In Praise Of… Matthew Le Tissier

By on Aug 27, 2008 in Latest | 9 comments

As I pondered the smoking ruins of England’s match against the Czech Republic last week, my mind turned back to Matthew Le Tissier. Matthew (and it seems somewhat wrong to reduce his first name to the monosyllable of merely “Matt”) was the great lost English talent of the last thirty years in some respects, but in others he fulfilled much that many other, more “successful” players never did. It’s not all about trophies and medals, you know. Matthew, you see, was different. He was utterly unlike any other English players of his era. His style of play was languid to the point of appearing lazy to his critics, and it cost him dear in a woefully short England career, during which he was never able to amply demonstrate his talent. That talent was so unique as to appear almost other-worldly. It was almost as if coaches were unable to grasp that he played football differently to everyone else, and were scared to take a chance on him. We could do with a player of such differentness now.

Measured in purely empirical terms, he could have achieved so much more. He won no major trophies in career, and never managed to play in a domestic cup final. Yet to judge players by the number of trophies that they have won alone is no accurate gauge of their ability. Le Tissier’s talent came in being able to do the absolute, utter unexpected. His range and breadth of shooting was such that you could almost smell the fear amongst opposing defenders if he picked the ball up within thirty-five yards of their goal. He shoot with frightening power, incredible delicacy and unerring accuracy, and from positions that most of his peers wouldn’t have even considered shooting from, yet alone actually been able to. Also, he wasn’t doing it against just anyone. Some of his very greatest moments came against the very best. The extraordinary forty yard lob that won the BBC’s “Goal Of The Season” award in 1995 came at Ewood Park against that year’s champions, Blackburn Rovers. Another one of his very finest goals came against Manchester United, wriggling through three defenders before chipping the ball over probably the best goalkeeper in the world at the time, Peter Schmeichel. Even when he finished Southampton’s life at The Dell in 2001 with the inevitable fairy tale ending, it was by coming on and scoring a magnificent volleyed winner against Arsenal. Arsenal didn’t lose again away from home for over a year after that.

It goes without saying that that Le Tissier had plenty of critics. He was often described as “lazy” by the sort of commentators that seem to labour under the misunderstanding that footballers can only achieve anything if they run around endlessly for ninety minutes and puff their chests out a lot. He was also criticised for a weight problem that seemed to hamper his mobility on the pitch somewhat, but this didn’t seem to take account the fact that if you have a player that can perform absolute magic when he has the ball at his feet, you should build a team around him and make the other players do the work to get the ball to him. It couldn’t have made for a much less successful policy that the “run around like a headless chicken” policy that has impaired so much of England’s success on the pitch over the last two decades or so. Most strangely of all, he was criticised as a “luxury player”. He didn’t cover as much of the pitch as many of his contempories, but to write off a player whose talents were so readily on display in the Premier League every week was something that infuriated those of us that believe in the elegance and romance of the game.

Inevitably, his England career was hampered by a succession of coaches that subscribed to these opinions. He won just eight England caps and, when he was arguably at the peak of his career, wasn’t even picked for the preliminary squad of thirty for the 1998 World Cup. You might have expected the England manager at the time, Glen Hoddle, to have been more accomodating towards him, considering that much of the praise and criticism aimed at Le Tissier was aimed at Hoddle in the 1980s, but it’s surprising how conventional many coaches becaome, even when they have been comparatively exotic players. It is just possible that Le Tissier might have failed at the very highest level of international football, but we didn’t really get much of a chance to find out.

At club level, he stayed with Southampton for sixteen years, scoring 162 goals in 443 matches. Not a bad return for a midfielder in a team that frequently struggled against relegation. Much was made of his “loyalty”, though it was said that his wife didn’t want to leave the Channel Islands, where they had grown up. This rumour is, however unsubstantiated. What we know for sure is that Spurs, Milan and Chelsea (and probably many more) all made big offers for him, but he never left The Dell. At a time during which seventeen year olds up sticks the clubs that have raised them and leave for the bright lights and money of the big city clubs at the first opportunity, it’s unlikely that we’ll see such loyalty again, apart from that dubious strand of loyalty that sees Frank Lampard threaten to leave Chelsea for over a year and then finally renew his contract with them and say that he didn’t want to go in the first place.

I can understand the argument about Le Tissier being a luxury player, and I know fully well that he might not have have had an impact on England had he won fifty caps rather than eight. Had he gone to a bigger club, he might have ended up rotting away on the subsitutes bench. Having said all of that though, who amongst us wouldn’t have thought we’d have died and gone to heaven if we’d had a player like that in our team for over a decade? Le Tissier’s talents probably were too singular for England coaches to be able to fully grasp, but that this their problem. Unfortunately, however, it is, by extension, a problem for the English game and always has been. English football may never see his type again, but, you know, who cares when we’ve got, umm, Stuart Downing? Here’s a compilation of some of Le Tissier’s best:

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    9 Comments

  1. It’s nice to be reminded of what a class player Le Tissier was. One of the great entertainers, and somebody who you looked out for every week when the highlights were shown. After all, how many live games did Southampton feature in during the mid to late 90s?

    A wonderful example of loyalty, it is, as you say, a pity that successive England managers weren’t prepared to take many risks with him. But what else have we come to expect? England has always been wary of selecting the maverick ahead of the workhorse.

    Michael Oliver

    August 27, 2008

  2. In Andy Gray’s seminal work, “Gray Matters” he mentions advising the manager of Villa when he was an assistant there not to put a bid in for Le Tiss because he was an “overweight lazy sod.” He seemed pretty proud of it too.

    WithAPlum

    August 27, 2008

  3. I agree with many of the points raised in this article but the assumption that Le Tissier was not given a chance to stamp his mark on the England side being a great lost talent yet that talent was found but not capitalised on – Italy at Wembley was his chance under Hoddle and he failed to take it – and that he was unique in footballers of his time which is entirely untrue.

    True he had unique abilities – no one played like him – but he was in his own way as limited a player as Carlton Palmer. Palmer could hold the midfield together but trap a ball further than most people can kick it and Le Tissier could work magic but – as lauded above – only played half of the game.

    Players like Le Tissier were shown up when the likes of Benito Carbone (to name but one) arrived who could match his skill levels but put his effort to shame and watching David Beckham or Steven Gerrard who marry some of Le Tissier’s skills (some may argue that for all his skill Le Tissier could not match Beckham for consistency of ability. Le Tissier was blinding but Beckham dazzled week in week out for years) with the work ethic that modern footballers need.

    Michael Wood

    August 28, 2008

  4. What amazing effortless volleys.

    Brenton

    August 28, 2008

  5. Immensely gifted player. Should have gone to France ’98 purely for his penalties! Was it just one he missed in his career?

    RobW

    August 29, 2008

  6. Amazing how effortless he played.

    Chris

    October 9, 2008

  7. I think Michael Wood is talking out of his ARSE. Fact

    garvy

    October 15, 2008

  8. Dear Michael Wood,

    48 penalties from 49 attempts.
    160 odd goals from 440 odd games FROM MIDFIELD, at a club which was regularly threatened with relegation.
    I was a season ticket holder at Man Utd, and let me tell you David Beckham (the most overrated player of all time) was well past his sell-by date when he was 25. Did he ever dribble around defenders or score headed goals? No. Le Tiss did both.

    Interesting to note that Man U DID ACTUALLY have a Le Tissier-like player at the time – his name was Eric Cantona. I NEVER ONCE saw Eric tackle back or run back to help the defence. I’m not sure I ever even saw him sprint. Does anyone in this country deride Cantona or call him lazy? No. They make films about him.

    Did Le Tiss only play half the game when he scored a hat-trick and hit the woodwork twice in the England B team match staged just before the World Cup ’98? If he did, I’ll take that 45 minutes over 90 from Beckham (who by the way, lost us the World Cup by getting stupidly sent off against Argentina). Did I mention Matt’s great temperament? Rarely even booked.

    And he had his chance for England? ONE chance? For the best (incontrovertibly) penalty taker the EPL has ever known? And he doesn’t even get a place on the bench? And we go out on penalties to Argentina? And one of the failed penalty takers is David Batty, who had NEVER TAKEN A PENALTY IN COMPETITIVE FOOTBALL? Are you beginning to see the light Michael?

    To win a world cup you need special players. You need players that good defenders can’t read or understand. Isn’t it the rest of the world who derides our useless national team for running around like headless chickens, being predictable, and being unable to keep control of the ball? But what do they know? They have only been winning World Cups/European Cups for the last 40 years. Le Tiss was the maverick that would have confounded our opponents at France ’98. But the manager got turned into a chicken under the pressure, and when his campaign failed he started raving about disabled people sinning in a past life.

    The lazy one is you, Michael. Check your facts before submitting your pathetic excuses for opinions. You go and sit with your video of Carlton Palmer’s sliding tackles in a dark room away from the rest of the world and try not to embarrass yourself any more than you have done already.

    Cheers Mate!

    P.S. Benito who???

    Sam West

    September 28, 2009

  9. very well said sam , not much i can add to that but if micheal cannot watch that 7 minute youtube video and see that matt le tissier had more skill then david beckham in his toe then he dont deserve to watch it!

    wayne chalk

    June 18, 2010

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