Gareth Evans: The Hammerhead Dragon (Part 1)

This is Part One in a two part special about Gareth Evans’ time playing in the USA; check back on the weekend to read an interview with the man himself.

LOST BOYO IN THE USA – AUSTIN (2009) MARYLAND (2010) WILMINGTON (2011) NORTH CAROLINA (2011) WILMINGTON (2012-)

OTHER CLUBS – NEWI Cefn Druids, Wrexham, Northwich Victoria, Tamworth, Vauxhall Motors, Chester City

NEWI Cefn Druids, Wrexham, Northwich Victoria, Tamworth, Austin Aztex, Vauxhall Motors, Real Maryland Monarchs, Chester City, Carolina Railhawks and Wilmington Harriers; the long list looks like a CV of a player that is coming to the end of their career; you could even argue that it is difficult to work out what sport this sportsman actually plays judging by some of the club names; but this is the career path of Gareth Evans, who only turned 25 last month and who plays “soccer” (unsurprising really, since this is a football blog).

Gareth began his career at NEWI Cefn Druids in the Welsh Premier League where he made over 20 appearances as a substitute at the age of 16. In his blog, Evans cites his education in the Welsh league as a pivotal part in his development: “it was a great experience for me playing in a very physical men’s league for the first team.” His hometown club recognised the potential of the young centre back and in 2004 he was snapped up by Wrexham FC, although there were other suitors eyeing up the young defender. After two years in Wrexham’s youth system and with the club going through financial difficulties, Evans was initially told that he would not be getting a new professional contract at the club. However, as the club was clawing its way towards the end of its administration period, Evans was offered a lifeline and signed a professional contract with the club in the summer of 2006.

Gareth Evans at hometown club, Wrexham

Evans became determined to succeed at the club he supported. Shortly after signing the contract Evans came on for his senior debut in the 89th minute in a memorable League Cup game at Hillsborough, which the Dragons won 4-1. The 2006/2007 season started excellently for Wrexham as they found themselves nestled in the League Two playoffs spots. Evans made a couple of senior starts by Christmas and featured in a young centre back partnership alongside Mike Williams in a victory at Darlington. After the game, Evans toasted his partnership with Williams and the youthfulness of the current Wrexham squad:

“Mike has been playing well and had a run of ten or eleven games now. What is he now, twenty? And I’m nineteen so we’re a good young team. I thought we did well together!”

Despite Wrexham’s youthful enthusiasm and their impressive start to the season, the season would prove near disastrous for Wrexham, as it took a last day triumph over Boston United to ensure that they remained in the Football League. By the end of the season Evans had made 15 appearances for the Dragons and signed a two year contract extension at the club at the end of May. With Wrexham successfully maintaining their Football League status, a contract extension and a successful 1st year as a professional at the club, all looked well for Evans as he went into his 2nd year with the club.

“I am delighted to have been offered a new contract and even more so as it’s a two-year deal. I know still have plenty to do, but I have enjoyed being involved with the first team and if I keep working at my game, then I’ll be ready when I next get the chance.”

In the games Evans had played in he had shown excellent aerial ability, especially considering the typical rough-handling forwards he encountered in the lower leagues, but he had also demonstrated that he was a very capable footballer, taking his time on the ball and with the ability to play precise long balls from the heart of defence.

Unfortunately, the 2007/2008 season would be catastrophic for Wrexham and it also became the catalyst for a series of events that would lead to Evans eventually plying his trade in the US. In his first full season as a professional at Wrexham, Evans had only featured sporadically for the first team, so he went out on on loan to Northwich Victoria. Evans’ had a Woodgate-esque (circa Real Madrid) debut getting sent off within the first 30 minutes against Histon – these would be his only minutes on the pitch for Northwich. Another loan spell soon followed, this time at Tamworth, where Evans helped the side go on a 5 game unbeaten run before returning to Wrexham. On his return, Evans found himself getting in the Wrexham starting XI and playing well, but this did not last as Wrexham’s revolving door of managers opened once again and with a new manager came Evans residing on the bench once again. Relegation hit the club at the end of the season and Wrexham were no longer a Football League team. Things got worse for Evans during a training session when he had his ankle ligaments ruptured from a tackle by assistant manager (and former manager) Brian Carey, ruling him out for the duration of preseason. Evans’ Wrexham career never recovered as he was given limited opportunities in the first team; America began calling – via Dean Saunders.

One of the most famous Lost Boyos, Deano, happened to be very good friends with the manager of the newly formed Austin Aztex, Adrian Heath (who is a recurring character in Lost Boyos so far). Evans had begun looking for a place to kick start his career again, so Deano made the call across the pond to Coach Heath recommending the young Welshman – Evans would be stateside within a month and a half of this phone call.

This was to going to be a new chapter for Evans, but by his own admission in his blog entry, he confused his optimism with naivety and entered the club thinking he would be able to cope with the American soccer leagues seamlessly:

“I moved to Austin very naïve. I had little respect for soccer in America and thought I would walk all over it. I was in for a shock. The standard is very good and the league is tough.”

Although Evans was enjoying his new life in America, especially since it was in Austin that he met his long term girlfriend who he is still with, on the pitch Evans had an unsuccessful first season in the US. Evans on the field frustrations carried over to his relationship with Heath, as he began to regularly have heated arguments with the man that had brought him to the club. At the end of the 2009 season, Evans parted company with the Austin club. Shortly after his departure Evans would go on to regret leaving the club, although unbeknownst to him his departure from the club would be the catalyst for an improvement in his performances on the pitch stateside, as his confidence was restored at his next club.

Gareth Evans at Austin Aztex

Evans began his hunt for a new team at the same level, USL1, but struggled in his bid for a new club. One of the chief reasons behind Evans’ struggles for a club is that each club in the US has a strict 7 foreign player quota, immediately slimming Evans’ chances. The only option available to Evans was to drop down a league and ply his trade with USL2 side, Real Maryland Monarchs. The Real Maryland squad was under the tutelage of Anthony Hudson, the son of former England international Lee Hudson. Anthony Hudson would go on to work on the Spurs’ coaching staff under Harry Redknapp and manage Newport County.

Life at Real Maryland would be massively different for Evans, from the new snowy landscape, to the crazily early training sessions; Maryland had their training sessions 6.30am in the morning on a cheap training field as they coped with the lowest budget in the league. Evans states in his blog that he earned more in his first year as an 18 year old professional at Wrexham than at Maryland. Hudson even sorted Evans out with some coaching work with a couple of kids’ teams to help him gather some extra cash.

Hudson would have a massive impact on Evans and helped to reenergise Evans following his low-ebb in Austin, even making him club captain on his arrival at the club. Evans’ confidence sky rocketed at Real Maryland and he delivered consistently excellent performances each week and became a regular in the league’s Team of the Weeks line-ups. By the end of the season, Evans was named in the league’s Team of the Year, which was voted for by other teams’ managers. The club was too small for Evans’ ambitions and at the end of the season he began to look into other options in the US.

Anthony Hudson, Evans’ coach at Real Maryland Monarchs

Due to the lengthy spells in between American soccer leagues, Evans made a brief sojourn to Chester, where he played 2 games for the club to maintain match fitness. His time at Chester was cut short by Evans himself, a fan and ex-player of their club rivals Wrexham, as he claimed ‘going there just didn’t sit right.’ The US came calling again, firstly with Evans training and signing for the LA Blues; however he did not fully complete the transfer to the club and instead ended up on the east coast of America. On 5th April 2011, Evans signed for Wilmington Hammerheads.

Wilmington Hammerheads had been one of the most successful minor league franchises during the 2000s, but the team was forced to enter a year long hiatus in the 2010 season following a breakdown in the relationship between the USL and the club’s owner, Chuck Sullivan who had not met some of the league’s “certain requirements.” The club would enter the newly formed USL Pro league – the third tier of the US soccer. Wilmington retained their club badge, crest, colours etc. on exiting their year absence and they also came back with a familiar face in their coach, David Irving, who had been at the club since 1998.

The badge of Wilmington Hammerheads

Wilmington is a small town and it is only the 8th most populous town in the state of North Carolina. For a country that is still not enamoured with the sport, the town really get behind their soccer team, largely because they are the only professional team to hail from the town. Wilmington were an unknown quantity in the maiden season of the ULS Pro league and they took the league by surprise, surging to a 2nd place finish behind the potentially MLS-bound Orlando City. Unfortunately for Wilmington they would be defeated on penalties in the playoff quarter finals by the Richmond Kickers. Evans battled bravely during the match and ended the game with a severely cut and swollen eye and a bandaged up head, following a collision with one of the Kickers’ players. The team’s on field success was mirrored by the club’s exploits off the pitch. As mentioned earlier, the club is the focal point for many of the locals in Wilmington and this was reflected in the team’s excellent attendances, which crept up to the 5,000 mark on several occasions throughout the season.

Evans cut and bruised during the USL Pro Playoff quarter-final against Richmond Kickers

The Hammers’ good season was aided by some excellent displays from Evans, who had distinguished himself as one of the best defenders in the league. Evans’ good touch and excellent control on the ball made him perfect for a league that is played at a slow pace and relies on playing the ball out from the back. His ability to be able to spot a pass would also mean that he was a useful tool in launching quick counterattacks. He collected a tirade of personal triumphs during the season including several appearances in the USL Pro Team of the Week. At the end of the season Evans collected the club’s award for Best Defensive Player of the Year and also made the USL Pro’s Team of the Year.

The USL Pro concluded in the August, but the North American Soccer League (NASL) still had another 2 months to run. Like many players in the leagues below, Evans signed a short term contract with NASL team North Carolina Railhawks. Players stepping up to the NASL from the USL Pro league is common practice in the American leagues, as NASL teams look to bolster their squads for the final run in of their seasons and USL Pro players looking to earn a bit of extra playing time and cash before the long close season. . Evans played every minute for the Railhawks during his two month stint at the club, but unfortunately disappointment struck again and once again in the form of a penalty shootout defeat, this time in the NASL playoff semi-final.

So what does the future hold for Gareth Evans? Another year at Wilmington is on the cards for Evans, as the team looks to build on last year’s successful season (this also means we will get to see a ‘US Lost Boyos Derby’ between Evans’ Wilmington Hammerheads and Anthony Pulis’ Orlando City in the Hammerheads’ opening fixture of the USL Pro season). Once again, Evans will be a vital player for the Hammerheads in the heart of defence. From his time of arrival in the US and after a shaky start with Austin Aztex, Evans has improved and has become more confident in the US soccer climate year on year. It appears that Evans will not be coming back to play in the UK anytime soon having now completely settled in America, and I for one respect the fact that he has not stood for being a bit part player at a club and has gone to great lengths to establish himself at a club. With Evans’ ability and determination, if he was to get a chance at a higher level (MLS maybe?), there would be few that would question that he would seize his chance like a grip vice.

 

Lost Boyos will be following the progress of Gareth Evans and the efforts of the Wilmington Hammerheads throughout the 2012 USL Pro season. You can also follow Gareth on Twitter – @GarethEvans23

One thought on “Gareth Evans: The Hammerhead Dragon (Part 1)

  1. Pingback: Gareth Evans :The Hammerhead Dragon (Part 2) – The Interview « Lost Boyos

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