It was the equivalent of Virgil van Dijk appearing on the front cover of FourFourTwo in a Manchester United shirt or Paul Pogba posing in the blue of Manchester City for World Soccer, as Shoot! embarked on one of the most audacious April Fool’s stunts ever seen.
In the social media age it’s probably harder than ever to pull the wool over the eyes of an increasingly cynical and all-too-often informed audience, but in April 1989 one of the best-selling magazines in the country managed to do just that.
Routinely fighting it out for silverware, the rivalry between Liverpool and Everton was more intense than ever in the 1980s as the Merseyside giants shared eight league titles, two FA Cups and three European trophies over that incredible decade.
But there was one man who always seemed to give the red half of Merseyside the edge over their near neighbours back then and that was Ian Rush, the moustachioed marksman who had an uncanny knack of scoring against Everton.
Imagine the reaction, then, when weekly football magazine Shoot! ran with the story “Rush Signs For Everton” on their front cover, complete with a picture of the fearsome forward wearing an Everton shirt, fists clenched in sheer delight.
Despite not being the first-choice marksman at Anfield having recently returned after a pretty miserable year in Italy with Juventus, the 27-year-old Welshman was still more than capable of giving his doppelganger and equally potent poacher, John Aldridge, a run for his money.
So the thought of him crossing Stanley Park to play for the Blues, who were still reeling from the departure of manager Howard Kendall to Athletic Bilbao, was simply too much to take for some Reds.
For Liverpool fans, the news couldn’t have come at a worse time with their team battling it out for the title with George Graham’s Arsenal at the time and seemingly on course for a second league and FA Cup double in just four seasons.
Confused Kopites and ecstatic Evertonians were encouraged to head to page seven for more information, where they were met with the slightly more teasing, but equally terrible tagline “Rush For Everton Neverton”. What followed was an elaborate interview with the man at the centre of the sensational signing.
There was even a quote from his partner saying how glad she was that he’d be wearing the blue of Everton rather than the red of Liverpool due to it matching his lovely eyes. TV and radio stations, not just on Merseyside but throughout the country, clamoured for more information.
But the story was nothing more than an elaborate hoax dreamt up by David Smith, a football journalist and writer at Shoot! magazine at the time who had somehow persuaded one of the biggest names in the game, not to mention his editor, to go along with it.
“The coverage given to it was ridiculous,” the prize prankster behind one of the biggest fabrications in football later explained. “We received so many phone calls from journalists at the Shoot! office wanting to know our source, and the powers that be at Liverpool were somewhat perplexed as well.
A publication which shifted thousands of copies a week had tricked legions of its readers with the most authentic-looking gag they could have possibly thoughtup, but only with the help of one of the most familiar faces in the game who was only happy to play his part.
“The whole thing wouldn’t have been made possible without the cooperation of Rushie and his willingness to go along with the gag,” explained Smith. “What a great sport Ian was the day we met him and cajoled him into donning the blue of Everton. He totally approved the spoof interview I wrote too.”
Five more footballing fabrications from years gone by
Although the Ian Rush to Everton story was an ingenious piece of journalism, which is still talked about over three decades later, it was by no means the last of its kind.
Since then we have seen players and clubs alike stop at nothing in order to get one over an audience ever-hungry for information regardless of its authenticity.
So here are some other examples of when the fans have been fooled by the world of football.
Abramovich Becomes Blues Boss
On 1 April 2013, with Rafael Benitez proving a very unpopular interim manager at Stamford Bridge, talkSPORT informed listeners that the club’s Russian owner planned to name himself the next Chelsea manager. They even got ex-Blues boss Gianluca Vialli to confirm that Abramovich had been in contact for advice on being a boss.
Grandstand’s Backstage Bust-up
Also on April Fool’s Day in 1989, Des Lynam introduced the BBC’s flagship Saturday sports show Grandstand while two men in the studio behind him began brawling in front of an audience of millions. Needless to say the veteran broadcaster and epitome of cool maintained a straight face throughout, as only he could.
In what was a bumper year for football fabrications, an Italian TV station claimed in 1989 that Diego Maradona was dating pop sensation Madonna. However, the rather unoriginal and somewhat unwitty prank backfired when the Napoli star, who was married at the time, demanded a grovelling on-air apology for the accusations that he was having an affair.
Razor Ruddock’s Predator Prank
Adidas’s Predator boots, which were introduced in the mid-1990s, featured a series of dimples designed to provide more swerve and were sported by David Beckham among others. But in 1995, Liverpool’s Neil ‘Razor’ Ruddock was pictured in a newspaper wearing the ‘Adidas Predator Headband’, which he claimed would enable him to head the ball incredible distances.
Saints Become Sinners
In 2016, Southampton claimed they were replacing the football on the club badge with the Saint emoji to create a more modernised crest that continues to symbolise the city. “The thinking being that over recent years the club has become much more than just a football club, with its work in the community and its forward-thinking approach,” a club statement revealed without a hint of irony or a laughing emoji in sight.