Trying to sign convicted rapist has hurt reputation of club
16 January ~ You could be forgiven for thinking that the saga of Ched Evans’s on-off transfer to Oldham Athletic was concocted by someone involved in the marketing department at Boundary Park, obsessed with the principle that "there’s no such thing as bad publicity”. How else to make sense of a period in which so many apparently intelligent people so publicly took leave of their senses? It’s almost impossible to find a single party involved with the farrago who emerges with any credit.
From a moral standpoint, Evans is a convicted rapist who took advantage of a woman far too inebriated to consent to sexual intercourse. The jury at Caernarfon Crown Court delivered this verdict in April 2012. And it was one subsequently validated later the same year when both a single judge and a three-judge panel of the Court of Appeal separately refused Evans leave to appeal against his conviction.
To understand the depth of controversy and anger stirred up by Oldham’s attempts to sign Evans, it helps to compare the case to another in the same mould. In August 2007, Oldham signed Lee Hughes on his release from prison after serving a sentence for causing death by dangerous driving. The arguments for and against this move were acrimonious at the time, but the controversy lacked the all-consuming white heat we’ve seen with Evans.
A story such as Evans’s was always going to have a high profile in the national press – even if the FA, the Football League and the PFA were all conspicuous by their silence. But what drew in every media outlet from the New Statesman to the Morning Star, Eurosport to Mumsnet, not to mention the three main party leaders in Westminster, was his lack of remorse. Hughes cut a reduced and contrite sounding figure on his release. Evans took the opposite path. In the face of damning evidence, he has loudly pronounced his innocence.
Whether that was to increase his chances of success with the Criminal Cases Review Commission or because, as Fabia Bates, director of Survivors Network, said, “he doesn’t understand what rape is”, is difficult to clarify. But to stand silently by while his supporters – sanctioned or otherwise – abused and named his victim via social media, forcing her to change her identity five times for her own safety, makes Evans a man impossible to sympathise with.
Collectively, this made the football and commercial implications of Oldham’s actions all the more baffling. You could predict that sponsors, including Mecca, Nando’s, Zen Office and Verlin Rainwater Solutions, would flee from this PR train wreck and you would not have to be an experienced football manager to conclude that, after two-and-a-half years in prison, a player who’s not yet fit (let alone match fit) wouldn’t be worth a fraction of the aggravation signing him would cause.
When the decision finally came to sideline the deal on January 8, Oldham board director Neil Joy tacitly admitted the club had misjudged the mood among sponsors, identifying the "significant financial pressure that would be placed on the club" should a contract with Evans be concluded. Much more depressingly, Joy also referred to "vile and abusive threats, some including death threats, which have been made to our fans, sponsors and staff". Greater Manchester Police said that no official complaints had been received, but if this is true – and BBC Sports editor, Dan Roan, commented that he’d seen an Oldham director close to tears as a result of these reported threats – then the club bears a heavy responsibility for the consequences of its actions.
Furthermore, these consequences threaten to echo into the future. On January 13, the Oldham Chronicle reported that Latics’ chairman-owner (and major backer), Simon Corney had "had enough" and was looking to sell the club. This, allied to the resignations of two other board members, augurs further turmoil – most of it financial. It’s not an exaggeration to say that in the precarious world of lower-league football, these nine days could ultimately spell the end for a 110-year-old club. Whatever events play out from here, Oldham Athletic’s failed pursuit of a convicted rapist has exhausted their staff, their fans and their reputation. Dan Turner