More than 61,000 people have signed a petition urging Sheffield United not to reinstate convicted rapist Ched Evans to their team when he is released from prison.
The striker, jailed in 2012 for a raping a 19-year-old woman in a hotel room, will be welcomed back by Sheffield United when he is released from jail, according to a supporters' group. The club, known as the Blades, have made no official comment yet.
Evans is due to be released in October after serving half of a five-year sentence. His victim was outed on social media following his conviction. She had to change her identity and move home because she came under such vicious attack from Evans' supporters. He continues to maintain his innocence, despite three high court judges refusing to grant him leave to appeal his conviction.
Women's charities said that if Evans was re-signed it would trivialise sexual violence, and the action would suggest that the unanimous verdict of a jury, as well as the ruling of the appeal judges, was wrong.
Katie Russell from Rape Crisis England and Wales said: "If, as seems inevitable, Ched Evans is re-signed by Sheffield United it will reinforce the message that football is no place for women but a place where women who are victims of rape are called gold diggers and bitches and much worse beside, and where sexual violence against women is accepted.
"At no point have Sheffield United issued a clear message that rape and sexual violence is wrong, nor have they ever said they deplore what Ched Evans did. He is a convicted rapist and that must mean something. Their refusal to condemn him reinforces myths and misinformation about rape – they don't seem to understand that the law is very clear that if someone is too drunk or otherwise incapacitated to consent, it is rape."
The petition, addressed to Sheffield United's chairman, Kevin McCabe, and owner, Prince Abdullah Bin Musa'ad Bin Abdul Aziz, said for the club to welcome Evans back was a "deep insult to the woman who was raped and to all women like her who have suffered at the hands of a rapist".
Despite such strong objections, Alan Smith, from the official supporters' club, said he has been told Evans will be returning. "I've been led to believe that is the case," he said. "I've been told he will be back."
Smith said he believes the majority of Blades fans will want Evans back: "I think that for most supporters it's good he's coming back because of what he did for us before," he said. "I think that he's served his time." Smith said he thought many fans believed Evans was wrongly convicted.
The Wales international and Port Vale defender Clayton McDonald both admitted having sex with the victim, – McDonald was found not guilty of the same charge.
United refused to comment on Wednesday, but directed journalists to previous statements on the subject. In April, the club confirmed that, "as part of its ongoing policy of providing a duty of care to former employees and their families" it had been in touch with Evans in prison.
That statement was greeted with derision by Rape Crisis. At the time, Russell said: "In any normal workplace, if someone was unanimously convicted of a serious crime like rape, their contract of employment would immediately be terminated and their former employees would have no 'duty of care' towards them."
Last year a report from the Crown Prosecution Service found that false allegations of rape and domestic violence are perhaps more rare than previously thought, and that in only a very small number of cases was it considered that there was sufficient evidence and that it was in the public interest to prosecute a person suspected of making a false allegation of rape or domestic violence.