THE Euro 2016 campaign is supposed to be the big one for Wales, the qualifying tournament where for once we enter with genuine belief that this time it could be different.
A squad that contains both Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey is giving Welsh football fans genuine hope for the future about a first major tournament since the 1950s, but a dark cloud is on the horizon for those in the corridors of power at the Football Association of Wales.
Namely, where do you draw the line in terms of team selection and more specifically, what on earth do they do with the elephant about to enter the room, striker Ched Evans?
This is going to be THE football story in Wales as we enter the new campaign, but let’s begin by reviewing the facts.
Ched Evans was one of, if not the best, strikers in Welsh football, with an impressive tally of 53 goals in 100 professional starts, incorporating spells with Man City, Norwich and Sheffield United and he’s scored for Wales at U19, U21 and senior levels, having played 13 times for the full side.
In the 2011/12 campaign, his last, he scored 35 goals in all competitions, as he stepped up his game to previously unseen levels of quality.
However, he hasn’t kicked a ball since, having been released by the Blades after being convicted of rape at Caernarfon Crown Court. He was sentenced to five years in prison on April 20, 2012.
Evans, whose partner has publically stood by him and backed him in the media, was refused an appeal in November 2012 and was also denied in a bid to have his sentence cut.
Rejecting the conviction challenge by Evans, Lord Judge, said at the time: "We can see no possible basis which would justify us interfering with the verdict of the jury, which heard all the evidence and reflected on it after careful summing up by the judge."
On July 19, 2014, Evans, 25, launched a fresh bid to get his conviction overturned, turning to the Criminal Cases Review Commission asking them to review his case in the hope it will lead to a new appeal.
Legal representatives for Evans have confirmed they have submitted an application to the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC) raising serious concerns about the safety of his conviction.
They say they have reviewed evidence from the crown court case and an independent investigations company has examined previously unexplored areas of the evidence. The application argues the case should be sent back to the Court of Appeal on the basis that there is a real possibility that the conviction would be quashed.
However, regardless of whether or not Evans is successful in his appeal, he is scheduled to be released this October, with the Daily Mirror and other publications reporting that Evans will be welcomed back to Sheffield United Football Club immediately, irrespective of the appeal.
Evans has been visited in prison by manager Nigel Clough and Co-chairman Kevin McCabe and his return has been backed in the media by Blades Supporters’ club chairman Pete Whitney, 78, who said: “Ched is ¬coming back. He has his prime years ahead of him.
“I am sure he will get a good reception but of course there might be a small minority who will object.”
The issue of Evans being reinstated as a Blade has proved contentious; an online petition against his return to the professional game had 59,517 signatures as of midday yesterday.
It goes without saying that Evans wouldn’t be welcomed back in many or most other professions, but it’s equally obvious to us all that football often plays by its own rules in respect of employing convicted criminals. Players like Marlon King, Lee Hughes and one or two at Rodney Parade and Spytty Park before it prove that unequivocally. Indeed, County signed a convicted criminal last summer and this.
I’ve argued before that in most instances I’m inclined, as County have been, to be supportive of offering people a second chance, but there is no right or wrong in how each of us see things differently, we all set our own moral compasses in society and each case is unique. I’m absolutely behind County signing Darren Jones, but I wouldn’t support them bringing in Marlon King. That’s my own moral judgement and you’ll have your own.
However, the issue with Evans will have wider repercussions than just his imminent return to Sheffield United, what are Wales to do about him?
There is no point pretending Wales are blessed with fantastic attacking options and for their 2014 qualifiers, they will be without the injured Sam Vokes and the retired Craig Bellamy.
Is Evans good enough to contend with Jermain Easter and Simon Church? The answer is so obvious the question is rhetorical.
And I can reveal here that the Football Association of Wales isn’t closing the door on Evans making a return to international football.
While there is no official comment on the subject, the Argus understands the topic has been broached with a ‘wait and see what happens,’ approach picked for now.
This I’m uncomfortable with and I think many will feel the same way.
Unless Evans is successful in clearing his name, surely he can’t be allowed the honour of representing his nation?
Allowing him the opportunity to make a living as a professional footballer will enrage many, but playing on the international stage is a reward and an honour and as things stand, Evans would be doing so as a convicted rapist.
Wales are desperately trying to ensure that fans return to watch in big numbers as they did under Mark Hughes almost a decade ago and selecting Evans would risk alienating many, as well as putting his teammates in an uncomfortable position of being asked to support or condemn him.
It’s a very tough call for the Football Association of Wales with Evans a proven commodity on the field and I’m extremely grateful it’s not a decision I have to make about what is, or isn’t, best for Chris Coleman and his charges.