Sporting life was greener on the other side for Evans
JOHN EVANS remembers the day in 1965 that he was asked to choose between bowls and football.
Evans was just 18 at the time, and a promising professional footballer with Torquay United. He was a tricky, speedy winger, who could be usefully deployed at inside right, and had a bright future in the game.
But Evans was also a promising bowls player, and that year had reached the finals of the National Singles, which were due to be played at Mortlake.
With the Gulls holding their pre-season training at Chelsea – just a few miles down the road from the old Watney's Brewery greens – Evans had made the not unreasonable request to play in the bowls event. But new manager Frank O'Farrell had other ideas.
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"It was on the radio that I first heard I had been banned," said Evans.
"He had sent me up to Chelsea to play with the boys and I had qualified for the national singles.
"So I got on the train back, and when I went into to see Frank O'Farrell and he was sat there with a stack of letters on his desk, which were objections from people who didn't think I should be banned.
"He said 'I've got enough problems with the footballers at this club, let alone someone playing bowls'."
"But I went up and played anyway."
Almost 50 years later, Evans reflects on the moment as a turning point in his life. Sat at a table beside the green at Torquay United Indoor Bowling Club – which happens to be directly beneath the terraces at Plainmoor – Evans says he has no regrets.
He had been highly regarded prior to O'Farrell's arrival, with previous manager Eric Webber promising he would 'build a team around him' at inside right.
Evans scored on his debut, against then leaders Tranmere Rovers, and went on to make eight appearances in total for the Gulls.
But a shift to the hard-running game which O'Farrell preferred – and which ultimately helped Torquay to promotion – meant Evans was a marginal figure.
"I was a lifeguard down at Oddicombe Beach – not that I could have saved anybody – and I was out on a boat when I heard that Eric Webber had been sacked," recalls Evans.
"They said that Frank O'Farrell was going to be manager and that I would get on with him, but he came down with his own players, and Tommy Spratt played in my position."
Two years later, Evans remembers parting with the club on good terms, with O'Farrell saying it had been a difficult decision to let him go, and that he would like to see Evans go on to prove him wrong.
But he opted to play part-time at Bideford Town, and let his bowls career flourish instead.
Evans said his mind was already made up by then, having turned down a move to then Division One side Birmingham City, whose head scout Don Dorman had travelled down to Torquay on a mission to sign him.
"I never look back now," he says.
"They [Birmingham City] kept me down the Palm Court until 2am and offered about £7,000 for me when I was young.
"But I was in love with bowls – it was my life."
Evans went on to have a stellar career in bowls, which is still going after his recent 65th birthday.
At his peak, Evans was a regular in the England bowls team for 10 years, and won silver at the 1974 Commonwealth Games, in the pairs event.
He was recalled to the England side in 2000 – the Daily Telegraph described it as being in the autumn of his career – and has continued to play at the top level. Only last year, Evans joined club-mates Griff Sanders and Lloyd Clarke in representing England at the International Series, as winners of the previous year's National Triples.
But Evans is less keen to talk about his own career as he is about the club which he helped set up back in 1994.
It was Evans, together with Terry Hawkins and United director Mervyn Benney, who had come up with the idea of a bowling club underneath the terrace at Plainmoor, and suggested it to then owner Mike Bateson. Torquay United Indoor Bowling Club was born – and immediately attracted 300 members.
With the club turning 18 in October, Evans is as busy as ever in leading the charge – as a player, selector and president.
Having helped the club's elite performers to one of their most successful seasons ever, Evans is now tasked with attracting members to balance the club's rising energy costs.
"We ought to get a bigger sign, as some people still don't know where we are – we've only been here for 17 years," he says with a laugh.
"The key thing is that we want people to feel that they're welcome to come in and have a go – they don't need to be coached from the minute they're through the door."
Discerning the difference between the club's elite performers and those members who just want to come in and have a roll-up is the key for Evans.
He adds: "We got into the last four in the country in the Denny Cup, and that's what we're mainly focused on, but it is a balance between that and the other parts of the club.
"There are three or four different facets to the club – there are the roll-up players, the league players and the evening games which are a bit more competitive.
"If you come in the evening you will find that there's a completely different atmosphere to the daytime.
"We cater for everybody, day and night really.
"We're one of the few clubs who have a full time staff – and two of the ladies, Joyce Snell and Jean Bamber, have been with us since the day it opened."
Despite suffering defeat in the semi-finals of the Denny Cup, the last year will go down as a success for the club, who became National Top Club champions and also saw their U25s capture titles at club and county level. The women also won the Lane Trophy for the first time in the club's history.
It could have been even better if county bowls organisers had not scheduled U25 double-rink matches on the same days as ties in the Egham Trophy – the national mixed elite competition.
But the addition of England international skip Jamie Chestney to the club for next season, among others, further strengthens Torquay United's already talented squad.
"This is what the attraction is for me – the youngsters that we've got," enthuses Evans.
"It's a phenomenal mix. I keep telling the youngsters that they will never get a better set up than they've got here. Hopefully we can keep them here for along as long as we can.
"We've got another tremendous young player in Harry Goodwin, who is just 14. With myself and Danny Denison too we've got both ends of the scale."
Even more remarkable is the fact that this squad has been assembled without having to offer financial incentive, as Evans insists the club don't pay anything to their top players.
"The top players are treated no differently to the beginners," he says.
"Everybody pays their membership – some of the members might think that we look after the star players, but nothing could be further from the truth."
The squad is rated so highly that it could be conceivable that Evans himself admits he might not be picked if others were on better form.
He says: "To be honest I'm a realist. I won't be skipping next season, as we've got Jamie Chestney coming in as a skip and I would also happily play at third bowl to Danny Denison.
"I play a lot, but I've got to do it to keep up with the youngsters.
"When we're playing in competitions the boys will tell me when I'm playing well.
"But as soon as my form drops I would be out.
"I would happily step side if my form wasn't up to it, but that applies to everybody.
"Its strength in depth really, that's the main thing."
In truth, Evans' experience is always likely to count in his favour when selecting Torquay United's teams for the top competitions.
But Evans offers a wry smile at the thought of being edged out by youngsters. It's perhaps because it brings back memories of a conversation in 1983 - when a selector had tried to call premature time on his England career.
"I was only in my 30s – a selector came up to me and said 'John, we're going to leave you out, as the youngsters are coming in, and they've got better eyesight'. I was only 35 at the time.
"So I asked him to pass me my walking stick, which he didn't like, and that was that. Once you're out of the international team, it's very tough to get back in."
"But I couldn't complain – I'd had 10 years in the side by then."