By Daniel Cochran
In these long empty days of self-isolation with nought but Belarusian football to look forward to, the mind inevitably drifts to the past. A post on Facebook a few days back reminded me of my friend Leon Ward’s crowning moment of bullshittery back in 2009. I caught up with him to discuss the saga of Rajko Purovic: the Middlesbrough transfer target that never was.
FK Banat Zrenjanin no longer exist.
In 2016 the Serbian club finished 15th of 16 teams in the country’s third division and winked out of existence. Beset by debt and relegations, the club – formed by the merger between Budućnost Banatski Dvor and Proleter Zrenjanin – could no longer function and took the difficult decision not to bother entering the rather bleak sounding Vojvodina League East.
But things could have been so very different if – in 2009 – they had received the rumoured £2 million pound transfer fee from Middlesbrough FC for their 18-year-old wunderkind Rajko Purovic.
The youngster was in demand. According to his agent Dejan Maric, clubs from Spain and The Netherlands were vying for his signature after hearing of his freescoring heroics in Banat’s youth team. Described as a “clinical finisher” by representative Mirko Rajkovic, Purovic’s career looked set to take-off.
Except it didn’t. Because Purovic was entirely fictional.
The player, along with his agent, his representative and the entire transfer story were concocted in the brain of Middlesbrough fan Leon Ward, who luckily enough happens to be a mate. He spoke to me on Sunday to piece it all together.
LEON: I woke up one morning, put the news on and saw that the Gabonese president, Omar Bongo, had died. I liked the name so sent a message to a couple of friends saying we (Middlesbrough) were trying to sign a rising African star called Omar Bongo. Obviously nobody fell for it, but that then set me off thinking: how far can you push not only a fake transfer rumour, but one about a fake footballer?
After the resounding failure of Leon’s first attempt to trick his mates (to clarify, Club Bongo International is a popular but rough as dogs Middlesbrough nightclub – Leon was fighting an uphill battle here), he decided to try again with a completely fictional transfer target. Rajko Purovic was born.
LEON: “FMTTM (Middlesbrough fan messageboard Fly Me To The Moon) seemed the obvious place to peddle my lies. So I made a couple of new accounts and started talking to myself via them. One was a European football expert and one was an agent who claimed to be well-connected across Europe, also with contacts at Boro.
I made up a name and email address for the player’s agent, then emailed the Evening Gazette (Middlesbrough’s local newspaper). No reply from anybody. So the next day, I emailed them again, but pretended to be the European football expert. Again, I explain who I am, and that I’ve kept an eye on this young lad for a while. Still no reply.“
A few days later, just as Leon was about to give this latest attempt up as a bad job, he noticed a couple of lines at the bottom of an article in the sports section. They mentioned that Boro were looking at a young Serbian talent – Rajko Purovic.
LEON: “This was when I decided to keep going. I emailed again, pretending to be the player’s agent. I sent across a picture of the player and again said that the club had been in contact and that a meeting was being set up with a view to signing him the following week. There was no reply so I thought they’d guessed it was bullshit and deleted the emails.
The next day, I popped to the shop and thought I’d pick up a copy of the Gazette. Turns out they’d read the emails and taken them seriously, because the picture the “agent” sent was on the back page, along with the made-up quotes.“
Former Espanyol midfielder Milan ‘Lola’ Smiljanić was the man Leon chose to be Purovic’s face (a random choice based on a “young Serbian footballer” Google image seach). A suitably obscure Serbian club was chosen to lend a little authenticity to the ruse. Remember, this is 2009. We’re all online by this point, but not yet at the era of TransferMarkt and obsessives blogging about obscure lower leagues from former Iron Curtain countries (ahem). We’re also (crucially) not at the stage of every club in the world having a social media presence.
LEON: “It’s weird really because 2009 feels like an eternity ago, but it’s not like it was 1999. Everybody still had all the information they could ever need at their fingertips if they needed to use it.“
After the Gazette article, the story went viral (if viral was a thing in 2009). First it was picked up by British tabloid The Daily Mirror, along with added embellishments about Purovic’s talents. Then Sky Sports News ran the story on national TV. Gossip columns up and down the country were talking about this Serbian starlet with his (by now suitably inflated) scoring exploits.
Of course, a hoax like this can only go on so long before somebody decides to check the facts. But rather than journalists actually doing their own fact-checking, it was members of the message board who let the cat out of the bag:
“I think a few people on FMTTM started saying it was all lies and one made a fake Wikipedia page saying Purovic had scored 3,480 goals or some bullshit in a season. They outed me really, because I still think I could have pushed it on further.”
Nevertheless, news of Leon’s web of lies only made people more interested in the story:
“FourFourTwo heard about what I’d done and got in touch for an interview. It was a couple of weeks after it all came out that it was a hoax. It was pretty exciting for me because I was always buying their magazines.”
I asked Leon if he thought something like this could happen today. Surely in this era of lazy, second-hand journalism and unchecked clickbait it would be simple enough for a story to catch on?
“You couldn’t do it now. I’m still amazed I got away with it then. If it was in the 90s, then yeah, it would be pretty easy because hardly anybody had the internet and places like Eastern Europe were unchartered territory. Now you get young nerds who know about every fucker from the Polish Third Division.”
Thanks to Leon for chatting with me about this. This week I’ve also got an interview with Vasas midfielder Benedek Murka coming up, in which we chat about the postponed season, staying fit during a pandemic and Vasas’s promotion push.