will have been deemed a success. What is stopping the same happening here, with Evans? If he had been acquitted of his crime because he was a footballer, imagine the outcry. So can he be discriminated against now because he happens to be gifted with a football at his feet?
Yes, if Evans does return then some young Oldham fans will cheer him, wear his name on their shirts. That is inevitable. They did the same with Lee Hughes. But no, this does not mean the same youngsters will suddenly believe rape or causing death by dangerous driving is OK. I idolosed David Beckham when I was younger, but left the dodgy shaven haircuts, neck tattoos and sarongs well alone. The same people blame Grand Theft Auto for school shootings in America. The reality is never so simple.
Evans was convicted of a hideous act and, regardless of the outcome of his case review, should urge his supporters, as soon as possible, to lay off the poor victim and let her return to some semblance of normality in her life, which will never be the same again. And perhaps the FA or Football League should impose some kind of code of conduct which bans players with criminal convictions from plying their trade in our divisions.
Of course, they haven’t but it will still be a brave manager, chief executive or chairman who makes the decision to sign him. And until someone does, Evans - on licence until 2017 - is a ‘free’ man in name only. And mob rule will continue to overrule the law of the land... which has far more dangerous implications than the future of Chedwyn Michael Evans.