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