On the 14th of October 1968, the world made a little room for a very special baby, one who would go on to become one of the greatest footballers of his generation. On a dare, try taking a walk down to St.Mary’s stadium in Southampton today, on the eve of his birthday, and asking The Saints to keep it down tomorrow.
You will then be treated to some of the most un-saintly behavior you are ever likely to see, daredevil.
The man in question is Matthew Le Tissier, or Le Tiz, as his mates call him. When talk revolves around one-club legends, the names of the usual suspects are all thrown into the mix carelessly.
If anything, Le Tissier deserves more accolades than any man on that list, with all due respect to them.
Simply because the club he chose to make his home was Southampton, when he could just as easily have gone on to play for far more illustrious names. Not that he has had any shortage in the adulation department, mind you. His 16 years at The Dell were spent in the adoring company of a fan base that christened him “Le God”.
It all got to the point where certain religious figures actually sent letters to The Dell, wanting Le Tissier to come out and state publicly that, he was, in fact, not God.
To understand why he never moved to a bigger club, you’d have to ask the great man himself. Very articulate and humble in his words, he is refreshingly blunt as he looks back on his career. A major factor was that he was truly grateful to Southampton for giving him his start in professional football – an obvious rarity in the footballing world.
And if that seems a little too far-fetched for your taste, then the man does admit that, from a footballing perspective, he preferred to stay because Southampton offered him the chance to play football the way he wanted to.
The big fish in the small pond had a freedom he would have hardly enjoyed had he made a much-expected move to Terry Venables’ Tottenham Hotspur; or anywhere else, for that matter.
Le Tissier was known to be a Spurs fan, too, so it looked like it was only a matter of time before he switched allegiances. Thankfully, the man was always cut from a different cloth than his peers, and he remains the only Spurs supporter I adore.
Mathew Le Tissier is also my all-time favorite football player. And only a fellow Arsenal supporter can understand the inherent romanticism involved with my fascination with a footballer who, despite all his considerable achievements, is considered by the less enlightened to have not taken his career to the heights it could have gone to.
Le Tissier was that rare English player who was uniquely technically gifted, a select company that, in recent memory, includes only the names of Paul Gascoigne, Wayne Rooney, and potentially Jack Wilshere.
Sir Alex Ferguson once said that Le Tissier was the kind of player he would never pick in his team, but that he did not want to see him in the team his side were up against next. And that explains the man’s genius far more succinctly than anyone else ever could.
That Le Tissier was not, in his own words, “the most naturally gifted athlete”, was pointedly obvious. At Southampton, they had players around him that would do his “dirty work” for him, if only because every threat the Saints offered going forward came though Le Tiz.
The man himself tries to explain it thus, “For some unknown reason the minute the balls were taken away, and we had to just run without any reference to a football, I seemed to lose interest quite quickly”.
Southampton teammate Neil Ruddock put a uniquely personal touch on the matter – “If Le Tiz beat you in a long distance run, you were in trouble. The manager would absolutely cane you”. A comment that seems to suggest the rotund Ruddock has had the ignominy of suffering that fate.
But, by God, could he play! He possessed that hallmark of all great players, the kind who could be quiet for long periods of the game, and still, in a moment of brilliance, turn it on its head.
The classic Le Tiz, while surging forward with the ball, would invite the defender in, lulling him into a false sense of security. He would then coolly nick the ball past him, an almost imperceptible slight of foot that would leave the defender in his wake.
Ever so graceful on the ball for such a big man, these moments of subtlety were often followed by one of surreal ferocity and violence – a thunderous shot that would unerringly find the corner of the net, eliminating the possibility of a save to nothing but a long-lost dream.
Former Newcastle United star Rob Lee said of Le Tiz that he could “put the ball on a sixpence for you”, and he probably could’ve, had anyone possessed the gall to actually dare him.
The man himself remembers every one of his 210 goals to the tiniest detail; a trait that provides a unique insight into what goes on inside a footballer’s mind; or at least this footballer’s mind, to be fair to the other players out there.
He scored off a memorable chip against Manchester United, and this is what he had to say about it- “I kinda had my head down while I was dribbling, didn’t know where Schmeichel was when I got to the edge of the box. And I decided to chip it, because only the week before, Manchester United played Newcastle away. Philippe Albert had chipped Schmeichel from outside the box. Schmeichel was way off his line. And I kind of remembered it, so I chipped it, not knowing where he was. I mean, if he had been on his line, I would’ve looked a bit stupid.”
Classic Le Tiz, trying, and failing, to downplay a moment of genius that was just breath-taking, not only in its execution, but in all that went through his mind before he attempted the audacious.
But that was Le Tissier for you. The man has always been content with the career he has had, even if his decisions were responsible in him only playing eight times for England. To him, fulfilling his boyhood ambitions of becoming a professional footballer, and playing for his country, by the time he was 25 – all not too shabby for a little boy from Guernsey.
He did have the honor of scoring the last goal at The Dell; destiny herself played her part in making up to a man who deserved so much more.
He was celebrated for it, criticized for it and defined by it, but Le Tissier’s decision to stay was vindicated in that moment right there – people still come up to him and tell him how grown men unabashedly shed tears on that last day at The Dell.
They say that in football, no one is bigger than the club. It then says something about Matthew Le Tissier that he is probably the closest you will ever come.