It takes a lot for a diehard football fan of a club to even flirt, let alone have an affair with another. Invariably, it is a player of another club who tempts us away, like someone holding a big fish on Tinder. West Ham fan Scott reveals his secret childhood love affair with the unique Matthew Le Tissier.
The knock-down is slightly behind me, so I have to improvise. An effortless flick off the heel on my weaker left foot and the ball is now in my stride. It’s run away a from me a touch, so with an outstretched right swinger I lift the ball over the onrushing mane of Barry Venison. Still not fully under control, the ball bounces towards the edge of the penalty area, where Kevin Scott is coming across to intercept. Just as his left boot swipes to volley clear, I get a set of laces on it to elevate it high beyond him, en-route to the penalty spot. I’m through on goal, 12 yards out and eyeball to eyeball with Mike Hooper between the sticks. As the ball drops, I casually aim a right instep towards it and, although not connecting as intended, send a low half volley past the now grounded goalkeeper and into the far corner of the net. The crowd erupts. It is a stunning solo goal, proportionate in genius to some scored by the heralded greats of the game – Maradona… Pele… Dalian Atkinson. And more importantly, it was where my love of/obsession with Matt Le Tissier was conceived.
Of course, in this nostalgic recap I am playing the part of one-club Southampton talisman Matthew Le Tissier, the effortlessly sublime midfielder who was known to his own fans as ‘Le God’ for his deadly prowess in front of goal and imperishable loyalty to the south coast side. Somewhat overlooked by England, acquiring just 8 caps despite being the first non-striker to score 100 goals in the Premier League, Le Tiss was one of a kind. Often criticised for his lethargic, almost passive playing style, he would intermittently burst into life to produce moments of utter magic out of seemingly nothing. The classic ‘do nothing for 89 minutes, then score a goal of the month contender to win the match’ kind of player. He wouldn’t drive around the pitch like a Steven Gerrard, get stuck in (or booked) like a Paul Scholes, or pull the strings like a Michael Carrick – he would simply be ‘the’ Matt Le Tissier, Le God, the fella you daren’t take your eye off otherwise he’ll batter your stanchion with a 30-yard volley despite looking largely disinterested. And don’t, whatever you do, give a penalty away (47 converted out of 48 if you’re asking…).
I will elaborate more about the man’s nonchalant brilliance in a moment, but first I must give special mention to the supporting cast from my opening paragraph, where an 8 year old me is reliving Tiss’s opening goal in a 2-1 victory over Newcastle in October ’93 at school the following day. So please give warm welcome and applause to Barry Venison, played by Adam Hunt (he had a nickname); Kevin Scott, played by Richard Cawkwell; Mike Hooper, played by Steven Crick (he also had a nickname); the Mitre Promax football, played by a dog-eaten tennis ball; and last but not least the goal, played by a bench and a school jumper.
You may question the significance of me giving these extraneous details of a playground performance that happened over a quarter of century ago, but for me they are immensely relevant when I consider the influence Le Tissier had on my life growing up. Every time I was in the back garden breaking fence panels or dining room windows, playing Headers & Volleys (got that in for the SEO…) down the park with my mates on a school night, or dribbling a tennis ball across an overcrowded playground at break time, it was a case of ‘Tonight Matthew, I am Matthew Le Tissier’. He was the player I wanted to be on a cold Sunday morning for my under 9s team (I, incidentally, was a goalkeeper, but that’s beside the point). He was the reason I loved the number 7 shirt, favoured ‘luxury’ players who were no good on a wet Tuesday night in Stoke, but brilliant in a thumping 5-0 home win the following week (though I’m not putting Le Tissier in this category because he was more than capable of 40-yard curler on a rainy night at the Victoria Ground / Britannia). He was the reason I sent my Dad down to Southampton every Christmas in the days before online shopping to buy my Pony branded, ‘Le Tissier 7’ printed Saints away shirt from the club shop. And rather more tragically the sole reason I know all the words to ‘Unbelievable’ by EMF because it was the soundtrack to the ‘Matt Le Tissier’ VHS I watched on repeat in my bedroom. But most importantly, he was the reason I bloody loved watching and playing football.
What made my fascination with him all the more curious is that I’m West Ham through and through and I’m not one for infidelity. I entered a monogamous relationship with the Hammers in the very early 90s, and much like a marriage it has seemed far too long, much too unhappy and as yet showing no sign of being ultimately successful. But for better or worse I have stuck with them. So, for someone to make my head turn for even a split second, let alone the best part of a decade, they must have been pretty damn special – and Tiss most certainly was. There were others who caught my eye and made me think for a moment the grass was greener. I’ve always been a sucker for some quick feet and a double step-over, so Georgi Kinkladze and Juninho respectively have tussled for my affections at one point or another. But what set Le Tissier apart was the pure amount of world-class goals he scored. He was the anti-Lineker. And his volleying ability was something the Premier League has never seen the likes of since.
Part of his charm too was perhaps his misguided loyalty to Southampton for the entirety of his career. The very definition of ‘a big fish in a small trophy-less pond’, Le Tiss would no doubt have filled up a cabinet or two had he chosen to move to one of his many silverware monopolising suitors, but he remained a Saint throughout. He would certainly have racked up more England caps had he chosen to join one of the big boys, but international football for one of the generations most gifted ballers just wasn’t meant to be. All the more surprising when you consider nowadays a decent run in the Chelsea reserves will get you an England call-up.
However, despite his empty trophy cabinet and largely vacant cap rack, he will always be remembered as one of the greatest players in the Premier League era – and an inspiration to many a playground pleaser, like myself, hoping to be the next, slightly more successful version of Matthew Le Tissier. But, more significantly to me, he gave my otherwise mundane, solitary back garden kickabouts a narrative and purpose – and for that Matthew, I am eternally thankful.