On Saturday Oxford’s new keeper, Luke McCormick, played his first Football League game since 2008, and his transfer from Truro has provoked fierce debate.
McCormick was jailed in 2008 for causing death by dangerous driving for crashing his Range Rover into the car of a Manchester family and killing two young brothers. McCormick was impressing for Plymouth in the Championship at the time, but the deaths of Arron and Ben Peak (10 and eight years old respectively) meant he was sentenced to seven years and four months in prison.
McCormick had been drinking at a wedding before the crash, and had ignored a phone call from a friend who told him to stop driving. CCTV footage showed him swerving across the M6 and travelling at speeds of up to 90 mph before hitting the Peak family car and killing the two young boys, who were on their way, with their father, to Silverstone.
In 2012 he was released from prison and was given a trial at Oxford United’s local rivals, Swindon Town, a move which drew passionate and mixed response from the football community. Swindon decided not to offer McCormick a contract after the dead boys’ mother, Amanda, criticised the club in an interview with the Sun.
She told the Sun: “”Swindon might be a family club, but now they’re hiring a man who has torn my family apart.”
When McCormick was picked up by non-league Truro City in the summer, the club saw attendances drop significantly as loyal fans stated they could not support the club while a convicted killer was playing between the sticks.
Now McCormick is back in the Football League, with League 2 Oxford United, and his transfer has reignited an old debate on the role of clubs in rehabilitating convicts.
McCormick isn’t the first former prisoner to cause furore among fans as they’ve tried to move on with their lives.
Lee Hughes was jailed in 2003 for causing the death of a pensioner by dangerous driving. His £100,000 Mercedes collided with the car of Douglas Graham, before Hughes fled the scene to evade police.
He served six years behind bars for the crime, but when he was released in 2009 he joined League One side, Oldham. The move was hugely controversial and many Oldham fans felt uneasy with a convicted killer on the team.
Hughes was prolific at Oldham, scoring 25 times in 55 appearances, and despite constant jeers from opposing fans, Hughes was able to rebuild his life. Oldham risked their reputation by giving Hughes a chance, but he paid them back in goals.
Hughes has since played at Blackpool and Notts County, and he’s currently scoring for Port Vale in League 2. But wherever Hughes has gone, fans have been hesitant about welcoming him to their club. They are well aware what kind of effect having a former convict at the club can have on reputations.
This is the fear of many Oxford United fans as they welcome McCormick.
Many of United’s fans were hugely critical when Swindon offered McCormick a trial, and fans are now concerned opposition supporters will say the same of them. Fans care deeply about the reputation of their club, and understandably don’t wish for it to be associated with criminals.
But some fans have backed the transfer, arguing McCormick has served his time and should be given the chance to move on with his life. And with the U’s currently suffering an injury crisis in goal, McCormick, who was an England youth international, could give them much-needed security at the back.
Clubs play a risky game when they employ ex-convicts, especially convicted killers like McCormick, with the club’s reputation firmly on the line, as well as the feelings of fans. Some would argue football has a duty to help rehabilitate its fallen stars, while others argue people like McCormick and Hughes don’t deserve a second chance.
Oxford United are traversing and ethical minefield, and employing McCormick was always going to be a contentious move. Over time fans’ anger will soften, and most will learn to accept the goal-keeper at their club, but McCormick will never be a normal player again. He will always have the deaths of Arron and Ben Peak on his conscience, and the nature of football means Oxford fans are unnecessarily having to feel a portion of that guilt themselves, while he is at their club.
There’s no easy answer when it comes to employing ex-convicts as footballers.