THERE’S A REASON WE CALL IT THE SILLY SEASON – the transfer period always seems to produce the oddball story, be it a ridiculous transfer fee, something like Nike’s gaffe regarding Coutinho and Barcelona, or even the tale of supposed impostors trying to sign Ander Herrera for Manchester United a season before he eventually ended up at the club.
Still, it’ll be extremely difficult to top the craziness of Liverpool genuinely being linked to a player that didn’t even exist in real life, especially considering how even The Guardian and The Times reported on Didier Baptiste, supposedly a French under-21 player who was actually just a character in a soap opera.
This story really is a product of its time. Close your eyes and cast yourself back to the end of the last millennium, when phones were still not ‘smart’, Pep Guardiola was playing at Barcelona, the threat of Y2K is on everyone’s minds, and Zinedine Zidane hadn’t headbutted anything apart from the occasional ball. Print newspapers were still in vogue and antique services like teletext, message boards and transfer rumour hotlines were the bread and butter of a football fan’s life, provided they were interested in these sorts of extracurricular activities.
The year is 1999. It’s a chilly November with Leeds, Arsenal and Manchester United locking horns atop the Premier League, still in a close race for a title that Sir Alex Ferguson’s side would eventually win by 18 points. Liverpool were behind the teams in the continental qualification spots at the time – no one yet knew how successful their season would eventually turn out to be. Who knows, maybe that was why the Merseyside outfit were linked to Didier Baptiste.
He was a promising left-back for Monaco and a proud member of the French under-21 national side; surely a steal for £3.5 million, especially at a time when Nicolas Anelka was moving to Real Madrid for a fee seven times this. The Times and The Guardian both picked up on the story, with the former news outlet labelling it as an “exclusive” – an odd description for a scoop that also appeared in The News of the World shortly before.
There was just one problem: Didier Baptiste didn’t exist. Not as a proud custodian of French football, at least – he was a character in the Sky One soap opera Dream Team, an amusing oddity following the adventures of a fictional team called Harchester United and its players as they bumble from one off-pitch crisis to the next. The series still boasts a 7.7 rating on IMDb, with 665 votes overall.
Perhaps the second statistic is more meaningful than the first, especially for a series that has survived for 10 seasons, eventually ending in 2007 with a whopping 419 episodes produced. For what it’s worth, it has not received a commercial release since its cancellation, and the Wikipedia articles for the individual seasons are either stubs or completely non-existent, and the harchester.net domain documenting the team’s performances is long gone by now.
Still, the episodes are available online, and only a short glimpse is enough to get a handle on what Dream Team had to offer. Allow me to conjure up an image that should be an accurate description: just imagine if Footballer’s Wives was produced by Sky who tried their best to utilise their Premier League-related properties to compensate for only having a comparatively tiny budget to work with. A soap opera at its heart, sure, but on-pitch imagery is regularly used to pad the events of the paper-thin plot, with digitally remastered footage from actual matches allowing the greats of Harchester to go toe-to-toe with teams like Arsenal or Chelsea.
Needless to say, the series eventually jumped the shark, as storylines regarding promotions, relegations, UEFA sanctions and cup runs were bolstered by barnburners like the fan favourite player Karl Fletcher – who holds a fictitious record of converting 14 out of 14 penalties, which would make him the only person with a 100 percent record out of those who took more than 10 – being impaled on a coat peg by the team’s deranged manager in season eight and the final episode ending on a cliffhanger with the stadium being lit on fire just as the team inside is fighting for the Premier League title.
You know something’s out of the ordinary when you can easily find videos on YouTube chronicling the “tragic moments” surrounding the football club. Murders, hostage situations at half-time, explosions, arson, the odd heart attack here and there – being a part of Harchester United must have been one of the most dangerous jobs in the beautiful game.
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Monsieur Baptiste first appeared in the third season of the series, with an introductory plotline revolving around his signing by a then-unknown British team. In one of the episodes, he says that he is aware of interest “from a big club managed by a Frenchman”. Does he mean Arsène Wenger at Arsenal or Gérard Houllier at Liverpool? He only responds with a smile. Later on, of course, he rejects both the Gunners and the Reds, ending up at Harchester United instead of either of the storied clubs. Spoiler alert: he stays alive.
Supposedly, the story morphed into its hilarious final form on an Arsenal fan board, originally as a joke that they might indeed be in the running for the fictional player. Hayters – a sports news agency that has been around since 1954 – then somehow passed the story on to The News of the World. Other sources simply put the blame on an overly excited fan who mistook the storyline for reality and contacted a journalist with the “scoop”.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the writers at the tabloid span it even further out of control, with Mike Dunn, the editor writing, “We think Didier Baptiste would be an ideal addition to Liverpool’s back four. He’s a really attractive player, and you will be seeing a lot more of him in The News of the World.” That would not be the last time this particular outlet played fast and loose with the truth.
Supposedly, the CV invented for the character was indeed promising enough that Houllier himself was impressed by him, but unlike some sports journalists, he quickly figured out that Baptiste didn’t in fact exist and quickly moved on to other targets. He had to settle for the signings of Igor Bišćan and Jari Litmanen instead. Most likely neither he nor the fans were too unhappy with the proceedings as they ended the season with a unique treble, winning the League Cup, the FA Cup and the UEFA Cup, making it the second in the club’s history after the 1983/84 season.
For what it’s worth, the club itself has also become a surrogate of sorts for the fictional Frenchman, with Liverpool’s official ClubCall line – another lovely antiquity, a transfer rumour hotline that spouted the latest nonsense into your ears at a mere 60 pence per minute – stating that they were indeed in pole position to sign the coveted player.
A day after The News of the World revealed the farcical story, The Times picked it up – perhaps due to the fact that they were both owned by Rupert Murdoch – boldly stating that Liverpool are actually overpaying for the left-back. That’s a fair statement considering his non-existent nature – however, they’ve also said that Didier was “only” worth a million pounds.
On 17 November, The Guardian’s Fiver column also mentioned the story alongside Newcastle’s interest in José Calado and Manchester United’s desperate attempts to offload Massimo Taibi only three months after signing him. It was around the same time that John Toshack was fired from Real Madrid, ending his second stint in charge of Los Merengues, and the Czech national team was third in the FIFA rankings. Different times, indeed.
This is probably also highlighted by the surprisingly genuine reactions to the story. “We are amazed as anyone to see this story in the papers,” said a spokesman for Dream Team, adding, “We can only assume someone saw the show and thought it was genuine.” As for Keith Blackmore, the sports editor of The Times back then, all he had to say was “Oops!”, at least according to an article in The Independent.
As for Didier Baptiste, his time at Harchester United was short and ended in disgrace. He scored five goals in 44 appearances throughout his stint and was eventually transferred to Marseille after trying to fix a game. With his team facing relegation, he deliberately missed a last-minute penalty, but that wasn’t enough to pierce the powers of plot armour protecting his side.
That was the last we saw of him in the series, even though his estranged wife has remained a member of the cast long after Didier had left. Who knows, maybe he would have been better off signing for Liverpool after all
Photo credit: Liverpool Echo