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Le Tissier: Le God

When you think of football's greatest one-club men, the likes of Tony Adams, Paolo Maldini and Ryan Giggs spring to mind. But how hard can it be to stay at a club at the pinnacle of European football? Was their loyalty truly tested? The same question cannot be asked of Matt Le Tissier, the Southampton legend and one of the finest players to grace the Premier League stage.

Devoting 16 glorious years to his one and only club, Le Tissier had two excellent chances to leave The Dell, turning down Terry Venables' Tottenham in 1990 and Glenn Hoddle's Chelsea six years later. His affinity with the Saints and bond with their supporters remained unbroken and the man nicknamed 'Le God' was guaranteed deity status on the South Coast.

While the cultured forward, with a bigger bag of tricks than Derren Brown, hit the headlines recently when admitting his part in a failed spread betting coup, when determining the direction of his career he was never a gambler, preferring to stick rather than twist despite the lure of greater riches, European football and wider recognition. As a result of that loyalty, perhaps unmatched in recent years, in Southampton there is no more respected figure.

In a manner that befitted his unique style of play, Le Tissier trod an unfamiliar path to prominence as he emerged from the football backwater of Guernsey.

After failing to secure a move to Oxford United, Southampton spotted something special in the awkward teen from the Channel Islands and he won a contract at The Dell in May 1985, making his first-team debut at the age of 17 just a year later. It was the first stage of a prolonged love affair with the Saints.

His statistics in red and white stripes read a hugely-impressive 209 goals in 541 games, especially given the fact that he was far from being a conventional striker. From the penalty spot, he scored a remarkable 47 in 48 attempts with only Mark Crossley, in 1992, denying him from 12 yards.

But assessing Matt Le Tissier's career by statistics alone is like judging the Mona Lisa by its anatomical accuracy. The beauty instead lies in the style and artistic merit by which those numbers were achieved.

Early signs of his ability were evident in 1990 when he was named the PFA Young Player of the Year but it was in 1993-94 when he enjoyed his most prolific season in front of goal, scoring no less than 30 times for Southampton.

By then, Le Tissier's languid style had become a feared sight for any top flight defender, his laid-back approach disguising the menace that hid in the most explosive of right boots. His elegance on the ball and unhurried nature led to accusations of laziness and a lack of application, but was that unfair? Probably not, judging by this recent quote: "I'm very glad that ProZone wasn't around when I was playing," Le Tissier said. "There would have been some very interesting statistics about how many yards I ran in a game."

But ProZone stats could never convey the majesty of Le Tissier in full flight. The highlights are extensive. It is an arduous yet enjoyable task to identify his finest moments but even a rudimentary effort conveys the breadth and quality of the man at his best.

The ball rolled back to him from a free-kick against Wimbledon, Le Tissier flicks the ball up and then, with the same right foot, launches a stunning volley into the top corner of the net. Against Newcastle United, controlling the ball with an outstretched heel before flicking it over two markers, he dispatches a confident finish into the far corner. Against Blackburn Rovers, collecting the ball just inside the opposition half, Le Tissier beats the same man twice before firing a wonderful 35-yard effort over Tim Flowers. Not forgetting an exquisite lob in a game that Southampton fans will never forget - a 6-3 drubbing of Manchester United in 1996.

Indeed, in the catalogue of great Premier League goals, Le Tissier is rivalled only by the likes of Eric Cantona, Dennis Bergkamp and Gianfranco Zola. A clutch of outstanding forwards of which Le Tissier is the only England international, making his brief and unfulfilled career for his country even harder to explain.

For while Le Tissier made an impression at Southampton that will never be forgotten, and possibly never matched, his international contribution places him alongside the likes of James Beattie and Kevin Phillips - two former Saints players who never came remotely close to emulating his achievements on the South Coast.

Various reasons have been suggested for Le Tissier's disappointing international output. He won only eight caps, without scoring a goal, and his mercurial talents never seemed to have been entirely trusted by successive England managers.

The great irony was that Glenn Hoddle, a man of whom the same has been said, seemed unwilling to indulge in more than one luxury player with Paul Gascoigne taking precedence. Of course at the 1998 World Cup, Hoddle took neither, despite Le Tissier scoring a hat-trick in a 'B' international against Russia in the build-up to the finals in France.

While his debut came in a 1-0 friendly win over Denmark in March 1994, his final international cap, and only second appearance in a senior international, came in England's 1-0 defeat to Italy at Wembley in February 1997, with Le Tissier substituted in the second half. It was an inglorious end to an international career that never really got off the ground.

But although the England national side never warmed to his particular talents, others did and Le Tissier has recounted in the past how none other than Michel Platini - one of the great all-time playmakers - tried to recruit him for France. The surname clearly confused Les Bleus though, as Le Tissier had no French heritage and was not eligible for the country. C'est La Vie.

Even at the end of his career, with dreams of England behind him, fitness problems taking their toll and his talents fading, Le Tissier was still capable of writing his own scripts. On May 19, 2001, Southampton played their final ever game at The Dell and Le Tissier scored a stunning volley in a 3-2 win against Arsenal.

He even had the dubious honour of being involved in one of the Premier League's most infamous moments, as it was his injury in a game against Leeds United in 1996 that heralded the introduction of a little-known substitute named Ali Dia. Unfortunately, Graeme Souness had been duped by a man pretending to be George Weah who had recommended the hopeless player. Dia was substituted himself after a shocking display and never played for the club again. Quite a contrast to the man he replaced on that ridiculous day.

Would a move to a bigger club have furthered his international claims and secured his reputation on a global stage? Undoubtedly. But was Le Tissier a wasted talent, a man who passed up a chance at the big time to stay in his comfort zone, or was he right to devote his career to his one and only club, providing Southampton fans with memories that will never fade? The final say should go to the man himself.

"I played the game the way I wanted to play it, and had I gone on to a bigger club, I probably wouldn't have been able to do that," Le Tissier recently told the Times. "I enjoyed being a big fish in a medium-sized pond, the person in the team that most of the fans were coming to watch, just to see if I could do something." And boy could he do something.


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