Tuesday, October 16, 2007

In broken French

Danny Kelly, football broadcaster and radio presenter, writes on Southampton FC legend, Matt Le Tissier. I've spoken about him before. But here's a little youtube reminder of how great he was, first. I like the way he writes about Matt and it is a loving tribute for one of the greats of the game who is likely to be forgotten because he played for a "small" team.

“Rock and roll”, boogie bigwig Bob Seger once sagely observed, “tends to forget”. So, it seems, do football fans. I am really struggling to understand the reaction to this week’s announcement that Matt le Tissier, of the Channel Islands, Southampton and England, has retired.

I am mystified in two ways. First, by the actual paucity of column inches devoted to the man with the lop-sided face. All right, he took his leave on the same weekend that the Queen Mother did but I’m still astonished so few words has been written about Le Tiss.

Second, what little ink has been spilt over his departure has been tinged with the bitterest bile. The line of argument seems to be “good riddance to a fat waster who chucked away what modicum of talent he had”.

This, I have to say, is incredibly spiteful. And wrong.

So I come not to bury Matt but to praise him. In an age when footballers seem almost universally to walk on feet of clay, and where our own experiences, and letdowns, make it almost impossible to have a footballing hero, Matthew le Tissier is almost beyond reproach. I don’t know how he could have arranged things so that his departure could have been more spectacular or more widely noted. All I know is that he was a one-off, a truly remarkable footballer and that we shall honestly not see his like again.

I suppose that I’m so shaken by his going because he really does represent the passing of an age. Of several actually. Like some strange hybrid dinosaur, Le Tissier represented a number of marvellous strains of the Genus Footballerus, and his tearful farewell at St Mary’s last weekend means the DNA may well have been lost forever. With his final bow, we may have seen the last of such once-revered species as The Lazy Footballer, The Maverick Footballer, The Fat Footballer and The One Club Man.

Let’s deal with the fat/lazy thing first. The Guernseyman is 6-foot-1 and for most of his career weighed in at 13 stone. Hardly likely to win him Slimmer Of The Year but no heavier than, say, recent Footballer Of The Year David Ginola. Whatever his waistband, there’s no point denying that Le Tissier was not the most athletic fellow ever to grace the greensward, but that was of little comfort to the defences that he regularly tortured before age and infirmity caught up with him. Somehow, from inside that shambling frame he found the right physical stuff to do his wonderful job.

In all, this supposed tub of lard has turned out 541 times for Southampton (starting 463 matches) and managed to drag his lazy arse into position to score against supposedly superior athletes on a mere handful of occasions. A mere 210 occasions to be precise! And what goals!

In the years running up to the emergence of David Beckham, nobody scored a greater number of spectacular efforts. Equally, all of Le Tissier’s goals seemed to be fantastic. The fellow seemingly never managed a tap-in or a bobbler; they were all twinkling dribbles, howitzer blasts or geometric chips. They used to say that you were either a great goal scorer (Lineker, quantity over quality) or a scorer of great goals (Gascoigne in his prime, or Bobby Charlton); Le Tissier was both. He was also, for the record, statistically the best penalty taker in the top division in the Nineties.

Even more damaging to his reputation than the fat thing has been the accusation that he is a maverick, that he cannot fit a team pattern. On the surface, this argument would appear to hold much water. A succession of England managers were too frightened of Le Tissier’s supposed lack of team play to put him in the national side. But the players who he played with week-in, week-out knew better. They realised that if they were prepared to run the extra yard for their genius colleague, to graft that bit harder to gain him a yard of space, a speck of time, he would reward them with the most precious coins in football’s currency, a pile of magical, win-bonus bringin’, relegation-avoidin’ goals and assists.

And Le Tissier was completely aware of his shortcomings. Barry Horne sweated and grafted and ran and toiled for Matt for several seasons in Southampton’s midfield. The Welshman recently told me that after every game, when people would be clamouring to congratulate and lionise Le Tissier, the winger would take time out to personally thank his team-mates for their efforts on his behalf.“To be thanked by a pure footballing genius”, Horne said, “was the best thing that ever happened to me.”

There are those too who criticise Le Tiss for not leaving Southampton and trying his luck at a bigger club. Again, Horne has been enlightening. In the early Nineties, Le Tissier had indeed agreed to join one of the capital’s giants. At the last minute he went to that club’s manager and asked to be released from his obligation, saying he couldn’t bear to leave either Southampton the football club or Southampton the city. Of course he can be accused, in the modern parlance, of “lacking ambition”, but, ultimately, he followed his heart (exactly as he did when playing the game) and which of us can say that that is ever a bad thing?In sticking by the team he loved, he probably sacrificed a wheelbarrow full of cash. To some that might make him a fool. To me, and millions of other football fans, it assures his status as a hero.

It is ironic that the player who most closely matched Le Tissier for pure skill should have been the Saint’s nemesis. Glenn Hoddle never forgave the Southampton man for his admittedly lacklustre performance (of which he was by no means alone!) against Italy when England lost the World Cup qualifier at Wembley in February 1997. Hoddle dropped him from the squad and waited a year before giving the wing wizard an ultimatum at the back end of the following season: Show me what you can do and you’ll go to the World Cup. The supposedly lackadaisical Le Tissier scored seven goals in Saints’ last nine fixtures and, in a B international against Russia that the press rightly regarded as a trial for the Southampton man, he scored a hat-trick. And hit the woodwork twice. Yet Hoddle didn’t even include Le Tissier in the provision squad for France 98.

Things were never the same after that. Except, that is, for one glorious day last May. They were playing the last ever match at The Dell, the ramshackle ground that Southampton had occupied for a lifetime.T he greatest player ever to regularly grace that pitch (with apologies to Ron Davies. Mike Channon, Terry Paine, Kevin Keegan and Alan Shearer) was on the bench. Southampton and Arsenal were sharing four goals when Le Tiss finally meandered out onto the sun-washed grass.

Of course he scored the last ever goal at the ground. Of course it was a last minute winner. And of course it was an absolute stunner. Further, it was proof that the gods of football are still taking a very active interest in what goes on and that they have a special place in their hearts for the stroller from Guernsey. It remains one of my favourite ever goals, and Matthew le Tissier is one of my favourite footballers.

I love the way he played. I loved the fact that he owned a nightclub. I love the fact he shagged busty actress Emily Symons out of Home And Away/Emmerdale. I have even forgiven him for not joining Spurs.

His passing from the game should not be a matter for carping and pettiness.Instead there should be bunting in the street, a nationwide ringing of bells and a recognition that this was, as Saints fans have always averred, a God.

© Danny Kelly 2002

Bob Dylan's New Orleans Rag

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