Football: A talent who needs a patient approach: Responsibility can bring the finishing touch to the gifts that Le Tissier offers England. Ken Jones reports

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The Independent Online
THE qualities that stand out in British football are not those for which Matthew Le Tissier is famous. 'Sublime skill but I wouldn't want him playing for my life,' is how a leading manager describes Southampton's gifted captain. Only Andy Cole, of Newcastle, and Blackburn's Alan Shearer bettered Le Tissier's 25 Premiership goals last season, more than half Southampton's total, and yet doubts about him persist.

Scouting reports acknowledge the impressive range of Le Tissier's skill but invariably question his attitude. 'You could never be sure of what you were going to get,' puts it succinctly. Brilliant one week, frustratingly peripheral the next. Go back 12 years - Le Tissier will be 26 in October - and you come across a rejection by Tottenham. Peter Shreeves, now Glenn Hoddle's assistant at Chelsea, saw no more accomplished trialist that year but turned Le Tissier down on the grounds of temperament.

Last season, certainly the second half of it, was Le Tissier's best so far, culminating in his first appearance for England, a recruit to the new order promised by an enlightened coach, Terry Venables.

One thing we have to remember is that players often find it difficult to make the transition from club to international football. Ian Wright, of Arsenal, is a good example. Many debutants are so occupied by their small piece of the action and so preoccupied with themselves and their fears that they really have no conception of the big picture of the team or the game.

'It isn't something you can easily put your finger on,' said Dave Sexton, whose vast experience is considered invaluable by Venables and the Aston Villa manager, Ron Atkinson. 'Some players thrive on the challenge of international football, some are overwhelmed. Others need time to adapt. Terry (Venables) is patient so I imagine Le Tissier will be given every chance to prove himself.'

First, Le Tissier must maintain the progress he made last season after coming under the influence of Alan Ball and Lawrie McMenemy. A little more than a year ago the Channel Islander was dropped by Ian Branfoot, then manager, when Southampton lost seven of eight League games and quickly became candidates for relegation, just one place above the bottom club, Swindon.

For such a naturally languid player there could be no harmony with the direct, graceless football that eventually led to Branfoot's downfall, but, to be fair, Le Tissier brought a lot upon himself.

Two great feet, marvellous control, an outstanding passer and crosser and yet an enigma. 'The sort who gets you the sack,' said a manager who watched Le Tissier five times last season. 'He does things that are out of this world, things we tend to associate only with Brazilians, but there is another side to the coin. Le Tissier is not a worker. He's not a runner off the ball. He appears to have grown up with the idea of everybody bringing him into the game. Frankly, I wouldn't entertain him.'

So what is this 'character' they are always going on about? And courage and momentum and pride? Is there a magic elixir that separates winners from losers? Can you buy it at the chemist's? Do you pour it on cornflakes?

Towards the end of last season there was encouraging evidence of transformation, however. Ball's decision to award Le Tissier the captaincy may turn out to have been a masterstroke. Not only did Le Tissier appear to take on the conventions of responsibility and team-play ethics, but he scored goals in crisis. Two in a 3-3 draw at West Ham on the final day of the season secured Southampton's place in the Premiership.

Le Tissier is a highly individual footballer whose play does not conform to any discernible pattern. Tall for a touch player, he makes very little use of his physique, seldom challenging for high balls and committing himself to tackles. Positionally, he isn't one thing or the other, half midfielder, half striker. However, no English footballer, a fit Paul Gascoigne included, is capable of more spectacular interventions. Le Tissier scores goals even Pele would have been proud of.

'He's one of the few players in England I'd pay to see,' Mick Channon said. 'There's only a handful who excite me and Matthew is one of them.'

Probably, this week Blackburn, opening day visitors to The Dell, are paying more attention to Le Tissier's potential than they did towards the end of last season when he destroyed them at a critical stage of the championship, giving what was generally agreed to be a mesmeric performance.

As Le Tissier is not naturally inclined to keep himself constantly involved in the action a way has to be found of utilising his gifts. If Ball has indeed hit upon a formula, if the deficiencies are outweighed by consistently relevant contributions it will be less fashionable to think of Le Tissier as a luxury. That would please Venables as much as anybody.

(Photograph omitted)