In what can only be described as a PR own-goal of monumental proportions, Oxford have enraged sections of the support with the deadline day signing of former Plymouth goalkeeper Luke McCormick, following his release from prison back in June for causing death by dangerous driving. The moral implications of signing a player with McCormick's past have already been the subject of much debate and will no doubt continue to be amongst fans of the club throughout his time here. Some – correctly – assert that McCormick has done his time and is entitled to rebuild his career, while others – understandably – baulk at having their beloved club associated with such a person.
But while the moral question is ultimately an issue of personal perspective, it seems that there can be little doubt that this move is not good for the club – in terms of its perception to the outside world, its relationship with the supporters, its financial situation and in footballing terms.
Regardless of your opinion on the morality of the signing, the arrival of Luke McCormick at the club is going to attract a host of unpleasant headlines and difficult questions: such as, for example, how can a club boasting a 'Football League Family Excellence Award' justify employing the convicted killer of two children? Ian Lenagan's explanation – that it gives us “the opportunity to allow him to rehabilitate whilst meeting our unique goalkeeping situation within the salary cap” - is simply not going to hold water with many people, whether they be outsiders looking in or lifelong supporters of the club. On an issue as emotive as this, simple financial imperative is a weak justification to say the least.
The media circus surrounding McCormick – spearheaded by that bastion of family morality, the Sun – is not going to allow the club to emerge from this situation with its reputation intact. And with the club announcing earlier that very day that it is searching for a new shirt sponsor, is this really the kind of press attention we want or need? No company is going to want to be associated with a football club creating these sorts of headlines.
When the above factor is considered alongside a backdrop of a huge £450,000 loss this season and with crowds plummeting below the 6,000 mark for the first time in years (Tuesday's attendance of just 4,906 was the lowest league gate at the Kassam since we rejoined the Football League), Ian Lenagan has been forced to plead with fans to come back. Yet on the same day, this message is completely undermined with possibly the most divisive signing ever made in the history of the club.
And whether the club itself feels morally justified in making the signing, they shouldn't simply ignore the opinions of the Oxford United supporters. One would have liked to think the club had learned their lesson on this point after the backlash that followed when they accepted Swindon's bid for James Constable a year ago. Relations between the club and its fans have still yet to fully recover from that incident, and when that is added to high ticket prices during a recession, a disappointing league position and now this, how can the club possibly expect fans to start turning up in greater numbers? If anything it is likely to cause some to boycott the club while McCormick remains an Oxford United player, as was the case during his brief spell at Truro City.
Even for the many who will choose not to boycott, this puts us in a very difficult position and instead of talking football we're forced to discuss the moralities of employing someone who has been convicted of an appalling crime. Some look at the continuing popularity of Adam Chapman and may wonder whether this is such a different situation. Chapman was also convicted of death by dangerous driving, after killing 77-year-old Tom Bryan in a car accident while using his phone at the same time. His contract at Oxford was suspended while he served his sentence and he has since continued his career much where he left off. McCormick killed two children, aged eight and ten, in a car accident after driving with more than twice the legal alcohol limit in his blood. He was immediately sacked by Plymouth Argyle and has until now failed to make a return to professional football. The similarities and differences in the two cases should be immediately apparent, but whether you choose to make a moral distinction between them is obviously a matter of personal opinion.
When it was announced in the summer that McCormick was training with Swindon, they were roundly (and gleefully) condemned by large numbers of Oxford fans. Are they now supposed to welcome him with open arms now that he plays for our club? This should have given the management some clue as to the reaction amongst our supporters if they decided to sign him, but they arrogantly decided to do it anyway, regardless of the uproar it would cause.
Finally, from a footballing perspective, the move is a huge risk. McCormick may well have been an excellent goalkeeper while he was at Plymouth, but that was several years ago and since then he has played not a single game in the Football League and only a handful at Conference South level. What's to say that he will be able to perform at League Two level now, especially with opposition fans (or even Oxford fans) baying for his blood every week? For that level of risk, we would have been better off sticking with Max Crocombe in goal, who by all accounts had a very impressive debut on Tuesday.
Most worrying for me are not the moral implications of signing Luke McCormick. As distasteful as I find it that a convicted killer will be representing our club, I do agree that he has served his time and should be allowed to seek gainful employment once again. I supported the decision to stand by Chapman on much the same grounds. But I have to criticise the thought process behind signing a player who will divide the fanbase further, create deeper distrust between club and supporters and attract a huge amount of negative publicity at a time when the club desperately needs to claw some of the disgruntled support back and attract much-needed investment from sponsors.
It seems to be the latest in a whole series of baffling, disastrous decisions which have caused the club to start regressing again at an alarming rate. Just two years ago the atmosphere around the Kassam was still one of huge optimism the likes of which hadn't been witnessed around here in many years, with a profit-making club attracting average crowds of more than 7,000 and the widespread belief that we would be in League One within a year and a half. Now, our support is dwindling once again, debts are once again rising dramatically and the team is wallowing in mid-table in League Two. Decisions such as this hardly fill me with confidence that the current management know how to reverse the slide, or that they care about the beating heart and soul of Oxford United – its fans.