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Sunday, 05 September 2004

1013: Premiership hall of fame: Matt

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by : Chris Sherrard

Every club has their own cult hero, the player who meant that bit more to the fans for what they did and stood for on the pitch. Southampton’s cult hero competition is no contest; Matthew Le Tissier is out on his own.

Saints fans took Le Tiss to their hearts as soon as he broke into their first team squad in 1986. He played 31 games in that first season as a bright, slim line 18-year old, his 10 goals confirmed that the South Coast side had a new hero to worship. From that point Matthew Le Tissier and Southampton didn’t even bother looking back.

The Guernsey-born forward has been one of the most exciting prospects for any supporter going to a match in this country over the 16-odd years he was a professional. He was one of those players that you knew was likely, or had the capacity, to do something special with the football. He could summon an inch-perfect pass with seamless effort and, of course, he created a reputation for himself not just as a great goalscorer but as a scorer of great goals. Not just great goals, though. Some of the best goals ever witnessed in English football were created by the foot and brain of Le Tissier.

It is a point of consternation, not just for Southampton supporters, that Le Tissier didn’t play for his country more often. If I were to ask how many times you thought he played for England, chances are you’d guess at a low figure somewhere close to 20 caps. The truth is Matthew Le Tissier, one of the finest English talents of recent times, pulled on the three lions shirt eight times. To put that in perspective, Kieron Dyer has accumulated THREE times as many international caps as Le Tissier.

Why he was overlooked by a succession of England managers is a question only they can answer. What is clear is that Le Tissier was banging the goals in and pulling the strings for the Saints for well over a decade. During that time he played with some great players on the south coast. One by one he watched the likes of Shearer come and go. Le Tiss himself regularly spurned overtures from some traditionally bigger clubs to stay with the club he had grown up with. In the end, he became one of the growing-rarer breed in the game - the one club men.

1989-90 was really the season that the young forward made his first big impression on the game in this country. He scored 24 goals in 44 games in all competitions which made him the club’s top scorer for the first time. Among his haul was a couple of superbly taken hat-tricks and the start of his reign as the penalty king when he dispatched what was the first of many spot-kicks in a game against Wimbledon. By the end of that season Matt was crowned PFA Young Player of the Year and rewarded with a place in the England squad.

He continued to bang the goals in with astonishing regularity in the next handful of seasons as the Saints established themselves in the top flight. In 1994, when Alan Ball took over as the Southampton manager, half-way through the season, Le Tissier scored an extraordinary 15 goals in 16 games to once more become the club’s top scorer. He scored five goals in a two-legged cup tie against Huddersfield the following season before knocking in some of the most spectacular goals we have seen, including wonder strikes against Newcastle and Manchester United, among many, many others.

In his 16 years as a Southampton icon, Le Tissier scored 209 goals in 540 appearances, but it is not merely for the volume of goals he scored that he will be remembered. The sheer class of the majority mark the scorer out as a truly brilliant player. A player whose career was never destined to be glittered by medals, trophies and international caps but one which gave such immense pleasure to the fans he served with such distinction and the opposing supporters who could do little but applaud his genius at times.

It is fitting that Le Tiss last played for Southampton on the day The Dell finally closed it’s doors. For so long the two went hand-in-hand as symbols of the difficulty that teams had when they travelled to take on Southampton. The magic of Le Tissier, and the brilliance of his goals, were nothing less than a treat for the Premiership.

Chris Sherrard

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