False promise

Ron Hamilton tells the story of the player that never was

A summer without football is a long, drawn-out affair for everyone. For Leeds, true to form, it’s been more than a little depressing. With the legacy of Publicity Pete’s gross financial mis­management still hanging over the club, fans have had to come to terms with a new era of parsimony at Elland Road. Thus denied the usual pre-season fun of transfer speculation (discounting the “who’s Harry’s boyhood club this week?” affair) there has precious little to do, save for the ceremonial burning of Bernie Mandic wickermen on the Headrow every sec­ond Wednesday.

It was this air of depression that made the surprise all the more palpable when, late last month, press reports began circulating that Leeds had taken a talented Austrian midfielder by the name of Ernest Gund on trial. After the months of misery it seemed that thanks to the moneymaking scheme of a swear box in Peter Reid’s office, enough 20p pieces had been cobbled together for a signing-on fee. What’s more, Gund appeared to be a veritable prodigy, “the most successful product to date of Aus­tria’s youth program… he is Austrian football’s brightest talent and is tipped for bigger things”, proclaimed his website (Gund­web – “the best Ernest Gund website on the internet”) proudly.

The papers seemed to concur that this young Austrian, among whose achievements was listed the notable feat of being nominated for the undoubtedly prestigious “Austria’s sexiest sports personalities 2001” poll, was one to watch. Apparently an Under-21 regular and on the cusp of the full international squad, it was reported that Gund had finished top scorer for Austrian second div­ision outfit DVS Leoben two seasons ago. Alongside his apparent eye for goal, Gund was also set to bring with him a ready-made mer­chandising band­wagon.

A quick perusal of his online shop revealed an innovative eye for cashing-in. The no-expense-spared line of “Ernest Gund – is a pineapple” aprons was always destined to be a favourite, as were Gund-labelled boxer shorts. Talk of bulk or­ders was rife; Yorkshire’s sense of sartorial elegance would never be the same again.

As time passed, Gund’s name was further linked to Leeds by the Yorkshire Evening Post and the Observer, among others. Reportedly close to joining, fans forums were now a fren­zy of speculation about Gund’s potential. It appeared Leeds’ only stumbling block was the growing interest in the youngster with more reports emerging, this time that Middlesbrough, Charlton and (who else) Chelsea had joined the fray. With wealthier clubs beginning to hover, Leeds fans were growing in­creasingly nervy. To make matters worse the club had remained conspicuously silent and Gund failed to make his scheduled first-team bow against York. It was looking increasingly likely that Gund had indeed been poached from under Leeds noses.

In the end, however, this indignity was noth­ing compared to the reality that, almost a week after the story had first broken, finally hit. Gund, rather than being the box-to-box mid­fielder promised was in fact not a mid­fielder at all. Indeed, it transpired, Ernest Gund did not exist. The immediate suspicion among bemused fans was that there had been a mix-up with United’s other metaphysical midfield mystery, Paul Okon. (“If Paul Okon plays in the centre of the field and no one notices him, does he really exist?”) The truth was only conclusively discovered the next day, when an enterprising fan contacted the offices of Leoben, only to be greeted with first confusion and then derision.

At first the sense of anguish was palpable, with many feeling they had been taken in by a cruel hoax. What’s more, questions had to be asked as to how a fictional player whose career and personality were fabricated, it later tran­spired, based on his erroneous inclusion in the Championship Manager series of com­puter games, became the focus of press speculation. As anger subsided, replaced by a sense of resigned embarrassment, the real post-mor­tem began.

At the root of the Ernest Gund mystery was the existence of his website, seemingly the sole source that the press had used to embellish their stories. Gundweb, it was discovered, had been created by one Joe Campioni, who had endowed a fictional character with just enough personality to make him believable. Magnificently, in exercising his own fertile imagination he hoodwinked an indolent press, following each other’s lead with flagrant disregard for any semblance of truth. The resulting game of Chinese whispers was testimony to the noble art of tabloid journalism.

Depressingly, it speaks volumes for the down­grading of Leeds United’s fortunes and the financial meltdown of football that a swoop for an imaginary footballer was their transfer highlight of their summer. Still, if they’re ever short of underwear, there’s a bloke round the back of Elland Road with a crate of Ernest Gund boxers going cheap. Meanwhile, I’m off to follow up an exclusive lead that classy veteran Roy Race is on the verge of a move to Chelsea.

From WSC 200 October 2003. What was happening this month