Websites are now beginning to follow newspapers into the world of misleading headlines. Ian Plenderleith reports

Wilfully misleading headlines were once largely the preserve of tabloid newspapers, but online sub-editors are now competing with millions of sites for attention, so they must spice up their tasters accordingly, regardless of their outlet. This provides those readers who can be bothered to access the story with the diverting pastime of comparing the headline with the content and trying to see if there is more than a passing resemblance between the two.

For those who love such spot-the-distortion games, one of the most gratifyingly egregious examples of late was Arsenal’s Andrei Arshavin saying how much he’d loved to have played for Spurs and how Barcelona were better than Arsenal, at least if you believed the Daily Mail’s online headline Arshavin: I’d have loved Spurs move... Arsenal are second best to Barcelona. So the Russian hates Arsenal, the club he plays for, and prefers their biggest rivals and the team that beat them in the Champions League final? Blimey, that will spark some controversy or, more likely, a couple of knee-jerk message board rants. Unless you read what Arshavin actually said. Namely that, at the time, he was disappointed that transfer moves to both Spurs and Barça broke down, but that: “I think my current club is the second most entertaining in modern football. It was well worth it.” Oh, you Gooner-hating traitor, you.

One of the most common headlines in sports writing is an insistence on using “insist”, one of the few legacies of the recently deceased, but stylistically unlamented, Ceefax. The Sporting Life website absolutely loves this word and on a slow news day you’ll catch players and managers insisting on all kinds of mundane issues up and down their news page. But insistence is spreading.

Before Liverpool’s home game with Man Utd, the Daily Telegraph ran a story on its site with the headline Jamie Carragher insists United will face backlash. The image you have is of Jamie Carragher picking up the phone, chin out, all aggrieved and badgering a Telegraph reporter time and again with his views, then waiting outside his house to repeat himself once more for good measure. OK, that image fits pretty well with the Liverpool captain, but what he actually said in the story was: “We’ve got a lot of fight and character and will want to show that against United, particularly after what happened against Lyon.” Nothing quite as violent as a “backlash” and more the sound of a man responding to a question than of someone insisting on anything.

On to the Independent, where a story about Leicester City’s attempt to sign Edgar Davids was headed Mandaric insists Foxes have muscle to sign Davids. Then you read the story and find that Leicester’s owner Milan Mandaric is not really insisting anything at all but pointing out: “We are in conversation with Edgar and his agent, and at this point that’s all I can say. We are progressing and it is potentially exciting, of course, but we are not there yet.” And there was nothing about having big muscles either.

The same paper managed to cast a quasi-sexual shadow over the story that Fabio Capello said the issue of whether or not he will select Michael Owen had turned the player into his tormentor. I’m tormented by Owen obsession, says Capello ran the headline, evoking pictures of the fiendish England manager in his cellar surrounded by walls covered in Owen memorabilia, with the striker himself gagged, chained and locked inside a cage wearing nothing but a
leather thong.

Kalou attitude delights Ancelotti gushed a BBC headline. In fact the Chelsea manager merely said “Kalou is a very good player. He played very well for us” after Chelsea’s 4-0 win over Atlético Madrid. So Ancelotti wasn’t outside dancing in the puddles, alternatively singing, giggling and hugging passers-by?

On the managerial downside, the same site envisioned Walter Smith wandering lost, eyes glazed, as we were told Gers boss stunned at career low. Had the 4-1 home defeat to Unirea Urziceni really rendered him comatose? Almost but not quite. The team is “at a bit of a low point at the moment ” Smith said, and the defeat was a “disappointment”. But with so much content on the internet who bothers to read the actual story? A world where everyone’s stunned, delighted and very, very insistent may not be even remotely accurate, but it’s so much more exciting.

From WSC 274 December 2009

Sign up to the WSC Weekly Howl - a small portion of despair and enlightenment delivered to your inbox every Friday