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: