Matt Le Tissier never really looked like a typical footballer. Big nose, crooked teeth and a rounded figure does not make you think of one of the finest players ever to grace English football. Except that’s exactly what Matt was, a true great of the Premier Leeague.
Guernsey’s favourite son was the epitome of a one-man club. Making 462 appearances for Southampton scoring 209 goals in a career spanning 16 years. His goals arguably single-handedly kept the Saints in the top flight on more than one occasion and he has the honour of scoring the last ever goal at The Dell. His Southampton credentials are without doubt but his achievements on a wider scale are often overlooked.
He averaged nearly a goal every two games for Southampton as a midfielder. Read that sentence again if you are sceptical over Le Tiss. He is one of only 16 Premier League players to score 100 goals. He took 50 penalties in his career, he scored 49. In 1994/5 he scored 30 goals as Southampton finished in a creditable tenth place. He wasn’t one for awards. The PFA Young Player of the Year in 1991 was his only major success.
The beauty of the player was his ability to make the world-class look effortless. While most of us were Francis Benali, Le Tiss was the lad in the playground taking on all comers and finishing with aplomb. He was accused of being lazy but that was simply because of the time he afforded himself on the ball. Part of the problem was that he never looked like a typical footballer. Heavy in the gut he may have been but he didn’t need peak fitness – some the best players never do.
He was one of the great individuals, a Best, a Marsh or a Cantona, who would liven up any game with a flash of skill or a sublime shot. He was one of those players you would want to watch even if you did not support Southampton. His obvious major attribute was his shooting, no one could strike a ball like Le Tiss. He was renowned for his spectacular goals, think of his double against Newcastle, that goal against Blackburn, or his goals against Manchester United when they thumped them 6-3. It is a testament to the man that even without listing specific details about the goals, you will remember them.
There was of course more to his game than just scoring magnificent goals. He had the technique of a Brazilian which not surprisingly was slightly out of place in the mid nineties Premier League when there were so many second rate cloggers doing the rounds. Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard are rightly lauded for the range of their passing but Le Tiss had already been there, done that and bought the extra large T-shirt. He was at his best when he was positioned behind the strikers and able to dictate the game. If Matt was still playing today he would no doubt be labelled a luxury player, a passenger when they do not play well. This was not strictly true, whilst he was never the most hard-working of footballers, he set the tone for the team with the way he played the game.
There’s no doubt he underperformed at England level. For a player of his talent to only amass eight caps is nothing short of a travesty. There are many reasons why he never had success at international level. His critics would argue that he never gave enough for the team or that he was too similar but not better than Paul Gascoigne. He was every bit the talent Gazza was but he also scored a mammoth amount of goals. He was not even included in the squads for Euro 96 or World Cup 98. It’s astonishing to believe that Terry Venables then later Glenn Hoddle believed there were 22 English players better than him at the time. There probably have never been 22 English players better than Le Tiss. Others have reasoned that he was never really in contention because he was always involved in relegation scraps with Southampton. This is a sad reflection of a international selection policy that we still see today. Too many England Managers of the past have picked the most well know rather than the best. Arguably the main reason for his lack of international recognition was that no England Manager knew how to use him effectively. At Southampton he was the fulcrum of the team, the play went through him. Le Tiss would not play his best if was stuck out on the left wing. He was one of the few players England possessed that was capable of creating a goal out of absolutely nothing, a key attribute to have at major tournaments. If the England team was moulded around Le Tiss when he was at his peak (1994-1998) they may have actually won something.
According to his autobiography he turned down moves to Milan, Tottenham (the club he supported as a boy) and Chelsea (when Hoddle was in charge pre-England). Perhaps he should have moved on and garnered the praise and medals that his talent no doubt deserved. Yet if he had left Southampton it is doubtful whether he would be a real football fans favourite. The reason he is so well liked is because he was not a mercenary who sold himself to the highest bidder. He played the game because he loved it and most of all he loved his club.
Above his skill what we should most admire about Matt is his loyalty. It’s easy for Ryan Giggs to stay at Manchester United for an entire career, when the trophies have been there at the end of almost every season. Yet for Le Tiss it was never about that. It was about keeping his team up, which he did every year. Consider that during a period in the nineties Le Tiss was the only genuine Premiership class in the Southampton team. The 1995/96 team featured such luminaries as Jason Dodd, Neil Maddison and Neil Shipperley. Hard working professionals one and all but not exactly shining examples of the top flight. They lasted a couple of years after Le Tissier retired but they have been on a downward spiral ever since. Looking at their current struggles it makes Matt seem an even better player. Never has one man defined a team like Le God did in the mid nineties for Southampton.
In 2002 he was given the freedom of Southampton and this is an indication of the esteem he was held in by the club and the city as a whole. Part of the appeal of Tiss was that whilst he was capable of extraordinary things on a football pitch, off the pitch he looked and acted ordinary. As the modern game turns players into ethereal otherworldly beings it is refreshing to look back at a simple man who did great things. When your nickame is Le God and you can still remain down to earth, you are must be some player. He is widely considered by Saints fans to be their greatest ever player.
It’s exceptionally hard to argue with that.
Le Tiss retired in March 2002, the end of his career marred with injuries. He was briefly part of the St Mary’s Stadium era of Southampton football club but shall be ever entwined with the Dell. Post retirement he has joined the countless other ex-professionals on Sky Sports as a pundit for their various programmes.
Matt Le Tissier may not have won any medals in his career. He did not set the international football world alight. Some say he underachieved in his career and did not make the most of his talent. Keeping a club in the top flight of English football on your own is hardly underachieving. Le Tiss was one of the rare players who understood that fans want to be entertained and so he did just that. In a time when players seem to value money and fame over the actual business of playing football, a few could do worse than copy the Le Tissier template. For a period in the mid-1990s there was no better footballer to watch. He may not have the legacy of Alan Shearer or Thierry Henry, but football is about more than medals and awards. It’s about beauty and grace. Whilst you wouldn’t think of it to look at him, no player sums up those two