After three years in jail, Lee Hughes is a footballer once more. Oldham fan Dan Turner reports on the reaction from Latics and supporters elsewhere to the signing of someone who caused death by dangerous driving and the difficult questions about the rehabilitation of prisoners the case raises

Few events in modern football arrive right out of the blue. A much ridiculed post on a message board, a conversation in the pub with someone who knows someone… there’s usually at least a rumour that signals there’s a story knocking about. But not this time. When, in May, the news broke that Oldham Athletic were to sign Lee Hughes subject to his gaining parole from prison, nobody saw it coming.

To be honest, I had forgotten about Hughes. Since he was convicted in August 2004 of causing the death of Douglas Graham by dangerous driving, he had been very much off the radar. That surprised me because, like many people, my feelings toward Hughes at the time of his crime were dominated by revulsion.

The news came with the huge range of responses from Latics fans you’d expect: everything from wide-eyed astonishment to disgust to an unedifying devil-may-care excitement at the prospect of an ­ex‑Premier League striker arriving at Boundary Park. The independent Latics message board was suddenly alive with the nation’s football fans in a manner unseen since the town’s race riots in 2001. Oldham fans argued furiously among themselves and with thousands of others; some loyal Blues threatened to throw away their season tickets; letters were sent to the Oldham ­Chronicle; voices were raised on phone-ins.

What struck me almost immediately in all of this was that there was one key element to the story that was fuelling most of the emotive arguments: in the immediate aftermath of the crash in November 2003, Hughes had fled the scene to avoid being breathalysed. To many, Lee Hughes had left his victim to die. This cowardice condemned him as a worse case than there-but-for-the-grace-of-God drink-drivers such as Tony Adams, or someone such as Patrick Kluivert who had been convicted of manslaughter in a similarly fatal case in 1996.

Predictably, at first, the main Latics supporters’ message board became its administrator’s worst nightmare. The site attracted keyboard warriors from all over, eager to point out that Hughes was a “murderer” – a charge that he’d clearly never faced in court. But as the original storm abated a little, more measured, thoughtful debates started to emerge. Many were eloquently angry at the length of the sentence handed down to Hughes – both the actual six years he received from the judge and the three years he seemed set to serve. Others responded reasonably enough that Hughes wasn’t the one setting prison tariffs and, equally, the most compelling reason for keeping somebody in jail over a prolonged period was because they were a danger to the public, which wasn’t a factor in this case.

Other fans made passionate arguments regarding the importance of rehabilitation and even redemption as parts of the justice system. If he had been a bricklayer or an office worker, so the argument went, Hughes would have been allowed back into his previous profession, so why should his being a footballer make a difference? It was a worthwhile reminder to a few people ­commenting on this saga that playing football is, after all, a job not a privilege.

But grown-up debate was pushed to one side again by a Radio 5 Live performance by Oldham director Barry Owen. His specific request that the football public did not “pass moral judgment” on Hughes reminded many people that that’s precisely what they felt they ought to do.

This coincided with reports that badly injured fellow passengers in the car in which Douglas Graham died were still awaiting compensation, and some lurid claims as to why, nearly four years after the accident, the matter had still not been resolved. Add this to the ongoing and irrelevant claim that Hughes had converted to Islam while in prison (subsequently refuted), and people weren’t short of ammunition, whatever their views.

With the new season upon us, the story took to the background, only to reach a conclusion of sorts when Hughes’s application for parole was granted on August 21 and he confirmed he’d signed a two-year contract with Oldham. A week later Hughes cut a stumbling but sincere-sounding figure at a press conference, where he explained his deep remorse and sympathy for Douglas and Maureen Graham, and his awareness of the bitter injustice their family feels. What remains to be seen now, of course, is how Latics fans respond when he puts the shirt on, and what kind of reception he receives from supporters of other clubs. The uncomfortable truth amid all this drama is that both these questions are liable to be answered by how good Hughes still is at putting a ball into the back of a net.

From WSC 248 October 2007


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