Fans of Southampton Football Club have had the pleasure of witnessing the dawn of the careers of some of the most exciting British footballing talents in recent years. Theo Walcott made his debut for the club aged just 16 years and 143 days in August of 2005, only to transfer to Arsenal just six months later. The following season Gareth Bale debuted and scored a series of technically superb free kicks that brought his name to prominence. Bale made the move to Tottenham in the summer transfer window 2007 having made 40 appearances for the club. More recently, the less well documented talents of left midfielder Andrew Surman (sold to Premiership outfit Wolverhampton Wanderers in 2008), attacking midfielder Adam Lallana and winger Alex Oxade-Chamberlain (who followed Walcott to Arsenal) have kept average attendances at St Marys over 20,000, despite Southampton playing in the third and second tiers of English football.
It is difficult not to adopt a bitter tone while reflecting on the factory line of talent St Marys has seen come and go, or the lost (but admittedly faint) possibility of seeing a player of the quality of Gareth Bale playing in a red and white shirt beyond the age of 18. However, to present Southampton as the humble victims of the modern game is unfair. It would be so easy for Saints fans to feel sorry for themselves and say things like “there’s something rotten at the heart of modern football” (admittedly there is, and it manages Tottenham Hotspur). But the facts of the matter are that The Saints poached Walcott from Swindon aged 14 for a nominal fee, received fair and hefty sums for Walcott (reported to be £12m after appearance bonuses) Bale (£5 million up front, £10 million in total) and Chamberlain (again a reported £12m)
So if Saints fans do feel resentful, I suspect that this is for two reasons. Firstly, it appears to be in the DNA of the football fan to feel that the world is against their club. Perhaps this galvanizes an artificial sense of belonging. “No one likes us, we don’t care.” Secondly, even within the modern era, with Andy Townsend’s ignorance and John Motson’s confusion acting as its mouthpiece, Southampton have been set a precedent of a football club as something more than a business.
Matthew Le Tissier was born in St Peter Port, Guernsey on 14 October 1968. As a schoolboy he was to demonstrate prodigious talent both at football and cricket, still holding a number of Island records; amongst them, the highest batting score recorded by a schoolboy. In 1986 the man who would come to be known as “Le God” came to Southampton from across the sea (did he walk?) and made his debut the same year, aged just 17. Initially used as an impact substitute from the wing, he was to gravitate towards the very centre of the team, and the club. Playing without responsibility behind a less talented striker who would carry his work load for him (Shearer, Dowie, Shipperly, Ostenstad) Le Tissier would display an extraordinary range of passing.
In the 1993-94 season he scored 30 goals and was to win the coveted MOTD goal of the season award for his jinking run and 35 yard dipping effort that left Tim Flowers splayed on the floor like a man who had been shot.
Never have I had the fortune of seeing a player with a greater capacity to play seemingly impossible passes, his passes would sometimes exasperate before they would thrill. Without being the quickest player in the top flight his technical ability allowed him to ghost past almost anyone. Le Tissier is best known, however, for his shooting ability to which his penalty record (48 scored of 49 taken) provides factual testimony. When Le Tissier kicked the ball it appeared to follow his thoughts, rather than proving to be the physical consequences of his contact. At times, the whole sport seemed too easy for him. Watch, if you haven’t already, his goal against Wimbledon at the Dell in 1996 (you can see it on YouTube). The ball is laid back to him 30 yards from goal by Matthew Oakley, he dinks the ball up for himself, and strokes the ball into the right hand corner of the goal with minimal effort. It is an extraordinary moment.
Le Tissier’s list of achievements for The Saints is a long one. He scored 210 goals in 443 appearances leaving him the club’s second all time highest scorer behind Mick Channon. He remains the youngest Saints player to score a hat trick, against Leicester, aged 17. He won the 1988-1989 PFA young player of the year award, having scored 20 goals. He was the first non out and out striker to score 100 goals in the Premier League, and the sixth player overall to do so. In the 1993-1994 season he scored 30 goals and was to win the coveted “Match of The Day Goal of the Season” award for his jinking run and 35 yard dipping effort that left his good friend Tim Flowers splayed on the floor like a man who had been shot. Finally, and perhaps most memorably, he scored the third goal, deep into stoppage time, in a 3-2 win against Arsenal, the last competitive match at the Dell.
However, for a man of his talent, the gaps on the CV are as important in the telling of the story of Matthew Le Tissier as the achievements. He made his debut for England in 1994 against Denmark, but would only go on to make 8 caps. Inexplicably overlooked by Terry Venables for the 1996 European Championship squad, the dagger to the heart of the international career of Le Tissier came when he was overlooked for the 1998 world cup squad by Glen Hoddle (ironically, a man who shares many talents with Le Tissier). This was despite a sublime hat trick for an England B side against Russia, supposedly a pretext for determining who would be going to France as part of the squad. Le Tissier also never won a major competition. His lack of silverware and International recognition would surely have been rectified had he taken the opportunity to move to one of the myriad of bigger clubs who attempted to snatch him away from the Dell.
The majority of Saints fans understood why Theo Walcott, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Gareth Bale sought their fortunes elsewhere. Footballer’s careers can be ended in a matter of seconds, and there is no guaranteed source of income beyond the age of 30. So a multi-year, high wage contract is often a sensible option to take. But highly paid, established international footballers like Wayne Rooney and Ashley Cole who will attempt to engineer moves away from clubs that have done everything to help their careers for the sake of the transition from ridiculous to obscene earnings should reflect on the career of a man who, despite not achieving the same level of earnings, silverware or international recognition, will be remembered infinitely more favourably.
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