“His talent was simply out of the norm,” gushed one of the finest players of more recent years, Barcelona and Spain’s Xavi. “He could simply dribble past seven or eight players but without speed – he just walked past them. For me he was sensational.”
Xavi was discussing one of his childhood heroes, Southampton legend Matt Le Tissier. The man known to his adoring Saints fans as “Le God” is one of the most iconic players of the Premier League’s first decade. Despite playing his entire career at one of the league’s less fashionable outposts, Le Tissier garnered a level of support and appreciation that went far beyond the realms of The Dell, Southampton’s old ground.
He was a player of majestic talent, capable of the breathtakingly audacious. He was a languid, leisurely, laconic genius, with a relaxed and laid-back demeanour and a total absence of fluster that belied the talent burning within.
Emerging in the late 1980s, Le Tissier was a creative attacking midfielder with the ability to call on a level of technical skill that put him on another plain to most of his contemporaries. The perception of his talent was always clouded by his unhurried style that some would criticise as a lack of work-rate. He lacked any significant pace or stamina, but he more than made up for this with his intelligence on the ball, and his ability to trick and glide past opponents.
Le Tissier made his Southampton debut at the outset of the 1986/87 season as a 17-year-old in a 4-3 defeat at Norwich. A few days later, he made his first start at home to Tottenham, and he would gradually work his way into the first-team reckoning under the guiding hand of the manager Chris Nicholl. He scored six times in 24 league matches that season, including a hat-trick against Leicester.
By 1990 he was one of the league’s top goalscorers, with 20 league strikes to his name, outscoring the likes of Ian Rush, a record only bettered by Gary Lineker and John Barnes. He wasn’t scoring the most straightforward of goals, though. Even as a raw youngster, his goals tended to be of the more spectacular than those that formed the meat and drink of a poacher. That season, he won the PFA Young Player of the Year award and was an established member of the England under-21 side.
As the Premier League era began, Le Tissier was already in demand from bigger clubs. A move to Tottenham was mooted and, in fact, agreed. “I’d agreed terms on the contract and everything,” he revealed to FourFourTwo, “but I pulled out of it because I was about to get married and my fiancée at the time didn’t fancy living in London.”
We may have been prevented from witnessing the mouth-watering prospect of a Le Tissier-Lineker-Gascoigne combination in the Spurs attack, but instead we were left to enjoy the loyalty of a one-club man performing feats for the club he would become synonymous with. His accomplishments would earn him legendary status for those of a Southampton persuasion, and cult status with fans across the league.
In an era when 4-4-2 was not only king but was effectively the be-all and end-all of tactical formations, Le Tissier broke the mould for what a midfielder could do. Not fitting into such a rigid formation, he was at times given a limited licence to roam behind the front line, allowing him the opportunity to hold onto the ball from where he could create chances from nothing and, on countless occasions, deliver the spectacular.
Le Tissier’s mid-to-late-1990s prime is best summed up by a series of wondrous goals, with the 1993/94 season was probably his domestic pinnacle. He scored 25 Premier League goals that season, aided in no small part by his phenomenal penalty record, which ceased with him having scored 47 of the 48 penalties he took throughout his career. Rather aptly, the only keeper to stop him – Nottingham Forest’s Mark Crossley – ranks his Le Tissier penalty save as one of the finest of his career. Among his many strikes from beyond 12 yards, more than a handful were certified gems.
His two goals in a 2-1 victory over Newcastle in 1994 were among the best. The first came when a long ball was headed down by Iain Dowie but fell slightly behind Le Tissier. Without breaking stride, Le Tissier flicked the ball closer into his path with his left foot. It was an instinctive reaction, but it put the ball in the ideal position for what was to come next.
Newcastle defender Barry Venison edged forwards to try and tackle, but Le Tissier got to his own flick first and nudged a volley past his opponent. Another defender, Kevin Scott, was now in his path. Instead of going to the left or to the right, Le Tissier’s automatic reaction was to lob the ball over him, taking Scott out of the play and leaving him with only Mike Hooper in the Newcastle goal to beat. As the lob came down, he nonchalantly side-footed the ball past the wrongfooted Hooper. The ball bobbled into the net rather than flew in, as Le Tissier for once didn’t connect as he had wanted.
“I was actually trying to side-foot the ball quite firmly,” he recalled to The Guardian, “but it came off the bottom of my foot instead.” No matter. It was a spectacular goal regardless, and perhaps the one for which he will most be remembered. There was another contender for that accolade later in the very same match, however.
Following an Andy Cole equaliser, Le Tissier scored a late winner. Controlling a header on his thigh, he knocked the ball up before swivelling to hit a delightful and unstoppable volley into the top corner. It was a goal born of supreme confidence after his earlier strike but was also in part due to his exhaustion. Had the ball not fallen directly to him, he claimed he wouldn’t have had the energy to chase after it. He was too tired to celebrate properly, though his teammates more than made up for that.
Later that same season against Wimbledon came another iconic strike. Awarded a free-kick on the edge of the box, Jim Magilton rolled the ball back to Le Tissier who casually flicked it up and sent a right-foot volley arching over the wall and into the top corner of the goal. Then there was the goal voted best of the following season; a close-control dribble followed by a 40-yard lofted curler of a shot that beat Blackburn’s Tim Flowers. His was a highlight reel that just kept getting better.
Fittingly, Le Tissier’s final goal for Southampton would also be the final goal at The Dell, before the club moved into its new stadium at St Mary’s. Now in the twilight of his career, he had come on as a substitute with 17 minutes remaining of the final match of the 2000/01 season.
The Saints had twice come from behind against a mighty Arsenal team that would finish the season as runners-up. As the match ticked over into the final minute, it was the perfect moment for one final masterful swing of that right boot. Seizing a loose ball at the edge of the box, he swivelled and sent a brilliant, dipping volley into the net, sparking the final, emotional celebrations at the old stadium.
This abundance of the spectacular, this regularity of the extraordinary, summed up his self-belief in his ability to attempt what others would never even consider. But it also served to enhance the perception that Southampton were a one-man team. The frequency with which such efforts served to stave off relegation for the Saints augmented this yet further.
“The one-man team stuff went way over the top,” Le Tissier told The Independent. “I got a lot of stick from the lads which placed unwanted pressure on me.” While he felt the burden to deliver, it was actually the desire to fit into the dressing room dynamic, to keep his feet on the ground and remain as a member of the team, rather than feed the impression of a one-man team that troubled him the most. “I would spend most of midweek playing myself down as a result,” he added. “Because you live or die by how you conduct yourself in the dressing-room.”
He would also feel the burden of having to live up to his past exploits. “A dip in form was bound to happen because at one point it seemed as if everything I hit from outside the area was finding the top corner,” he remembered. The inevitable downturn led to a low point in his career in the late 90s that had similar echoes when it came to representing England.
For lovers of the aesthetic and the iconic, it’s a real shame that such a talented and much-loved player was unable to make his mark at international level. He played just eight times for England and made minimal impact, in part due to the abundance of attacking talent the Three Lions had at the time, but principally due to the age-old problem of fitting an enigma into a rigid formation. He never scored for England and, though he hit a hat-trick for England B ahead of the 1998 World Cup squad selection, he failed to make the cut. Le Tissier himself felt his form never fully recovered following that setback.
There is no doubting, though, that this remarkable talent left an indelible mark on the Premier League. He possessed the quality to single-handedly change a game and, given the Saints’ travails through much of his time as a player, that was a task he was repeatedly required to do. The ball stuck to his feet like glue as he created chances out of seemingly nothing, more often than not in a spectacularly unlikely way. He was an enigma, an instinctive talent who could defy the norm, and he will go down as one of the finest of the first decade of the Premier League.
By Aidan Williams @yad_williams