Howlers on identity parade

Shocked and confused, he said: `Why would anyone shoot Bobby Kennedy? We've just won the League'

A month ago to this very day, a brief item in USA Today caught my eye. It reported that the singer Mariah Carey had been devastated to learn of the death of the King of Jordan, telling CNN: "I'm inconsolable at the present time. I was a very good friend of Jordan. He was probably the greatest basketball player this country has ever seen. We will never see his like again." When told that it was King Hussein of Jordan who had died, rather than Michael Jordan, late of the Chicago Bulls, Carey was led away by her security men in a state of "confusion".

Actually, I was already aware that Mariah Carey's IQ barely exceeds her bust measurement, and that she would be well-advised to open her mouth only to eat, yawn and sing. For Bill Bryson once described how she got to the nub of the problem facing the Third World, informing the press that "whenever I watch TV and see those poor starving kids all over the world, I can't help but cry. I mean I'd love to be skinny like that, but not with all those flies and death and stuff."

Still, in mistaking the death of one of the world's great political leaders for that of a sportsman, Carey is at least in erudite company. At the beginning of his excellent book Manchester United Ruined My Life, Colin Shindler recalls his admiration for an unremarkable but versatile defender called Bobby Kennedy, who played for Shindler's beloved Manchester City in 1967-68, when City won the League championship.

At around 8am on 5 June 1968, shortly after Shindler, then a first-year student at Cambridge University, had staggered home from a May Ball, a friend woke him up by bursting into his room shouting: "They've shot him! They've shot Bobby Kennedy!" Shocked and confused, Shindler sat bolt upright in bed. "Why the hell would anyone shoot Bobby Kennedy?" he asked. "We've just won the League."

In the sporting arena itself, there are countless instances of mistaken identity. When pressed, most television and radio commentators can remember leaping, Bob Beamon-like, to the wrong conclusion. Bill McLaren, bless him, is still aghast at the cock-up he made at Twickenham in 1975, when the left-wing Alan Morley scored a try for England and he credited it to the right-wing Peter Squires. "I'm told that Morley's mother in Bristol rose to her feet and shouted, `that's our Alan, you bloody fool,'" recalls McLaren, blushing even now. Similarly, Barry Davies remembers a howler during a football match years ago featuring Bristol City, when he repeatedly referred to the goalscorer as Gerry Gow. In fact it was Geoff Merrick. "Afterwards, Merrick came up and said, `I wouldn't mind, but I don't get that effing many.'"

Sometimes, mistaken identity in sport is deliberately contrived. I know a football writer, for whom the term "grizzled veteran" might have been invented, but who in his more svelte days covered Sunderland's glorious FA Cup campaign of 1973. He arrived in Birmingham one Friday evening in readiness for the following day's Sunderland v Arsenal semi-final at Villa Park, and out on the town that night managed to persuade a young woman that he was the Sunderland forward Vic Halom, to whom he bore a passing resemblance. They ended up spending a rapturous night together, and in the morning he assured her that he would not only score a semi-final goal in her honour, but give a special wink to the television cameras, just for her.

Later that morning, at the Sunderland team's hotel, my friend shared his secret with Halom, who amazingly enough, did indeed score in a 2-1 win over Arsenal. Moreover, I am assured that the Match of the Day archive will reveal him winking knowingly to the camera.

As for my very own Mariah Carey moment, in 1985 I was lucky enough to win a Bobby Jones Scholarship, taking me for a year from St Andrews University in Scotland to Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. The scholarship was named after the legendary amateur golfer, founder of the Masters, and winner, in 1930, of the four tournaments which then constituted golf's hallowed grand slam - the "Impregnable Quadrilateral" of the Open, the US Open, and the amateur championships of Britain and America.

As a Bobby Jones Scholar I was invited to a number of functions in and around Atlanta, and was expected to make speeches at some of them. And so it was that, after a banquet featuring more food than I have ever seen on one table - a rather inappropriate spectacle, in the light of my subsequent introduction - my host got to his feet and introduced the evening's guest speaker. "All the way from Great Britain, please give a warm southern welcome, to one of this year's winners of the prestigious... Bobby Sands scholarship."

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