New Blue profile: Pass-master Lee Evans is a pressure player
- Credit: ITFC/PA
Lee Evans became the second signing of the summer for Ipswich Town last week. STUART WATSON profiles the ex Wolves, Sheffield United and Wigan midfielder.
Lee Evans has worked under the likes of Justin Edinburgh, Kenny Jackett, Chris Coleman, Phil Parkinson, Chris Wilder and, of course, Paul Cook.
Take a look back through those managers descriptions of him as a player and you’ll see recurring themes: A fine range of passing, good set-piece delivery, physically competitive and mentally strong.
He played 13 times for Wales U21s and has been capped four times by their senior side, the most recent of which was in March 2019.
He’s got nearly a million pounds of transfer fees behind him (£200k to Wolves, £750k to Sheffield United).
He’s made more appearances in the Championship (120) than League One (102).
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He’s got league finishes of 3rd (Newport, National League), 1st (Wolves, League One), 7th (Wolves, Championship), 5th (Bradford, League One), 15th (Wolves, Championship), 1st (Wigan, League One), 10th (Sheffield United, Championship), 18th (Wigan, Championship), 23rd (Wigan, Championship) and 20th (Wigan, League One) on his CV.
And those last two finishes are a little misleading given what’s gone on at Wigan.
The Latics were on course for a comfortable mid-table finish in 2019/20 before administration and a points deduction.
Then the Lancashire club’s great escape of last season – in which Evans played a key role after returning from injury in March – was arguably just as big an achievement for the midfielder as anything else he’d previously achieved in his career.
Evans admits that being released by Bristol Rovers at the age of 15 was ‘one of the worst feelings I’ve ever had in my life’.
He said: “Maybe I took my eye off the ball. I was in tears and I thought, that’s it, done. But my dad said now was the time to work harder and to show I was good.”
That he did. Snapped up by his hometown club of Newport County, Evans played in an FA Trophy Final in 2012 and then helped set the club on their way towards promotion to the Football League the following season.
Three years on from his Rovers heartbreak, Evans had been signed by Championship club Wolves - aged 18 - for £200k.
Twice he has been loaned down to League One in his career only to knuckle down and earn his chance as a second-tier player again.
And on several occasions he has battled back from injuries to remind people of his talent.
Back in 2017, in what was his first start following a four-and-a-half month absence, he produced an eye-catching display as Wolves knocked Premier League side Stoke out of the FA Cup. Evans marked former Barcelona man Bojan out of the game that day.
Last season, after undergoing knee surgery in December, he was back in the Wigan side less than three months later and helped Leam Richardson’s men beat the drop against the odds.
Paul Cook made it his priority to sign players who can handle the pressure that comes with playing for Ipswich Town in League One.
Evans certainly fits that bill.
Wolves were expected to achieve promotion from League One at the first time of asking in 2013/14. Evans helped them win the title (19 starts).
Bradford were expected to challenge for League One promotion in 2015/16. Evans helped them to a fifth-place finish (34 starts).
Newly-relegated Wigan were among the League One favourites at the start of 2017/18. Evans helped set them on their way to the title (20 starts before January move).
Chris Coleman, explaining his decision to call Evans up to the senior squad for the first time, said: “Wolves is a big club and he’ll be used to playing at Molineux, where there’s a big expectation. That’s good for him that he’s been able to cope with that recently.”
WHY CHAMPIONSHIP CLUBS LET HIM GO
After a fine start to life in the Championship under Wolves, Evans faded from the picture in 2014/15.
Speaking to the South Wales Argus at that time, he said: “I have to play well or I’ll be out the side - I know that. League One to Championship is a huge step up. I made a mistake at Ipswich recently (Daryl Murphy scoring twice in a 2-1 win for the Blues) and it cost us a goal. You might get away with it in League One or Two, but not in the Championship.”
Boss Jackett said: "Lee has an excellent range of passing and is very competitive. But he needs to cut out the mistakes because he's given away too many goals and too many chances. But there's no doubting his ability."
Evans spent the next season at promotion-chasing League One side Bradford City on loan, returning to Wolves looking to give it another go in the Championship. An injury held him back under new boss Walter Zenga though and, after working his way into Paul Lambert's plans, found himself surplus to requirements when Nuno Espirito Santo took over and began raiding the Portuguese market.
Another eye-catching loan spell in League One, this time at Wigan, persuaded newly-promoted Championship club Sheffield United to sign him for £750k in January 2018.
Evans started 18 games as the Blades secured a 10th place finish, but was allowed to rejoin Wigan that summer.
Manager Wilder explained: "One of the big things is the return of (Paul) Coutts. We brought Lee in, who has covered for us for seven months, but now Paul’s back."
Evans has netted 20 goals in 284 senior appearances - that’s roughly one every 14 games.
Check out his two volleys scored in the same match against Middlesbrough back in 2018. The side-footed finish from outside of the box is a thing of real beauty.
On average, he attempted two shots a game last season – not bad for a holding midfielder who takes set-pieces in a struggling side.
Speaking in 2014, team-mate Sam Ricketts quipped: “He needs to practice his shooting a bit because he’s damaged a few trees on the training ground but he’s starting to put a few in the goal as well!
“That’s always good for a young player because it gets you noticed. You can play the same but if you get a goal or two people take not of you.”
No League One midfielder made more passes per game, on average, than Evans last season (57).
No outfield player in the division played more ‘long balls’ per game (10) than him.
His pass success rate of 81% is pretty good given that volume of possession.
And alongside that, there are some favourable defensive stats too.
Evans made an average of 2.3 tackles per game (=18th in league) and 1.5 interceptions (=30th).
It all paints the picture of a player that will hopefully be able to spray the ball with a similar accuracy to Andre Dozzell, but perhaps add a bit more defensive steel to the midfield as well.
*Stats from WhoScored.com.