Meet Ronnie O'Brien, man of the century

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The Independent Online
WHO WOULD you choose as the man or woman of the century? Nelson Mandela? Elvis? John F Kennedy? Albert Einstein? Ronnie O'Brien?

Ronnie who? That's exactly what executives at Time magazine in New York exclaimed when they discovered that a man they had never heard of was topping their Person of the Century poll.

They soon discovered who he is, however - and disqualified him. Ronnie O'Brien is a 20-year-old footballer who briefly played for Middlesbrough before the Teesside club decided he was not going to make the grade. He was released by Middlesbrough and - to his own and his former team-mates' amazement - signed by Juventus. It was a fairytale come true, or it would be if he could get into the Juventus team, which he can't.

The Time 100 poll has been running for several weeks to establish the person who, for better or worse, has most influenced the course of history over the past 100 years. Senior editorial staff drew up a 100-strong shortlist of obvious candidates - Winston Churchill, Martin Luther King, Mother Teresa - and invited readers to submit their own nominations to the magazine's internet site.

Initially voting was as expected with Martin Luther King and Elvis Presley among the frontrunners. But then a mysterious flood of votes for Mr O'Brien catapulted him to the top of the poll - and crashed the computer.

Time has now removed Mr O'Brien from its calculations, and changed the rules. "Whimsical candidates and others who were not alive during this century, or do not fall within the spirit of the title, will not be counted," says the website.

But Time has taken the hoax in good spirit. "This was just a bit of fun, even if he is an obscure footballer, and we're not at all miffed," said a spokeswoman in New York.

Just four years ago Ronnie O'Brien was stacking supermarket shelves in Ireland. He thought he had hit the big time with Middlesbrough last year and was reportedly "devastated" when he was released. He was, it goes without saying, "over the moon" when offered a five-year contract with the Turin giant Juventus. Yesterday, Juventus said Mr O'Brien was unavailable for comment and on loan to a Swiss club.

A Middlesbrough spokesman said: "It didn't work out for Ronnie here but we wish him all the best for the rest of his career, though we think he's still got something to prove before he can claim to be personality of the century."