21 February ~ In the late 1980s I started working for a company whose deputy manager, I was told, "used to play for West Ham". Naturally I was impressed by this fact, even though I had never heard of him. So when circumstances threw us together on an airport bus, the topic for our small talk was ready made. Yes indeed, he "used to play for West Ham", my superior confirmed. "But they brought me back down to the Reserves to help the young lads come through." Then he changed the subject, but I was a trusting soul and saw no reason to disbelieve him.

I mentioned the name of the player to a West Ham-supporting friend, but he had never heard of him either. As it happened, he was working on a statistical book about the club that would list every player who had ever made a first-team appearance for the team. A few weeks later he got back to me with his findings. My company colleague had never played for West Ham's first team. I didn't broadcast the news at work. Somehow it seemed better to leave the myth undisturbed.

I was reminded of the phantom Hammer when my wife came back from Paris recently and told me about a really interesting taxi driver she had met. Let's call him Jean-Marc. He was a former professional footballer, who had played all over the United States during the late 1970s and early 1980s in the North American Soccer League. He also owned a gold Olympic medal because he played in the French side that beat Brazil 2-0 in the 1984 final in front of almost 102,000 spectators.

His call-up had been pure chance, Jean-Marc told her cheerfully from the driver's seat. The French had suffered an injury crisis and he had a couple of friends on the team who suggested to coach Henri Michel that they call up Jean-Marc, as he was playing in the US. So he ended up with a major honour, which was now on proud display at his mother's house. As he gave my wife his business card, I said we should look him up on the internet.

We did, and all we found was the name of a Parisian taxi driver, recommended by several tourists who enjoyed being driven around the French capital by him, no doubt in part due to his skills as a raconteur. But he was not named in any of the French line-ups that had competed in 1984 at Los Angeles. Neither was he to be found in Colin Jose's NASL: A Complete Record of the North American Soccer League, which lists every player that ever set foot in the league.

"Well, it was a good story," my wife shrugged, "It passed half an hour in the taxi on the ride out to the airport." We were both disappointed that it had turned out to be untrue. Rather than resent the taxi driver for spinning an imaginative yarn, we were resentful of Google for turning up the facts.

It reminded me of the Geordie braggart at the bar of our village pub when I was a teenager. Our football team had gathered one night for a beer after training and the loudmouth started mocking us for being far adrift at the bottom of the Lindsay and Kesteven District League.

Back in the day, he told us, he had been with Newcastle United, but a cruel injury had ended his promising career. He rolled up his trousers and showed us a long scar on his leg. Would he be prepared to turn out for the village team and help lift us off the bottom spot? No chance of that, he replied. He wasn't going to risk another injury in a crappy village league.

We didn't quite believe him, but we didn't quite not believe him either. That was the great thing about the pre-internet age. Unless you personally knew a club statistician, you couldn't check out the stories of supposed football players who had been on the cusp of greatness, but who had never quite established their names in the public consciousness.

It was more fun to believe that the bloke down the corridor had played for West Ham, that the obstreperous drunk had graced the turf of St James' Park, or that the garrulous cabbie had once been bestowed with an Olympic gold. Now, sadly, it would only take a quick search on an iPhone to slap down the fantasist and turn him into an object of derision. Football will always have its legends, but the extinction of its myths makes the game's narrative significantly less colourful. Ian Plenderleith

Comments (22)
Comment by StanBowles 2012-02-21 11:42:11

I don't know if this is off topic but...
Was Comrade Jim really a bit of a fraud?

Comment by Stumpy Pepys 2012-02-21 11:43:58

Well, it didn't stop Gordon Ramsay's fictitious football career at Glasgow Rangers.

I've found the usual apocryphal boast to be, "I once had a trial for …" (It's nearly always for Tranmere or Brentford.)

Comment by Sheds 2012-02-21 11:47:33

Reminds me of when I was asked to turn out for FC Xhimki of Moscow a couple of years back. No, I was. Honestly.

Comment by StanBowles 2012-02-21 11:48:54

Trials are always a safe bet, aren't they.

Comment by Lincoln 2012-02-21 12:13:50

People have just got smarter. The most common phrase I hear now is being "on the books" of such and such a club, whatever that means. I have played with people who are terrible at football who have claimed to have been on the books of teams from St Mirren to Shamrock Rovers. However I did once play with someone at University who claimed to have been in the Athletico B team and he was by a country mile the best player I have ever played against. He also gave further evidence of his past by falling onto the ball and catching it whenever he was touched to make sure a foul was given.

Comment by Paul Rowland 2012-02-21 12:34:27

DID YOU KNOW... there's a small village in East Sussex, somewhere between Hastings and Eastbourne, that goes by the name of Westham? Yes indeed! I'm not sure if they've got a football team or not, but if they do.... maybe that's who IMP's deputy manager used to play for.

(Well, it's possible isn't it?)

Comment by TheRedMax 2012-02-21 12:46:24

I've never met a Scouser yet who hasn't claimed to have had a trial for Liverpool, Everton or Tranmere.
They poor scouts must have seen some dross over the years if the standard of their subsequent play in 5-a-side or Sunday League was anything to go by.

Comment by Efficient Baxter 2012-02-21 13:54:10

The thing is, from what knowledge I have accumulated anecdotally, is that this next generation coming through will have been on the books of one football club or another if they can competently kick a football. Clubs these days seem to suck up anyone with an iota of talent just in case they find a diamond. In other words - they were much more selective in my day. At least that's what I'm going to say.

Comment by Jongudmund 2012-02-21 14:17:52

Two more stories...

The guy I sat next to at a Clachnacuddin game who claimed to have played for Sheffield Wednesday reserves, which involved traning with Sam Allardyce. His impression of Big Sam implied he was unbelivably thick.

A guy I worked in a call centre with sho had trials as a youngster with Leeds United and was offered a contract but turned it down because as a teenager he "didn't want it" what with having to get up early in the morning for training and stuff.

Comment by geobra 2012-02-21 14:27:11

@ stumpy pepys

In Jack Rosentahl's classic 1972 play 'Another Sunday and Sweet FA', Collyhurst and District Sunday League referee Mr Armistead, played by David Swift, claims that he could have been a professional player, and that he once had a trial with.......... Tranmere!

And I once scored a hat-trick at school at the age of 15 with the then Wolves manager Stan Cullis on the touch line. Unfortunately he had his back to our game as he was watching Wolves Youth team play our school first XI. Now if he'd turned round ........

Comment by Coral 2012-02-21 14:28:15

A lot of celebrities "could have made it as a footballer". Some true, some trying to appeal to male fans. Road Stewart in the former, Ralf Little in the latter.

Think the bloke in Steps not called H was on the books at Everton in goal, someone from West life was on the books at Leeds etc etc

Comment by johntheface 2012-02-21 14:54:04

Hasn't done Balotelli any harm...

Comment by ingoldale 2012-02-21 16:21:26

Come on Ian - as a yellowbelly I fail to believe it is the Lindsay and Kesteven district league and more the LINDSEY and Kesteven league is it not?

Comment by cleftydave 2012-02-21 16:36:01

On the bus to Dublin from Galway one day recently I over heard two American girls talking excitedly about the two members of the Italian soccer team they'd met last night in a nightclub on Eyres Square, and the wild night they'd had with them. Given the reputation of Cassano, even in his injured state, I'm not going to totally rule it out.

Comment by Analogue Bubblebath II 2012-02-21 19:10:04

France's 1984 Olympics squad contained a Jean-Philippe, a Jean-Christophe, a Jean-Louis and a Jean-Claude.

But no Jean-Marc.

Comment by Roger Titford 2012-02-22 11:58:20

A girl I knew married a guy who claimed to have played for Aldershot. I looked him in all the relevant Rothmans - he wasn't there but I didn't tell her that. It ended in divorce, of course.

Comment by jertzeeAFCW 2012-02-22 13:30:37

If I had £10 for every time someone said to me "I once played for Wimbledon", or "Some bloke that wokred her eused to play for Wimbledon" I could probably by the club a new ground in Merton.

Of course it goes without saying that I have never heard of any of them.

One guy apparently said he was a goalie at AFC Wimbledon when the club was only 2 years old which was laughable as the club only had a couple of keepers in total of which he wasn't one of them. I suspect he was one of the hundreds that atteneded the trials on Wimbledon Common but I reckon that is being kind on him.

BTW, did I mention I was once offered a trial by Corinthian Casuals (honestly!).

Comment by Sport Economist 2012-02-22 16:10:37

This from a pal: When I were a lad at my caravan site me and my brothers used to play football with a tubby wee chap called Joe who claimed to be in the academies of Middlesbrough, Sunderland and Newcastle simultaneously. He was alright at football (as 8 year olds go) but probably didn’t merit his nickname of ‘Joeninho’ (this was during the height of Juninho’s fame at Boro). He got fatter as the years went on and we did wonder that not one of the academies had a nutritionist...

Comment by Nigelwyn 2012-02-22 17:37:57

David Frost is said to have been offered a contract at Forest but turned it down to go to university (of course he did).
Meanwhile Michael Sheen who played David Frost in Frost/Nixon claims to have been offered a contract at Arsenal when he was 12 but turned it down as it was too far from the family home in South Wales.
I turned down an offer to attend the Sorbonne because I didn't fancy eating all that French food for 3 years.

Comment by Giggler 2012-02-23 12:47:39

Funny you should be replying to this, Mr Bowles.

When your sister ran the Hare and Hounds in Manchester, I was talking to her in there one night just after I'd started drinking in there. I told her I was a Bury fan and she said "Oh, my brother used to play for Bury."

Expecting to be told the name of someone who'd played three reserve games in 1976, I asked who it was. I very nearly had to be helped to stand straight again after she'd told me.

That's if you *are* who you say you are.

Comment by madmickyf 2012-02-24 02:28:34

Another funny thing about these guys is that they always think that they were/are way more talented than those who actually went on to have professional careers. I used to work with a guy who claimed to have been a goalie for Luton's youth team at the same time as Kelvin Davis. Kelvin has played over 500 games of League football but apparently was "crap" whilst my former colleague was a "fantastic player" but is still waiting to make his debut. Those scouts just don't know talent when they see it!

Comment by Ronny Delgado 2012-02-24 14:44:58

In Holland the usual myth is that famous player X actually had a brother with much greater talents but never made it.

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