At Broadfield Stadium last night, Crawley Town beat Bath City in the Blue Square Premier to move up to seventh place in the table after four matches. A crowd of 1,252 people turned out to watch it – hardly, one might think, a ringing endorsement of the “Project Promotion” that the club has put in place since new owners decided that money was no object in buying the club a place in the Football League. Perhaps the people of Crawley aren’t quite as excited at the prospect of “Project Promotion” as those running the “project” might have hoped. Should they continue to win, the likelihood is that crowds will increase, but the wider reputation of Crawley Town remains low. There has been some degree of distaste at the way that the club has been throwing its money about, but even this has palled at the continuing involvement at Crawley Town of one of the biggest bête noires of modern football: Steve Evans.
Why, though, is Steve Evans so despised? It’s easy, from a distance, to assume that the ongoing antipathy towards Evans is an antipathy like any other. An abrasive “larger than life” character will always stir up negative emotions in the supporters of other clubs, but Evans seems to strike something baser – a raw nerve that provokes florid and colourful streams of abuse, something that makes others desperately hopeful to see him fail. There may be an element of truth in this interpretation of the dislike of him, but it seems likely that much of the hatred of Steve Evans is based on something more tangible. Because Steve Evans is a convicted criminal, part of a scam that took a club from the middle ground of the non-league game into the Football League and, moreover, for many non-league supporters, he is also the man that, in spite of his criminal record, for many people, got away with it.
After an average playing career in his native Scotland that was cut short by a knee ligament injury at the age of twenty-eight, Evans briefly pitched up at Corby Town as chairman in 1994 before moving on to Stamford FC. After four years at Stamford, he was given a managerial leg-up when he accepted the managerial job at Boston United – a club frequently described at the time as “sleeping giants”, in non-league terms at least – in 1998. Two years later, they were promoted into the Football Conference as the champions of the Southern League, and after a further two years, following a neck and neck race against Dagenham & Redbridge, he took his club into the Football League on as slim a margin as goal difference. Both of these title wins, however, would come to be regarded as fundamentally tainted by the revelations that followed them.
Within weeks, the FA’s then-compliance officer, Graham Bean, had launched an investigation into the financial irregularites at Boston United, and, July of that year, the club was found guilty by an FA disciplinary committee of systematically lodging false contracts for players. The ploy was a simple one. Players signed contracts that were worth a fraction of the value of what they were being paid. In one case, Ken Charlery was recorded as being paid £120 per week when he was actually being paid £620 per week and had received a £16,000 signing on fee for the club, against which no tax had been paid. In another, the former Liverpool defender Mike Marsh was contracted as being paid £100 per week when he was actually earning £1,000 per week. The difference was paid through “expenses”, against which no tax was payable.
The club was fined £100,000 and docked four points for the following season, a decision that enraged Dagenham & Redbridge, who had missed out so narrowly on promotion to Evans’ club. More notable than this, though (at least from the point of view of this particular story), was the fact that Evans and the club’s owner at the time, Pat Malkinson, were both found guilty by the FA of having, “”facilitated a payment of £8,000 to a witness to attempt to mislead, impede and frustrate” the FA’s enquiry into the scam. Malkinson was fined £5,250 and suspended from football for thirteen months. Evans was fined £8,000 and suspended from football for twenty months.
Evans may have been banned from football, but he wasn’t out of work for long, taking a job working for a recruitment company owned by a Staffordshire businessman called Jon Sotnick. Sotnick (who went on to act as Chief Executive at Darlington and was linked with a take-over of Sheffield Wednesday in 2008) was persuaded to put money into Boston United and Evans returned as the Boston manager in February 2004. By this time, though, the mere bans of the FA were the least of Evans’ concerns. A criminal investigation had been launched into the goings-on at Boston, and in September 2005 he and four other people connected with Boston United (including former Boston chairman Pat Malkinson) were charged with – and denied – committing fraud at the club between 1998 and 2002.
Meanwhile, on the pitch, he was earning himself a reputation for the levels of abuse that he threw around when decisions didn’t go his way. In February 2006, for example, he was escorted from Grimsby Town’s Blundell Park by the police after verbally abusing the fourth official. After the match, Sotnick (by then the Boston chairman) claimed, with regard to the police’s involvement during the match, that, “There seems to be a conspiracy at work. At every game Steve seems to be singled out for extra attention from the police – and I’m determined to get the bottom of this”. Perhaps the choicest quote of all from Sotnick on the matter, however, was this, which needs no further comment:
Steve was thrown out of the ground with no money, no mobile phone and was left to fend for himself.
Sotnick resigned in June of 2006 to take over as the Chief Executive of Darlington, and sold his shares to director Jim Rodwell for a nominal sum. The trial of Steve Evans, Pat Malkinson, et al, meanwhile, reached trial at Southwark Court in September 2006. The court heard evidence regarding the contracts from Ken Charlery, and the total amount that had been creamed off by the club through fraudulently failing to pay tax and national insurance contributions on the wages of Boston’s players was confirmed at £245,188. While two of the other defendants were acquitted by the judge and one more had his case thrown out, though, Malkinson and Evans changed their pleas to guilty at the last minute. Malkinson was given a two year prison sentence, suspended for two years and ordered to pay back the money that the club owed in tax plus just over £100,000 in interest. Evans received a one year suspended sentence.
The one common thread of the summing up of Evans’ trial is how much sympathy many concerned seemed to have for him. His defence counsel, Jim Sturman QC, for example, stated that, “If your honour sends Steve Evans to prison today he will lose his job again. It has already cost him £140,000 in legal fees, fines from the FA and loss of income. I ask for tempering justice with mercy. Is it worth sending Steve Evans to overcrowded prisons? He is terrified of spending one day in prison… There has been the stress and anxiety over four years. He has not slept. His family have not slept. He is terrified”. Diddums. To the fury of Boston supporters, who had seen the name of their club dragged through the mud by the whole affair, Jim Rodwell announced that, “I think Steven has been working under incredibly difficult circumstances and it’s been a struggle for him”, and kept him in his job.
Evans resigned his position as Boston’s manager in May 2007, shortly after a by then financially-crippled Boston United were relegated from the Football League after a last day of the season defeat at Wrexham. Boston were demoted straight into the Blue Square North in June 2007 and then demoted again into the Premier Division of the Northern Premier League a year later, but Evans landed on his feet. Two days after his resignation, he took up the managerial position at Blue Square Premier club Crawley Town. Crawley’s financial problems since then have been well documented. Crawley’s financial difficulties over the last three years have been well documented (they were fighting off a winding up order from HMRC earlier this year), but they ended up under new ownership and the club paid off all of its debts at the start of this summer.
Since then, the club has been on a spending spree that is unprecedented in recent years. They have, to date, spent £330,000 on new players (without taking into consideration the burden on their wage budget) and have been looking at plenty of others as well. Their attempt to sign Wimbledon’s captain, Danny Kedwell, on the eve of the new season, however, was less successful, with Kedwell himself saying:
“Crawley are trying to buy everyone and I’m flattered but I’m captain of this club and hopefully next season we’ll be in the Football League instead of them.”
Boston United beat Bradford Park Avenue in the play-offs in May to secure promotion back into the Blue Square North. The legacy of Evans’ time as their manager is that they had fallen so far in the first place. Crawley Town supporters have had three years of Evans and do not need to be told about his past and they may well not give a damn about the moral aspect of Evans’ past if their team does manage to get promoted into the Football League at the end of this season, but the story of Steve Evans is a story that stands being told again as a reminder of chronic mismanagement and one of the most clear-cut examples of what has come to be known as “financial doping” imaginable. Ultimately, whatever else Evans achieves in his career will be tarnished by his past and whichever club employs him will be tainted by his involvement with them. Promotion is one thing, but respect can’t neccessarily be bought.