Matthew Le Tissier: the last golden boy of a golden era

Matthew Le Tissier: the last golden boy of a golden era

One look at the psychedelic maelstrom of noise and colour was enough to convince me to turn back at once. As our train pulled into Zürich Hauptbahnhof, the sight of thousands of techno-house enthusiasts crowding the platforms and living it large was a horrifying prospect.

In an attempt to cram in as much eye-opening experience as possible, I had organised a whirlwind European journey encompassing 30 cities from ten countries in 29 days to celebrate my emancipation from school. It was a shame that an estimated one million revellers had besieged the city offering the world’s highest standard of living on the same weekend as I had chosen to visit, but as it turned out, the breathtakingly idyllic serenity of Stockholm harbour later in my trip more than made up for the disappointment.

It was as I hurtled through the Swiss night away from the madness and bright lights of Zürich over a decade ago that I began to ponder the relative attractions of big city life and more sedate surroundings. I grew up in the same village of 2,000 people where Roy Keane used to live when captain of Manchester United, and his journey from the south west of Ireland to the north west of England got me thinking about the correlation between success on the pitch and lifestyle off it.

Keane himself has always been outspoken, but he was often seen walking his dog around the local park or Hale Golf Club – where former Manchester City manager Manuel Pellegrini escaped from the pressures of his day job – never in nightclubs or at fashion shows. His teammates at Old Trafford were mostly unknown as socialites and media personalities, with one notable exception, so was this the key to achieving the game’s highest honours – eschewing the limelight? What about that other rare breed of player, the one that shines as brightly as the flashes from paparazzi cameras, but chooses to tread the boards on a smaller stage?

Of this category, the name that jumped out at me as I crossed the border into Germany was Matt Le Tissier. When he made his league debut for Southampton against Norwich City on 30 August 1986, he became the first of three siblings to complete the step to the mainland as a professional footballer.

Older brothers Carl and Kevin turned down contracts with Southampton and Middlesbrough respectively as they couldn’t face leaving Guernsey, the channel island which they both represented with distinction. The eldest brother Mark also turned out at centre-back in the Muratti Cup, the annual match against Jersey, the only Le Tissier to be named man of the match in the fixture. Even their father Marcus had trials at Arsenal, so a competitive sporting mindset was enforced upon young Matt during a childhood where there was precious little to do on the island except compete. At school he broke three running records, for the 75m sprint, the 55m hurdles and the 6x10m shuttle runs, something that even the man himself was amazed to discover when looking back on his life.

Read  |  Alan Shearer: the greatest Premier League goalscorer of all

One criticism from some quarters of his career has been that he didn’t push himself beyond his comfort zone at Southampton. Glenn Hoddle, his idol as a boy, tried to sign him for Chelsea in 1996, but was rebuffed simply because Le Tissier didn’t see the need to leave his adopted home.

The Southampton side in the early part of the decade was on the verge of genuinely challenging for honours with an exciting youthful exuberance about them; Rod Wallace, his brother Danny, before Multiple Sclerosis robbed him of his lightning pace, a fresh-faced Alan Shearer, Tim Flowers coming through as back up to the legendary Peter Shilton, a youthful Jason Dodd signed from Bath City for a bargain £40,000. The proximity to his childhood home was also a major benefit of playing for the Saints, but more pertinently, why should he upset the status quo when things were looking bright?

In the early stages of his career, his influences were tough taskmasters whose outlooks on the game didn’t always match his own. Dave Merrington was his youth team coach when he moved across the water, a man Le Tissier described as a “teak-tough no-nonsense Geordie”, who forced the apprentices to run two and a half miles for leaving dirty laundry on the changing room floor. The fact that he and Shearer both credit him as being the foremost influence on their careers speaks volumes for his motivational skills, despite the young playmaker openly detesting the physical training.

The first team manager at the time, Chris Nicholl, ran the club with an equally firm fist; he once punched defender Mark Dennis for staying out playing pool until 2am the night before a League Cup semi-final. Joe Jordan was in midfield alongside former Liverpool icon and Southampton club captain Jimmy Case, who looked out for youth team players if they were receiving rough treatment from the opposition. Neil Ruddock partnered Mark Wright at the back, while Francis Benali became the south coast’s answer to Stuart Pearce. This blend of youth and hardened experience, added to the intense atmosphere of The Dell, meant some of the country’s top sides came unstuck on the south coast.

Le Tissier’s first start for the club came as a 17-year-old against a Spurs side including Hoddle and Chris Waddle in Division One when he was still an apprentice. After a 2-0 win in which he nearly set up Danny Wallace, he kept his place for the next match against Nottingham Forest, and Stuart Pearce. ‘Psycho’ lived up to his nickname; even Jimmy Case wouldn’t go near the tough-tackling full-back to protect his precociously talented winger.

Read  |  Waddle at Marseille: How Magic Chris found freedom in France

In those days Le Tissier was used out wide, and with his lack of experience, slight frame and fearsome marker, he was more subdued than usual. Being protected by sturdier teammates was something that fed a little into his sense of being a precious commodity, and he wasn’t the only one who thought so. Nicholl tended to use him sparingly to save him from the rigours of professional football, but his majestic control and ball skill soon endeared him to the fans that lit up when he warmed up down the touchline.

Le Tissier always garnered support despite his perceived lack of adherence to a strict fitness regime because he was more than just an entertainer. He rarely put on excessive exhibitions of extravagance to taunt the opposition, but he had a supreme, relaxed confidence that successfully navigated the fine line between arrogance and belief. Any park footballer could relate to his style, if not replicate it, and although the stereotypical English footballer traded in blood, sweat and tears, his approach to the game gave fans a release as he artistically dragged their side out of more than one relegation dogfight, never fading in vital games, at least not out of frailty of character.

Two months after his debut, he scored his first goals for the club against Manchester United in the League Cup in what turned out to be Ron Atkinson’s last game in charge of the northern giants. Although he failed to fully establish himself in the side for another three seasons, he was selected to represent the England under-20s in a tour to Brazil the following summer, and went on to pick up the PFA Young Player of the Year award in 1990.

He eventually made his debut for the full side in 1994 under Terry Venables’ stewardship. Venables had tried to sign him for his boyhood club Tottenham, but Le Tissier had turned him down; the lack of personal attention that had supported and fed him perhaps contributed towards his decision, but more simply, London wasn’t Southampton. Venables never spoke to his transfer target in the negotiations, so although a contract was signed, a fee was never agreed and the Saints’ match-winner didn’t push through the move.

The paltry eight caps he was awarded in his England career, including only three starts and just one complete 90 minutes, can certainly be partly attributed to his relationship with the managers at the time. Glenn Hoddle took over from Venables after Euro 96, a squad for which Le Tissier was omitted, and carried forward El Tel’s rejuvenation of what had started to become a stale side under Graham Taylor.

It was Hoddle that he looked up to as a youngster, but also Hoddle who he had rebuffed as Chelsea manager – and who brought the controversial faith healer Eileen Drury into the setup before France 98. To the straight-talking Le Tissier this was nonsense, and despite excelling in the pre-tournament warm-up thrashing of Russia as he scored and even took the armband for the final 10 minutes, he was again left out of a major tournament. Time was not on his side as he approached his fourth decade with his pace dwindling and seemingly always falling on the wrong side of selection for his country.

Read  |  The Roman tragicomedy of Paul Gascoigne at Lazio

It could easily have been so different for the man the Dell christened “Le God”; due to his Channel Island heritage, he was technically eligible to represent any of the home nations under the old rules, or even France. Gérard Houllier tried desperately to entice him to wear the tricolour, making numerous phone calls to try to persuade him to pledge allegiance across the water. Le Tissier himself admitted it never crossed his mind to pull on the blue shirt of Platini, Cantona and Deschamps, but the appreciation of his talent and, one assumes, the willingness to find a place for it, is telling.

Despite Paul Gascoigne starring in his home tournament with that sublime ‘sombrero’ solo goal against Scotland, even his phenomenal ability was left unharnessed towards the end of his career. Of course, when the temperament of a player is as wild as Gazza’s it is not a simple matter to get the best out of him while preventing him from causing havoc off the pitch, but that is never something that could be said about Le Tissier.

He rarely drank and kept control of his money even though his highest salary was less than £4,000 a week. He only once dabbled in gambling, almost with disastrous consequences; in an attempt to fix a spread bet on the first throw-in of the match coming in the first 60 seconds, Le Tissier took the kick off and hit the ball out wide, except it wasn’t hit strongly enough, and after scrambling around desperately trying to get it out of play in the nick of time before he started having to pay out to the bookie, he vowed to never gamble again.

So how could the gap between the fans’ adulation and his international managers’ indifference be so great? As my overnight connection to Munich still had a few hours left, and my companion’s snoring meant sleep wasn’t an option, I decided to compile the best five-a-side team from players I’d seen at the time centred around the man himself, and came across what I believe is the answer.

For the record, my five ended up as Barthez, Maldini, Gascoigne, Le Tissier, Cantona – pure footballing hedonism. Now imagine standing on the sidelines watching that side in full flow; Barthez’s stunning reflexes and agility denying what little got through, Maldini spraying passes while dictating the pace, Gazza bamboozling opposition with his outrageous touch, Cantona using his aggression, strength and vision to finish. Le Tiss? His intelligence would read the game without question, and boy he would entertain. But would he last? The romantic fan would always make time and space for Guernsey’s finest, but in the end, his talent needed to be the focal point around which the rest of the team was moulded, otherwise his fitness and pace would unfortunately make him surplus to requirements, especially in the modern game.

Read  |  How Marian Pahars became a cult hero at Southampton

One man who did make the effort was Alan Ball. In his first training session, the diminutive ginger-haired World Cup winner lined up Southampton’s players with three at the back, four across midfield and two up front, before putting his arm around Le Tissier’s shoulders and declaring: “This is your best player and your best chance of getting out of trouble. I’m going to put him right in the middle of the pitch, and whenever you have the chance to get the ball to his feet, you have to do it. He will do the rest.”

Forty-five goals in 64 games and two successful relegation dogfights later, Southampton’s new skipper had delivered on the bold backing given to him by the only manager to fully relate to him and his influence. Ball’s fiery, intense motivational style lit up the Southampton squad and gave them some of the most sublime moments, such as the 5-4 victory away to Norwich in 1994.

The mid-90s was still a time when mercurial geniuses could be the foundation of an entire team; Eric Cantona and his idiosyncrasies were accommodated in a masterful manner by Sir Alex Ferguson, and he was repaid by the full potential of the Frenchman being unleashed on the rest of the Premiership. But as the unshakeable inertia of the Sky-backed Premiership behemoth rolled on and on, money began flooding into the game, and urgency and dependency on results took precedence over entertainment.

The new world emerging was not one Le Tissier was made for; survival was the end game, not purity of footballing expression. It was fitting that it was he who scored the last goal at The Dell, a brilliant swivelling half-volley to beat Arsenal 3-2, before the move to the anonymous identikit stadium at St. Mary’s. There was a hint of sadness knowing that we would never again see a player of such natural talent with such a down to earth attitude be allowed the freedom of the pitch to dictate games on his terms.

In many ways, his career was about bridging gaps. He was there to see the change of stadia, he related to the fans in a way that Rupert Lowe never could, but perhaps most significantly his spellbinding influence over one of the lowest spending outfits in the Premier League signalled the end of an era and the dawn of the next. Without question he would flounder in today’s game, unable to keep up with the ferocious pace of modern athletic machines – it would be like tearing the wings off a butterfly to play a 1995 Le Tissier in 2018.

As Southampton continue their Premier League journey today, Le Tiss can watch on from the comfort of the Soccer Saturday studio knowing that he achieved his own success – he played for his country, he entertained the public, and is one of the most universally popular figures in the game from the last two decades.

By Andrew Flint @AndrewMijFlint