19 May 2002

GREAT EXPECTATIONS : The first in a series of profiles of sport’s nearly men, for whom international stardom was predicted but never fully realised.

After 540 games and 209 goals for his only club but only eight England caps, Matthew Le Tissier remains an enigma.

At the end of the match Matthew Le Tissier stood with his two children in the centre of Southampton’s new St Mary’s ground and watched the big screen deliver a montage of his greatest goals as Frank Sinatra sang My Way. It was the most evocative send-off you will see. But the question still hung in the air. Should he have done better?

In the wider world it was ever thus with Le Tissier. At the same time lauded for his unique talent and then pilloried for not being more ambitious and internationally effective with it. In Southampton, on Tuesday night, they were having none of the critical stuff. For them here was the best player they had ever seen, provider of 209 goals in 540 appearances including those 29 in the purple patch season of 1994-95, the star who missed just once in 52 lonely walks to the penalty spot, the lanky kid from Guernsey who refused every big club blandishment since first signing Southampton’s schoolboy forms back in 1985, the man without whom neither their new stadium nor their Premier League status would exist.

Yet to watch Matt Le Tissier even on Tuesday’s happy exhibition of a game was to meditate as much as to marvel. He is still only 33 and his now much injured 6ft 2in frame is rapidly bulking up into the cheery 15 stone to which he would like it to become accustomed. But playing among 500 caps worth of internationals – Keegan, Ball, Barnes, Gascoigne, Shearer, Pearce, Beardsley, Waddle and all the rest – it was still the Channel Islander who took the eye.

Of course without the ball he was, as ever, a positively lumbering figure, the open mouth beneath the parrot beak giving that slightly gormless look which masks the lazy intelligence within. But send a pass to him and the magic was instant: still that effortless control, still that extraordinary mix of elaborate close-in footwork and radar-accurate long-range vision, still the unbeatable combination of the killer shot from either foot. With all that, with all those truly fabled goals being played again and again in every bar in St Mary’s, how come Le God’s full England internationals total only a measly eight?

The received wisdom is that he was too much of a one-off to fit into either Terry Venables’ or Glenn Hoddle’s systems for international games and that he didn’t do enough in the chances he had to justify either of them risking him for too long. Tuesday night was too full of local warmth to get bogged down with such questions but this failure at international level still clearly rankled. In the programme, Le Tissier points out that both Venables and Hoddle had tried to buy him for Tottenham and Chelsea respectively before getting as near as his easy going character can get to bitterness.

He expresses “disappointment” that Venables did not give him more of a chance in 1995 “when I was playing the best football of my career”, and talks of being “absolutely gutted” that in 1998 he did not even make Glenn Hoddle’s final 30 for the World Cup despite being picked for the B team and promptly scoring a hat-trick against Russia.

“The truth is,” says Mick Channon, the Southampton legend who preceded Le Tissier but who, in his case, gained a full 30 England caps, “that if the manager doesn’t fancy you, a player like Matt has no chance.” Yet the truth as ever, has two sides to it. In a relaxed but in-depth interview for the testimonial match magazine, Le Tissier admits that he did not make the most of his talents, that he often lacked fitness, that he was a luxury player, that he enjoyed being “a big fish in a little pool”.

“My life down here is brilliant,” he explains. “People have always questioned my ambition. When I was a little boy I had two ambitions in my life. One of them was to be a professional footballer; the other was to play for England. I’ve achieved both those ambitions while I’ve played for Southampton. No one can take that away from me, so I didn’t have to move. I’ve never been one for wanting two million quid in the bank. If I’ve enough to get by, it’s not a problem. I don’t spend lavishly so I wasn’t going to go chasing money and risk my personal happiness because I’m happy here and I’m only half an hour from my family in Guernsey.”

But the “might have beens” still scream at you from the sight of another familiar hustling figure on the pitch – the young Le Tissier’s Southampton team-mate Alan Shearer. “Matt was by far the more talented,” says their former manager Ian Branfoot, “but Alan was so focused, so dedicated: he wanted to succeed. And because of that he became a great player.”

As the evening developed the parable became complete. Le Tissier’s brother Mark was referee; in the second half, the other two, Kevin and Carl, came on to show the skills they chose to keep in the Channel Isles; and then, in the last 10 minutes, a little white-shirted 10-year-old appeared to thread three lovely goals past the Southampton keeper. It was Le Tissier’s son Mitchell. So that was what it must have been like. That was why after his final 159-goal boyhood season, the locals sent Matt a “bon voyage” card from “all the Guernsey goalies”.

But the after-match gathering remained the best of it. Le Tissier made his thanks and then called out to his mother and father. His father came on to the pitch, a happy, fit man in his late fifties. The two hugged each other. The microphone was still open and suddenly you heard a voice back in childhood. It was Le Tissier saying what every sporting kid would one day like to tell his father.

Very few get the public opportunity, but Le Tissier took it as sweetly as that famous 35-yarder past Tim Flowers at Blackburn, the goal of the 1994-95 season. He said it for all of us, for fathers buried long ago: “Oh Dad, oh thanks for everything.”

“If he was a horrible bastard he would have probably moved around three big clubs and won 50 caps,” says Channon, now such a top-flight success as a racehorse trainer that people say “didn’t he used to play football a bit?” as they see him limping off to saddle another winner. “But Matty is a lovely lad and you need to have been a Southampton supporter to really appreciate him. For no other player in the country could have done what he did for this club, not Beckham, not Keane. No one has scored so many goals so consistently and from so far. Without him we would be out of the Premiership, still in The Dell.

“But there is something even more important,” adds Channon, digging deep into his rollicking Hampshire vowels with an enthusiasm which recalls those windmill-arm celebrations of yesteryear. “Matt will have inspired a whole new generation of Southampton players and Southampton fans. Kids of 11 and 12 will have dreamt of being Matt Le Tissier, will in 20 years’ time be fathers taking their own sons to the games. The 32,000 people who came on Tuesday won’t forget him. How much of a failure is that?”

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