ON A GREY November afternoon last year as a victorious David Beckham left the Old Trafford pitch to raucous applause, his post-match euphoria was cut short when a security guard caught his attention.
Though he was accustomed to the constant presence of minders, the Manchester United star knew instantly something was wrong when two further security officers and a senior figure from Greater Manchester Police approached him.
As fans began to file out of the ground after the team’s 2-1 victory over Southampton, Beckham, 28, was ushered to a private office down in the belly of the stadium, close to the home dressing room.
There, he was told the news that Scotland Yard had arrested a number of suspects after foiling an audacious plot to kidnap his wife and their two young children.
The arrests, earlier that same day on 2 November, had followed a tip-off from a most unlikely source, the News of the World.
A week earlier, the newspaper had informed Scotland Yard that one of its journalists had infiltrated a crime gang from the Balkans intent on kidnapping Victoria Beckham and her children, Romeo and Brooklyn.
The gang, the Sunday tabloid had learned, had planned to ambush the young family as they left their Hertfordshire mansion and take them to a London safe house before demanding a ransom of 5 million.
Beckham and his wife, who were told of the news separately, were badly shaken by the revelation, instantly increasing the security cordon that had already become part of their daily lives.
However, with the alleged plotters behind bars awaiting trial, the couple were quick to thank the newspaper, releasing a statement later that night hailing the News of the World for its audacious sting.
However, last night, eight months after details of the plot first emerged, the Beckhams’ gratitude towards the newspaper was less apparent after the case against the alleged perpetrators of the plot collapsed amidst claims that the News of the World had bribed a key witness.
The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) confirmed last night that the trial of five men - four Romanians and one Kosovan Albanian - charged in connection with an alleged plot to kidnap Ms Beckham, 29, in November last year, had been thrown out at Middlesex Guildhall Crown Court, central London, after the evidence of a key witness was deemed inadmissible.
It is understood the witness, a Kosovan parking attendant, Florim Gashi, 27, who also had a criminal record, had been deemed unreliable after it emerged that he had been paid 10,000 by the News of the World for his role in exposing the plot.
It is understood that Mr Gashi, who had previously given the News of the World a story about drug-dealing traffic wardens - that also failed to make court - had approached the paper with the story and was paid to infiltrate the gang.
Last night, a CPS source confirmed the case had collapsed, saying: "We have decided to offer no evidence on the conspiracy to kidnap Victoria Beckham.
"Our picture of the News of World informant, Florim Gashi, 27, was reappraised. We are now of the opinion that he is an unreliable witness after receiving financial gain from the News of the World."
In court, after formerly clearing the five men, Adrian Pasareanu, 28, Alin Turcu, 18, Luzum Balliu, 30 and two others, who cannot be named for legal reasons, of conspiracy to kidnap Ms Beckham, the trial judge, Simon Smith, said he would automatically be referring the matter to the Attorney General to consider the issue of cheque-book journalism.
He said: "I am minded to refer the whole of this matter to the Attorney General to consider the temptations to which money being offered in return for stories, in particular about celebrities, gives rise to - and the way in which newspaper investigations may have a detrimental effect on - the ultimate court proceedings."
In the wake of the News of the World scoop in November, newspaper executives at the tabloid’s Wapping headquarters celebrated the episode as another triumph for their investigations editor, Mazher Mahmood, who had played an integral part in the story.
Often referred to as "the fake sheikh" because of his love of Arab disguise, Mahmood had perviously exposed the indiscretions of, among others, the Countess of Wessex and two directors of Newcastle United Football Club.
However, even by Mahmood’s standards, the Beckham kidnap story was impressive. Not only did the newspaper believe it had put a gang of dangerous crooks behind bars; they had also saved Britain’s favourite celebrity family in the process.
Not surprisingly, a matter of hours after the Beckhams were informed of the plot, the tabloid went to town on the story, carrying dramatic front-page pictures of police firearms officers arresting the alleged members of the kidnap gang.
In the wake of the exclusive, the News of the World even quoted Detective Inspector Ian Horrocks, of Scotland Yard’s kidnap and specialist investigations unit, expressing apparent rapturous praise of the paper.
He said: "You’ve done a fantastic job and taken on dangerous criminals. We’re extremely grateful for your information."
However, even at the time, Scotland Yard’s firearms unit, SO19, drew criticism for the newspaper’s seemingly "close involvement" in a police firearms operation after it was granted rare permission to photograph the arrests of the suspects.
According to police sources, Scotland Yard was "playing with fire" from day one by entering into a pact with a newspaper.
The insider said: "Police officers are usually reluctant to be drawn into newspaper investigations.
"Their resentment of journalists treading on police territory is compounded by the knowledge that a newspaper’s evidence may not be precise enough satisfy a criminal court.
"They also know there is a danger that evidence may be contaminated by suggestions of intentional or unintentional entrapment. The legal ramifications of this case could cause a lot of problems for the newspaper."
Last night, the News of the World remained bullish about its story, stating: "We are surprised by the announcement and fully stand by the report.
"We have co-operated fully with the police."