Disgraced former Sheffield United striker Ched Evans was spirited away from prison under cover of darkness mid-way through his five year sentence for rape.
The 25-year-old took his first steps of freedom at 4.58am yesterday as he left the confines of Wymott Prison, near Preston, Lancashire.
He was whisked away in a blacked-out silver Mercedes 4x4, which pulled up outside the jail seconds before Evans emerged from a doorway and slid into the back seat.
One onlooker said: “It was a synchronised movement. The Mercedes turned up and parked up down the road. It then reversed back at speed towards the jail exit.
“Then the prison door opened and the back door of the car opened.
“Ched dived in the back and the car sped off.”
As dawn broke - and Evans was driven off to rebuild his shattered life and reputation - the reality of the footballer’s time behind bars emerged.
Gone were the flash home and car in rural Penistone. Instead Evans’ outlook for the last two and a half years has been a wooden perimeter fence with a 20ft high inner metal barrier topped with barbed wire.
His life behind bars was run with military precision, with an army of jail guards supervising the striker during his incarceration in the Category C prison.
Paedophile veteran broadcaster Stuart Hall is among the other high profile inmates doing time there.
A press pack gathered outside the prison waiting for Evans to be released yesterday, but his freedom came while fellow inmates slept - a decision from inside which helped the footballer avoid a media frenzy.
Interest in the £3 million striker’s release reached fever pitch this week, with supporters claiming he is ready to resume his football career and objectors signing up to a petition which has so far attracted 150,000 signatures.
Broadcaster Judy Finnigan caused an outcry when she down played the rape, saying the victim had been drunk and was not physically harmed.
A statement released on a website set up by the Evans’ camp to protest his innocence said: “Next week Ched will make a very personal and profound statement by video which will be on his site.
“Ched is now adjusting to normal life after serving a sentence for a crime consistently denied.
“Ched would like to thank, prior to the video statement, the thousands of people from all walks of life who have supported him and believe in him.”
His mum Helen Roberts turned to Twitter to speak of her relief at her son’s release.
She wrote: “Thank you to every single person that has supported, took abuse for, and argued for, Ched and my family. It really has helped keep us strong.”
Glamour model Nicola McLean replied: “You must be so happy to have him home,” to which Ms Roberts said: “Yes I am. Thank you.”