The Monday Profile: Ched Evans
For our Monday Profile this week, we welcome back Ian Rands, proprietor of A United View on Football, a website that has really come into its own in recent months following a series of fascinating interviews with a host of Sheffield United greats from the past. Ian, who can be followed on twitter here, turns his attention to a player whom we have been critical of in the past, but who has flourished in a Blades shirt this year.
If there is one player making the headlines for Sheffield United this season it is 32 goal striker Ched Evans, but for Blades fans his success is a slightly bittersweet experience.
It has taken until Ched’s third season for him to find both a consistent place in the starting eleven and the back of the net on a regular basis. Yet he didn’t start the campaign as first choice striker. A rape allegation made against Evans and Port Vale defender Clayton MacDonald saw him charged in July, with subsequent court appearances in August and October. Hardly the greatest preparation for the new season. Then an ankle injury disrupted his pre-season.
The latter meant that Danny Wilson started the season with combinations of Richard Cresswell, Chris Porter and the since departed Jordan Slew. With favourable results it was difficult to change things. After scoring in a substitute appearance at Scunthorpe, Evans scored on his first start at home to Colchester; some nine games in. Quite what his scoring record would have been if he had started the previous eleven league and cup games, who knows?
So what has changed? Yes, there has been a drop in division and goals are no doubt easier to come by than they were against Championship defences, but the reality is that, at last, he has a manager who has understood how to play to him and has introduced a style of play that benefits not just Evans but the team as a whole. When I recently interviewed Brian Deane, he emphasised how important it is for a manager to understand a striker’s strengths and to ensure that any signing fits his methodology and tactics. The example he gave was when he joined Leeds United and was expected to fit into Lee Chapman’s role in the team. This was never going to happen and led to a difficult first season at Elland Road.
The same could be said of Ched. Signed by Kevin Blackwell, he struggled to find his place in the direct football Blackwell employed. Everyone could see potential, but he had little chance to exploit it. In fact, he often wandered the pitch looking lost and unsure of where to run. He was as much a victim of managerial tactics and belief than any significant personal failings. Subsequent managers have all commented on this potential, but all have struggled to exploit it. To add to Evans’ problems he has only really had one manager you can imagine putting his arm on his shoulder and encouraging a struggling young striker; the late Gary Speed.
One other factor was probably the price tag placed around his neck. A reported £3 million deal, hides the fact that much of this fee was based on goals and promotion to the Premier League. The true picture is that United have probably paid about a third of the figure; still a substantial amount to only really get a return from a player in his third season. He is also on a substantial wage. Former Owls manager Gary Megson, playing psychological games ahead of the last Sheffield Derby, suggested United ought to be at top of the league with a £20,000 per week striker, ignoring the fact that just because a player is paid that much, it doesn’t necessarily mean he is worthy of it.
With Ched’s goal haul, many outsiders, and those from across the city, point to United being a one man team. Yet this is far from being true. As I write, United are the top scorers in the top four divisions of English football. Goals have been scored by 19 different players, with 5 others scoring more than 5 goals – slightly better than Wednesday’s record with Gary Madine, with whom comparisons are made in the Steel City. Under Danny Wilson, United have played fluid attacking football, with Kevin McDonald the fulcrum for most of which is positive in their play. With hard working wide players like Lee Williamson and Stephen Quinn and overlapping full backs such as Matt Lowton, there has been plenty of creativity and with the ball frequently being played into Evans’ feet, the Welsh international has thrived.
He has been encouraged by Wilson and Assistant Manager Frank Barlow to be more selfish and shoot on sight, which has seen some frustration from team mates who have taken up good positions in the box, especially when Evans fires from wide of the goal. But when it comes off, as Chesterfield goalkeeper Tommy Lee will testify, it is spectacular. When keepers haven’t managed to stop Evans, the woodwork has often come to their rescue. Nine times Ched has been stopped by post and bar.
Gary Speed, at a fans’ forum after his appointment as manager, described him as having one of the hardest shots he had ever seen. Yet his languid style could easily deceive you into thinking that he is just a finisher. He says himself that he plays in a relaxed, not a lazy, way and with increased confidence this season his work-rate has significantly improved as well – part of a hard working, hard running side with plenty of fluidity.
The last strikers to score 30 goals for United were Brian Deane and Tony Agana who fired in 30 apiece as the Blades gained promotion from the 3rd Division behind champions Wolves in 1988-89. Blades fans are hoping that the goals will lead to a similarly successful season this time around.
Two big questions remain unanswered. Will Evans see the season out? A final court date this month may have an impact. The second is whether Ched will be at Bramall Lane next season. Even if the Blades succeed in their promotion push, the out of contract striker will have to take a significant salary cut in any offer from United, as the club adjusts to a more sustainable financial model. There is no doubt better offers will be made from other Championship clubs and potentially from the Premier League as well, The question is will Ched be willing to repay those first two seasons?