The newspaper reporters and TV crews had descended upon Lusaka International Airport to greet the arrival of Leeds United ahead of a three-match match tour of Zambia. It was May 5, 1990 and Leeds had just secured promotion back into the top flight of English football.
However, the tour got off to a bad start.
The following day, a report in the Zambia Daily Mail stated that: “Second Division British club side Leeds United arrived in Lusaka yesterday a slightly disgruntled lot after leaving their kit behind due to flight complications.
The story added: “Leeds, who finished runners-up in the English Second Division League this year, arrived with 22 players and officials but their kit remained in Frankfurt, West Germany, because the flight they came on could not take the excess weight as it could not be allowed to refuel there.”
But there were a number of problems with this account. Firstly, Leeds won the second division (now The Championship) in 1990.
Furthermore, nobody in the picture accompanying the story resembled a member of Howard Wilkinson’s title-winning squad.
The real Leeds United were at least 7,000 miles away having just beaten Bournemouth 1-0 at Dean Court to win promotion and the Second Division. The match generated far more headlines for what happened off the pitch rather than on it as police made over 100 arrests on a Bank Holiday weekend when football hooligans went on the rampage.
Back in Lusaka, those 22 players and officials may have hailed from Leeds but, in actual fact, played for Carnegie College.
According to team member Paul Jones, nobody was as surprised as the squad itself to see camera crews awaiting their arrival. “We had no knowledge of what was going on. We were part of an elaborate hoax.”
Jones, along with his team-mates, couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about. Then the players discovered that they were booked into the best hotel in Lusaka. He said: “Nobody had stayed anywhere like it. We were bunch of students being treated like royalty!”
Another person who couldn’t quite believe what he was seeing was John Graham, a Yorkshire businessman who owned a packaging firm in Leeds. He landed in Lusaka at the same time as the team and as he left the airport he saw a bus draped in the club colours.
When Graham got back to his hotel he watched a TV news story about the squad arriving in Zambia to play the national team.
Graham told the Yorkshire Post: “It was incredible. It wasn’t made clear they weren’t Leeds United.” He added that team manager Colin Morris, “was answering questions about promotion as if he was Howard Wilkinson.”
That name might be familiar to Leeds supporters as Morris was a youth team coach at Elland Road. At the time of the Zambia tour he was the football development officer for Leeds City Council.
Graham added: “The Zambians fell for it hook, line and sinker. There could be no confusion – the reports stated Leeds United.”
Better still, Jones added that: “We were later told that one of our team, because he had ginger hair, appeared in a paper above a caption that stated he was Gordon Strachan.”
Upon his arrival back in England, Morris explained that the tour was set up by the junior chamber of commerce in Zambia. He was contacted a year earlier in the hope of getting the likes of Gordon Strachan, Chris Kamara and Lee Chapman to play in southern Africa. Morris said there was no chance of that happening but he could put together a team to take part in a goodwill tour on the behalf of the city of Leeds.
He also stated that he was simply responding to questions about Leeds at the airport. At no time did Morris ever say he was Wilkinson, nor did he claim to be representing the club and it was the responsibility of the junior chamber of commerce ‘if they misquoted anything’.
When it finally came around to playing their first match, Carnegie College took on Red Arrows, one of Zambia’s top teams. The visitors lost 3-0.
Carnegie failed to win any of their three matches against club outfits and word got around that a bunch of lads barely out of their teens and blessed with slightly above average footballing ability might not be members of a squad that two years later would go on to win the First Division title.
It wasn’t long before everyone had cottoned on to the hoax, including the Carnegie team who beat a swift retreat out of the country after the final match to avoid becoming part of an international incident.
Jones heard all sorts of wild rumours after they landed back in England from rioting by fans after realising they had been conned to a player being shot when his side could only draw 1-1 with Carnegie College.
So how on earth did a bunch of students get passed off as the English Second Division champions? The explanation is probably the least surprising aspect of this story.
According to Jones: “Apparently for the tour to pay its way, or make a profit, the promoters advertised us as Leeds United.” The kit getting lost in transit only served to maintain the ruse.
Of course, this was 1990, the internet did not exist and there was nothing like the coverage English football now receives around the world. Finding up to date information on a Second Division side was about as likely as a manager lasting a full season at Elland Road.
Even so, it is still possible to pull off this kind of scam. A story that bears some uncanny similarities to the Leeds fiasco occurred in 2010.
A group of players posing as Togo played Bahrain in a friendly. Bahrain comfortably won 3-0 and their coach said the opposition ‘were not fit enough to play 90 minutes’. At the same time the real Togo national team were returning from a match in Botswana.
The motivation was financial, of course, with the faux Togo receiving around £60,000 in expenses and match fees.
As the old French saying (and Bon Jovi song) goes, ‘the more things change, the more they stay the same.’
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