A miracle is now the only hope the McCanns cling to after five-year search

A MAN is seen in Praia da Luz making his way along one of the hot cobbled paths with a little girl in his arms. She's barefoot and struggles away from him for a moment.

He sweeps her back up and hurries on his way to a waiting vehicle where a woman is behind the wheel. They get in and are gone.

Our family has regularly taken a small apartment in the foothills of Luz, just five minute's walk from where Madeleine McCann went missing -- or was taken -- five years ago this week.

And the description I've just given is of me wrestling our little one into our car after a long day out, nothing more.

Unfortunately, it's a description not at all unlike one currently being followed up by investigators, one of more than 100 such delicate threads more than likely going absolutely nowhere.

I, or any parent in their right mind, would like it to be true that Maddie is still out there somewhere, in the arms of some desperate childless couple who might have snatched her perhaps, older now but safe.

As any excuse to keep Maddie's picture in the papers is no doubt a good thing, I can't help thinking that many if not most of these bits of information are of no real assistance. Worse still, they may be a distraction from something more vital that's being missed.

One hundred leads or more, after five years of fruitless investigation. It must be infuriating for the McCanns. And needlessly so.

The information about the barefoot child being carried along the street is clearly bona fide and well recollected, but without doubt, a great number of other leads are completely bogus, some entirely invented even, made up by cranks and nutters to feel important.

Yet all worthwhile leads have to be followed up. So who was the man carrying a barefoot child unchallenged through Luz that evening? It could have been any one of a thousand people. And how would you even begin to check? It's virtually impossible.

Five years on and the sightings continue. Fact is, next to Elvis, there have probably never been as many unsubstantiated sightings.

And how even more maddening must be testimonies five years on, of people who have seen a little girl, not just resembling Maddie, but with the exact mark on the retina of her eye so publicised at the time.

How likely is it that someone could even recall a stranger's child five years on, let alone some colour quirk in the girl's eye? And why only now, five years on?

"I didn't think anything of it at the time," the witness might say, but that's of little use now.

The McCanns have to sift through the gossamer threads of hope. They have to hope that Maddie is safe, untouched, that someday maybe she'll just walk into a police station and say "I'm Maddie". Or that someone will give her up. With each passing year, that hope grows more elusive.

Bogus claims by any cranks who have ever seen a little girl heap false hope on to a virtually hopeless task.

That even one of these 100-plus leads will lead to Maddie's safe return would be nothing less than a miracle.

But then, hope for a miracle is the one hope the McCanns have left to hold on to five years on.