Brian Viner: Cock-ups to die for: a dozen John Barnes and the worst tea(m) in the Premiership

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The Independent Online

Mistakes creep into newspaper columns for all sorts of reasons. The best ones are the copy-taking errors, which occur infrequently these days because most reporters are able to e-mail their precious words rather than dictate them by telephone. This is a shame, because some copytaking errors are so spectacularly outlandish that they deserve to be cherished along with great journalism as an example of how newspapers can contribute to the well-being of society.

Mistakes creep into newspaper columns for all sorts of reasons. The best ones are the copy-taking errors, which occur infrequently these days because most reporters are able to e-mail their precious words rather than dictate them by telephone. This is a shame, because some copytaking errors are so spectacularly outlandish that they deserve to be cherished along with great journalism as an example of how newspapers can contribute to the well-being of society.

Not all of them concern football. There was a cracker some years ago in a cricket report, in which the writer had said, in relation to a barrage of sixes thumped in a county match, that the same batsman had done the same thing on his previous appearance in the "self-same arena". Self-same arena appeared in the next day's paper as Selsey Marina.

Even better was the report sent down the line from Marseilles during the 1998 World Cup, when violence flared between England supporters and local youths in a waterfront bar. The reporter had been off duty, nursing a quiet beer, but dashed to a public phone and hurriedly dictated 500 words. His story ended with the sentence: "The trouble-makers dispersed when a police van drew up containing a dozen armed gendarmes." According to the printed word, however, the troublemakers dispersed when a police van drew up containing a dozen armed John Barnes. A spectacle which would have tempted me to disperse, too.

Not all such errors quite make it into print, alas. There was a near-miss on The Guardian a few years back, when the paper's eminent football correspondent, David Lacey, sent in a report from Carrow Road on a match between Norwich City and Liverpool. The Liverpool rearguard was creaking a bit that day, and Lacey, having written that the visiting defence looked vulnerable, added that "Liverpool duly presented Norwich with goals". The copy-taker somehow interpreted this as "Liverpool Julie presented Norwich with girls". Perhaps he or she assumed that there had been some unconventional half-time entertainment involving a Scouse madam. Whatever, the mistake was finally spotted moments before the first edition went to press.

There was no such last-minute intervention a couple of years ago when Sir Jack Hayward, benevolent owner of Wolverhampton Wanderers, gave a joint interview, just after Wolves had secured promotion to the Premier League, to the esteemed Phil Shaw of this newspaper and a reporter from, let's say, one of our keenest rivals. Our rival paper memorably quoted Sir Jack as saying that "we've got the worst team in the First Division and I've no doubt that we'll have the worst team in the Premiership." In fact, Sir Jack was referring to the tea, not the team. Mind you, as unwitting prophecies go, it wasn't a bad one. Wolves Julie finished bottom of the Premiership.

Some of these stories are apocryphal. There's a famous tale of a copy-taking cock-up which had the Welsh attack in Latvia being led not by Rush and Hughes but by Russian Jews, another mind-boggling image, although I can find no one to verify that the mistake happened. One that I know did happen, because it happened to me, made a nonsense of a story filed from the 2000 Open Championship at St Andrews. Unable to get my laptop to work, I was forced to read my report to a copy-taker who wrote down "missed a putt" as "Mr Putt".

I should add here, before I get a letter from the national copy-takers' union - who never seem to jumble up their own acronym NCTU - that they are a hard-working bunch who usually do a difficult job extremely well. Besides, far more prosaic mistakes happen every day on all newspapers, sometimes caused by rank carelessness, sometimes by misdirected pedantry, as in the case of another report by David Lacey, who began his account of a particularly tedious match: "This was much ado about nothing-nothing." It was changed to: "This was much ado about nil-nil."

Sometimes it is the writer who makes the howler, sometimes the sub, and my column a week ago contained one of each. I referred to the 1965 FA Cup final between Leeds United and Liverpool, which I vividly remember watching on telly when I was three years old. Unfortunately, the single word chopped to make the column fit was the all-important "Leeds". And since United on its own generally means Manchester of that ilk, I have been receiving e-mails ever since telling me that my memory is playing tricks on me. Obviously it's gratifying to find that Independent readers are so on the ball, but annoying to think that they consider me so comprehensively off it.

That said, the other howler last week was mine, all mine. I wrote that Roy Keane seemed to be approaching his Cup final confrontation with Patrick Vieira like Wyatt Earp going into a showdown with Billy the Kid. The fixture I was thinking of was Pat Garrett v Billy the Kid. Wyatt Earp fought the Clancy Gang. Doh!

b.viner@independent.co.uk

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