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Often described as one of the most naturally talented players of his time, Matthew Le Tissier has a career record that invokes both envy and bewilderment – in equal measures. A scorer of spectacular goals his trophy cabinet is virtually bare, but there are no regrets from the player who decided to devote his whole career to Southampton Football Club.
There were chances to move to ‘bigger’ clubs. Tottenham were interested at one time, and when Matthew Harding was the main man at Chelsea, he worked hard to persuade his favourite player to exchange the tranquil waters of Hampshire’s south coast for the glitz and glamour of London. Le Tissier though decided that happiness was more important, valuing what he had at The Dell. “I played the game the way I wanted to play it, and had I gone on to a bigger club, I probably wouldn’t have been able to do that. I knew I probably wouldn’t win any honours, but when you’re at a club that size, staying in the Premier League for 16 years gave me as much pleasure as winning a medal if I’d gone somewhere else.” When so many players are chasing the big pay rise and the glory reflected in the gaudy gaze of silverware, it’s more than a little refreshing to hear such things. Le Tissier though was different to so many players in other ways too.
He joined Southampton on the YTS scheme in 1985 and signed professional forms with them the following year at 16 years of age. For the next 16 years, he would be a Southampton player, revered as ‘Le God’ by Saints fans, and yet remains one of the great enigmas of the game. So many pundits and coaches, especially on the international scene apparently had a fixation about what Le Tissier couldn’t – or wouldn’t – do, and it obliterated any regard for the magician his football boots.
Funnelling back to defend was not his forte, and his lolloping stride only ever seemed to move from walking pace into an inelegant trot. Despite that, any apparent lack of pace hardly hampered his ability to go past an opponent. It was a talent recognised by that genius of the Camp Nou, Xavi. “He could simply dribble past seven or eight players but without speed – he just walked past them.” It sounds strange, but look back at videos of Le Tissier playing and you’ll see precisely what the midfield maestro meant.
Born in the Channel Islands, Le Tissier could have opted to play for any of the Home Countries. He chose England. It was a fateful decision that would bring a scandalously low total of just eight international caps. Had he taken up any of the other options, that total would surely have topped 100. A similarity with the acclaim of Gareth Bale playing for Wales, is not stretching the point at all. Had he been more prominent on the world stage, perhaps invitations from Barcelona, Madrid, Milan, Turin or Munich may have been harder to resist than the ones he rebuffed from London. Although, knowing the temperament of the player, maybe not.
His career with the Three Lions was blighted by managers who saw Mercurial talents in other players but were never confident of Le Tissier. Terry Venables left him out of his Euro ’96 squad, and despite netting a hat-trick in a ‘B’ International game set up as a trial for the last few spots in Glenn Hoddle’s squad for the 1998 World Cup, the England manager still left him at home. For an ex-player whose England career had also been truncated due to managers valuing application above ability, it felt like a counter-intuitive decision.
If international football would never see the full flowering of the Le Tissier magic, back home at his beloved Dell, he was centre stage and the star of the show for Southampton on so many occasions. For a side, that was often in the wrong half – and the lower portion of that half – of the league table, more often than not, even the cold bare statistics of his goalscoring record is impressive.
Rarely playing as a striker and, especially in his early days often shunted out to a wide position, he scored 209 goals in 540 games for the Saints. It’s a more than decent record by any standards and demonstrates his commitment to keeping his club secure in the top tier of English football. “He wanted so much responsibility and no one else gave it to him,” previous club manager, Alan Ball once asserted. “Not the responsibility where you stick your foot in, but getting the ball in the hard part of the pitch. He was just phenomenal, he was brave. He had the heart of a lion. That was a massive thing that no-one knew. He kept Southampton up single-handedly for years.”
For so many football fans of the era though, it’s not the quantity of goals that Le Tissier scored. The very best memories of his time in top flight football are the number of sensational strikes he conquered up from his magical skills. Many, less-gifted may wonder from where the thought for such outrageous pieces of skill arise. Le Tissier has his own answer. “You have to be willing to try something a little bit different and you don’t want to have the fear of failure. I think a lot of people tend not to try things because they think it will look foolish if it doesn’t come off, whereas I was a little bit the other way around. I didn’t have any great embarrassment if it didn’t come off.”
Manchester United seemed favoured opponents. A ball rolled back to him from a free-kick on the edge of the area was flicked up and then volleyed home with disguised nonchalant ease, and then one of those strolling dribbles that flat-footed three United defenders before a delicate chip floated over the head of Peter Schmeichel, are just two that spring to mind. There are so many more though.
Playing against Newcastle, a ball to him was played poorly and behind. Flicking up a heel though Le Tissier caressed the ball into his path, flicked it up and over a defender, repeated the feat to enter the penalty area, before side-footing home. Had Pelé, Maradona, Messi or Ronaldo scored in similar circumstances, there would be endless videos plastered all over Twitter and TV. An elegant chip at Villa Park to find the top corner – ‘top bins’ in modern parlance – of the net, another mazy strolling dribble and a 35-yard shot at Blackburn, another chipped up volley against Wimbledon and a scorching long-range effort at Highfield Road that Coventry goalkeeper Steve Ogrizovic merely watched as if an uninvited guest to a football feast are all worthy of acclaim.
Le Tissier was also deadly from 12 yards. In his career, he took on spot-kick duties 48 times and converted 47 of them. The one blot on the copybook being a save from Nottingham Forest’s Mark Crossley. In his long career, the much-travelled goalkeeper understandably describes it as “the save I’m most proud of.”
Le Tissier was also a man for the occasion. In the last game Southampton played at The Dell before moving to Saint Mary’s, he hit a last-minute spectacular volley pivoting to fire home against Arsenal and securing an emotional 3-2 win. It was fitting that the man who had scored so many times and entertained so much had the last word at the stadium he called home and a fitting tribute to ‘Le God’ who lived among the Saints.