As newspaper apologies go, it was par for the course. Buried on page 55 in yesterday's Times, came the humble correction: "It was incorrectly reported here yesterday that Liverpool were trying to sign Didier Baptiste a France under-21 international from AS Monaco," the paper admitted. Oh dear, bit of a bum steer: this Didier character isn't going to Anfield at all, then. Must be off somewhere else. Well, yes and no. "In fact," added the Times, "Baptiste is a fictional character in Dream Team, the Sky One football drama." And he's on his way to Harchester United, FA Cup-winning heroes of the ever-entertaining, if ever preposterous twice-weekly soap. As blunders go, this was not a small one. And the Times's rivals dedicated considerably more prominence than the publication itself to the former newspaper of record's embarrassment. "Paper links Liverpool to player who doesn't exist," gloated the Independent in its home news section. While the Guardian's back page, with a certain continuity, sniggered "Dream £3.5million Liverpool transfer for a player who doesn't exist". Newspaper makes up story shock: and this is news? Except that the Times did not make up the yarn.
To great embarrassment all round, as the story unravelled, it was discovered that a sub editor on the paper took the information hook, line and fictional stinker from Liverpool's own official Clubcall, a telephone line which promises to keep callers informed on "all the inside news and gossip" for a mere 60p a minute. It is a source which might be assumed to be a reasonably accurate conduit of news on matters pertaining to Liverpool Football Club. So where did Clubcall get its information? Well, this brave disseminator of tittle-tattle from inside Anfield, took it from the News of the World, whose Soccer Secrets column revealed all on Sunday. But the finger of blame for making it up cannot even be pointed at that seasoned spinner of exaggerations and half-truths. Last week, the paper received a tip-off on the story from the Hayters sports agency, someone rang up to check the source and was told that the journalist who came up with it was not in the office. Which appeared to be confirmation enough for the paper. So it ran the story. Sources close to Hayters, incidentally, suggest the news was originally picked up from an unofficial website which flagged it as a cyberlink teaser hoping to entice in passing surfers. At no point, it seems, despite all the telephoneactivity, did anyone seek to endorse the information by the simple expedient of looking up Baptiste's details in a European football year book.
A conspiracy theorist might suggest that the story was planted in the first instance to gain maximum publicity for Dream Team. After all, both the News of the World and the Times share a common owner with Sky. But that suggests more sophisticated minds at work than were actually involved here. What the story does expose is the peculiar relationship between football and the newspapers in this country, a relationship founded on a tolerance of rumours, assumptions and preposterous inventions of a kind which would be considered inexcusable anywhere else. No other business would dare communicate with its customers in the slap-dash, confused and plain misleading way football does.
The simple fact is that if Didier Baptiste did exist no one would have batted an eyelid at the story, even if there was not the remotest chance of Liverpool signing him. No one from Anfield would have complained, no one from the Times would have apologised. Every day the newspapers are loaded with tales like this, connecting players with clubs and managers with huge transfer fees. Everyday the Times alone carries half a page called the Premiership Today, a club-by-club round-up of news about hamstrings and groin strains, transfers and personality clashes. In these football mad times, this is supposed by marketing executives to shift units. Half of it may well be complete balderdash. But no one minds because everyone benefits from a news regime in which such information receives such prominence. The paper, through offering a supposedly comprehensive service, gains readers; football managers relish the opportunity of dropping - for their own reasons - titbits to journalists; agents can talk up interest in their clients; and fans, for whom tradeable gossip counts as real currency, love passing on the tales. Meanwhile, few clubs employ authoritative press officers with whom to confirm or deny anything.
The way in which football news has always been leaked makes the Machiavellian orbit of Downing Street official spokesmen look a paragon of transparency. But in these days of blanket coverage it is ever more difficult to separate fact from fiction. Take, for instance, the rumours of major signings which always seem to surface just around the time season tickets go on sale. A back-page piece linking a Premiership club with Ronaldo or Batistuta can shift hundreds of season tickets to ever-optimistic punters. And if the lead comes from a club chairman, who is a mere journalist to doubt its veracity? In such a climate, any old gossip goes. In such a climate, no one knows the real story. In such a climate fiction is as good as fact. The only surprise in the Dream Team case was that it hadn't happened before and a fictional footballer made his way into the real world: Roy Race moving from Melchester Rovers to Arsenal, perhaps, or Billy Dane taking his boots to Chelsea, or even Stan Collymore finally getting a transfer from Aston Villa. On second thoughts, some stories are just too improbable even for the football pages.
Source: The Mirror (Thursday November 25, 1999)