Ched Evans has spoken for the first time since his return to Sheffield United - who he calls ‘my club’ - and has vowed to repay Blades fans for their support in the best way he can.
“It’s my club,” Evans admits. “Going back is a dream.
“The majority of the fans have been brilliant with me throughout what happened. I’d like to repay them by getting back to where I was, the form I was in when I left them.”
Evans left in well documented circumstances in 2012. United, then under the stewardship of Danny Wilson, were well placed to win promotion back to the Championship at the first attempt, with Evans netting a remarkable 35 goals in 42 games.
Then, Evans was jailed for rape, Sheffield Wednesday pipped United to automatic promotion and Wilson’s side lost at Wembley, on penalties, to Huddersfield in the play-off final.
Evans served two-and-a-half years in prison, half his original sentence, before he was released on licence. He continued to maintain his innocence and his original conviction was quashed in 2016, before he was found not-guilty at a retrial.
By then, he was at Chesterfield and he had scored in his first game back in professional football, a 1-1 draw against Oxford that remains memorable for more than one reason.
“I had my two front teeth knocked out,” Evans remembers.
“The referee had told me, ‘You’re in for some s*** today, lad’. I went up for a header and I got elbowed in the face.
“But since the not guilty verdict even the abuse from the crowds has died down.
“I think most people now realise I just want to get on with my career, although you do get the odd shout which is fine. Being at a football match can do funny things to people.”
Evans, though, is focused on looking forward. He bears no ill-feeling towards Jessica Ennis-Hill, the Olympic gold-medal winning heptathlete who said she would ask United to remove her name from a stand at Bramall Lane if they signed Evans in 2014, following his release from prison - and before his retrial verdict.
“If I saw her, I wouldn’t make a fuss of what happened,” Evans admits.
“I believe she was advised to do it. I’m sure she was asked to speak up on the issue. At the time she spoke out I was wrongly convicted and she had every right to.”
“What happened, happened,’ he added.
“It would be a waste of time having hatred or anger burning inside you. I’m not one of those to live in the past. If I thought about what I could have done over the five years it would eat away at me. I could have been thinking about that in prison and it would have made it worse, it would have killed me.
“But it does annoy me when people still say that I’m not innocent, I just made 12 members of a jury think I wasn’t guilty.
“That’s not right.
“My case went to the Criminal Cases Review Commission, some of the cleverest people in the country, who deemed it fit to be sent to the Court of Appeal where three judges quashed the conviction. Then it went to a retrial and I was found not guilty.”
Evans admits he had hope of a return to football when he was in prison, but found it hard to see a way back when greeted by an intense backlash on his release.
Now, he is a Championship footballer again and, as a self-confessed proud Welshman, wants to force his way back into Chris Coleman’s plans.
Before then, though, there’s a long-awaited return to Bramall Lane. Evans has driven past five times since completing his return.
“I just wanted to look,” he says. “You forget how big it is. It’s a bit surreal thinking I’ll soon be playing there again. It brings back weird feelings. Good feelings.”