On Tuesday night I got a bit of a taste of what it’s like to be the target of what have become fashionably known as ‘trolls’ when a member of my team at Bramall Lane reported on a significant minority of Blades fans chanting hero songs for convicted rapist Ched Evans.
From my Twitter account I tweeted the report, which, because I know the reporter concerned, was published without malice, bias or otherwise.
We simply wanted to flag up that a small section of fans were letting it be known publicly that they approve of Evans and would welcome him back with open arms.
What happened next shocked me. Here’s a sample of the some of the responses I got:
Kev Lowe, @shoreham_boy: ‘you need sacking, you really are embarrassing’
‘Dave The Blade’, @davidtheblade: ‘Jay’s a lowlife from Warsop who needs a good kicking’.
Paul Simpson @ptsimy: ‘If nothing else comes from all this, the club should ban the @sheffieldstar and people like @JayMitchinson’
In addition I was subjected to a barrage of abuse that ranged from veiled threats such as ‘wind your neck in or else’ to good old-fashioned four-letter insults.
If I’m honest, I found some of it quite scary and felt compelled to ensure the South Yorkshire Police Twitter account was copied in to the worst of the threats.
What became quickly apparent was that some Sheffield United fans saw the report as a direct attack on their football club.
Let’s be clear, it wasn’t. Not a scrap of our reporting on Evans is an attack upon the club. The Star has long been an admirer and supporter of Sheffield United, on and off the pitch. Likewise Sheffield Wednesday, Rotherham United, Barnsley, Doncaster Rovers and Chesterfield.
I can only assume that the people who left me fearful for my safety could not distinguish that a report about a significant minority of fans hero-worshipping a man convicted of rape is an observation of what happened, and not a manufactured pop at their beloved badge, nor an attack upon Sheffield United.
I should make it clear that a significant number of Blades fans engaged in reasonable debate. Some wanted Evans back, but a large number did not.
Evans was a prospect, make no mistake about that. He might now be plying his trade in the Premier League had he not made that fateful decision to head for that hotel room. Now Evans must look to rebuild his life, a life that he shattered. Not the media. Not his victim. Him.
Just for one moment think of his victim. The young woman– barely out of school at 19 years old at the time – violated by a man ‘who could have had any woman he wanted’ that night. A woman who awoke naked, frightened, alone, and bewildered.
A woman who is still being shunted around the country like a bad penny, forced to leave her family behind in order to remain out of the clutches of yet more people who want to hurl abuse at her. She has been forced to change her identity on more than one occasion because some have sought to compound her misery by revealing her name.
That is illegal.
She has, in effect, been criminalised. The lot she now has is akin to that of child killers Jon Venables and Robert Thompson. Please do not scoff at the comparison – she is effectively on the run, forced underground into police protection and advised to change her appearance, her name, her entire being.
He, meanwhile, is pictured in the national press scooping up designer clothes from high-end high street stores, arm in arm with the woman he ‘cheated on’ Natasha Massey.
So how does he go about rehabilitation? How does Evans begin to reintegrate into society, and more importantly for him and his livelihood, how does he ingratiate himself back into the warm and lucrative bosom of the football family?
After all, he’s done his time. We cannot hang the man. He needs a second chance, doesn’t he? Yes, I believe he does, and that is why I sympathise with Sheffield United Football Club who will be damned if they do [sign Evans] and damned if they don’t, especially if a rival club offers him that second chance and he rekindles the form he showed before his incarceration.
But for me, the club must do the right thing and allow Evans to rebuild his career away from The Lane.
They say the first step to redemption is acknowledging your demon. Evans hasn’t done that. He maintains he did not rape that woman. He claims she consented. Unfortunately a court of law didn’t believe him and so he and his supporters have sought to undermine the legal process by setting up a website in his defence.
Evans and his family are of course wealthy enough to pay for a big PR campaign and his website invites the general public to ‘make their own minds up’. That’s not how it works, I’m afraid. Evans’ spin machine has to play by the same rules as every other citizen in the land. The site is being investigated by police.
Of course, Evans cannot apologise for technical reasons. He lives in hope that an appeal will clear his name, despite previous attempts to appeal being refused.
And he’s not alone. One of Evans’ biggest online supporters, and by default a fierce critic of anyone who accepts Evans’ rape conviction, is one Mike Stephenson – @Stephenson87M. On more than one occasion he has called for The Star and Radio Sheffield to be banned from Bramall Lane because we support the rule of law in this case, as we do all others.
He even fired a shot at lifelong Blade and current Sheffield United patron Charlie Webster, who is desperate to see her club stand by its community and family values by refusing to re-sign a convicted rapist. He said to Ms Webster: ‘Just letting you know that Ched will accept all forms of apology when his conviction is overturned, Charlie. I used to like you anorl [sic] :-’
Charlie Webster will owe nobody an apology. She will always be in the right, Mr Stephenson. Why? Because if Sheffield United sign a convicted rapist, it will have abandoned its core values. It will be sending a message out to its entire fanbase, and indeed the wider population, that its superstars can commit heinous crimes, and it won’t join in with the condemnation.
If...IF he is cleared, and United then sign him, they won’t have signed a convicted rapist, but Ched Evans the footballer. For now, that’s a fantasy world.
‘But if we don’t sign him, someone else will’ certain factions have shouted. Evans did not bring any would-be club – the people who pay his wages, the fans who wear his name across their backs – into disrepute. He did bring Sheffield United into disrepute. He let them and the fans down badly.
So, yes, Evans will come back into football. I do believe someone should employ him somewhere, in football or otherwise, but I think he has hurt United too much for them to allow him to return.
He has detracted from a superb performance against Yeovil on a night when Nigel Clough’s men notched back-to-back victories.
His actions overshadowed a poignant moment, as Blades all around the ground stood to applaud their fallen counterparts; children, no less. That cannot continue. The club is bigger and better than that. All fans, past and present, deserve more.
One thing is for certain, with myself at the helm and indeed Editors of the Sheffield Star to come, Sheffield United and our other five football clubs will be championed around the city, the country and the world with gusto.
We’re proud of the football clubs with which we have such strong and historic relationships. That will not falter.
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