The Cult: Matt Le Tissier
This week The Cult is getting all nostalgic for the '90s and welcoming a footballer who seemed to be playing an entirely different game to everyone else.
Illustration: Dan Evans
This week The Cult is getting all nostalgic for the '90s and welcoming a footballer who seemed to be playing an entirely different game to everyone else. You can read previous entries here.
Cult Grade: The Homebody
For a sense of the old world giving way to the new, look no further than the different ways that Matt Le Tissier and Raheem Sterling feel about life. There are plenty of people, me included, who think Sterling is yet to demonstrate anything like proof that he's in possession of elite technique. Hat-tricks against Adam Federici and Sylvain Distin are all well and good, but let's keep our knickers on for the time being – this, after all, is the most expensive English player of all time.
If you were to try to find that proof, you'd do better to look back over Liverpool's nearly season of 2013/14; and to narrow it down even more, the feint-drag back-finish against Man City at Anfield that briefly achieved that thing elite technique should usually do: to make the top quality footballers around you look like they don't really have a clue.
The effect of that, plus a handful of other vaguely similar moments that season? Time to go Raheem. Time for the big one. You've earnt it. Having demonstrated that you (don't quite) have the capacity to be part of a trophy-winning outfit, let's get some silly money thrown at us. The kind that simultaneously sates your hunger and stunts you with unnecessary pressure.
You don't need me to tell you that Matt Le Tissier produced moments of technique that were beyond elite about eight or nine times a season for a decade, all clad in the colours of a team who had no realistic prospect of filling his trophy cabinet, even when Shearer was there, and zero chance of paying him a wage that would mean he never really had to lift a finger beyond a couple of years in his early twenties.
And he seemed to want it that way. To fully understand why is perhaps something, like the goals he scored, that will remain forever slightly unfathomable. Perhaps there was something unutterably beautiful coursing through the veins of Le Tiss – that what mattered to him, way above anything else, was doing things with a football. And if he could do them at the Dell, the nearest Premier League stadium to his birthplace in Guernsey, that was enough.
Point of Entry: Medium
I believe in this list: Pele, Maradona, Zidane, Messi, Le Tissier. Actually I don't; I can't shift a slight suspicion that too many of the players that Pele and even Maradona faced were under-conditioned semi-pros crashing into each other while they weaved amongst them. But of Le Tissier's place on that list I have no doubt. To belong in such elite company, you must have at least one attribute so developed that it is simply unimaginable to the rest of the field. Zidane had balance; Messi has what I can't think of a better term for than 'un-push-over-ability'.
Le Tiss? Le Tiss had a level of union between imagination and instinct that I've never seen elsewhere, some sudden spurt of magic that told him 'now you've slalomed through three players about 30 yards from goal, perhaps you should try dispatching the ball on to a postage-stamp in the top corner.' So he did. Watch it, blurry, brilliant and soundtracked by Massive Attack, and feel the '90s ache through your heart.
You have to wonder though: what effect does it have, what freeing of your boots, when it doesn't quite matter the same way as it would at Old Trafford or Highbury if it doesn't come off? There's an unanswerable argument that Le Tissier missed the final grade on his talent, the last acid test, by avoiding the challenge of the superclubs. Imagine if that chip over the dazed head of Schmeichel had been scored under the Wednesday night floodlights of a Champions League game, that chip-and-chase and weave and finish against Newcastle taking place at the Bernabeu – he would be equivalent to Zidane in the popular imagination. But the suspicion lingers that Le Tiss had no desire, or not enough desire, to beat people, in that charming way that Cristiano Ronaldo has. The celebrations of his goals all look like a very personal flavour of delight.
But consider this: what do fans of the clubs outside that small elite really desire? They want an underdog victory when United roll into town, but what they helplessly crave is to feel like there's no embarrassment, no inferiority in being the Southampton fan in this match-up. And week after week they'd witness goals that no one else, at least as long as Cantona wasn't playing, could score. He made opposition fans applaud heartily for how he'd just humiliated their defenders. At the Dell they called him Le God for how it made them feel. Which, I guarantee you, no matter if his head is replaced with a Champions League trophy, no one will ever call Raheem Sterling. Partly because it would be beyond perverse to add a French pronoun to his nickname; partly because they just won't.
The Moment – not wanting to play on the right, 1991.
I try to bring a little more value-added to this than just 'wasn't Le Tiss good at football, eh?' So I've gone through the various docs and footage I could find for something a bit more useful.
A year before the arrival of manager Ian Branfoot – as classic an old world football name as you're going to get – at the Dell in 1991, Le Tissier had won PFA Young Footballer Of The Year, having scored 24 goals in a season aged 21. And it's worth remembering, through his peak mid-nineties years he was averaging better than 20 goals a season.
But Branfoot was more concerned with his weaknesses as a player than his strengths, and stuck him out wide, presumably as a way to mitigate the tactical harm those weaknesses could cause. Le Tissier's reaction: "It wasn't what I wanted from football."
Elsewhere, the stories of potential moves to Spurs and Chelsea eventually falling through get about a minute in total, for the amount of interest Le Tissier has in discussing them. "Family reasons... I was happy where I was", is as much as he cares to say about it.
Final Words on Member #15
On life under manager Alan Ball, described as his happiest time as a footballer, which included a run of 45 goals in 64 games:
"The other thing that was great about him is that he was a great believer in not training for too long. Now, that was just perfect for me. I've got the team built around me, I've got a manager who thinks I'm a good player, and he only wants us to train for about an hour every day, as long as we do it properly. And some days I was on the golf course by half-past twelve. It was brilliant."