Football: Le Tissier, Le Tissier, we won't fall down

That old Matt magic will be needed today to preserve Saints.
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The Independent Online
IT IS not often that you can talk of Southampton and Manchester United in the same breath. But on this final day of the season, Saints and Devils will have much in common. They may not be hunting for the same treasures, but both clubs are in the awkward position of not knowing whether they will be laughing or crying by the end of play.

If expectations are sure to be high both north and south, the consequences of defeat are incomparable. For United, defeat against Tottenham could mean one prize slipping away. For Southampton, defeat by Everton could mean the club slipping out of the elite division for the first time in 22 years.

Southampton's topsy-turvy season - they lost seven of their first eight League games of the season before redressing the balance with solid home performances - has been mirrored by that of their most prodigal son, Matthew Le Tissier. After giving the impression of being more interested in Home And Away games than home and away matches, Le God has suddenly decided to do his bit for the cause. A pin-point free-kick delivered on to James Beattie's forehead for the opening goal of their crucial match against Wimbledon last Saturday was testimony to that.

How infuriating it must be for his fans and team-mates alike, as they watch arguably the most talented player of his generation alternate the cool with the decidedly uncool. "In fairness," says the Saints captain Jason Dodd, a close friend of the Guernseyman, "he's had a lot of injuries this season and hasn't been able to get himself fit."

"Mattie has always been a big boy," says Dodd of the team talisman's full frame. "If you look back over the years, he's probably only half a stone heavier now than he was when he was scoring loads of goals. People say he's not mobile and can't get around, but we don't really care. When Mattie plays well, we play well too.

"We struggle when he can't get hold of the ball. He's not the type to go chasing after it, so we all have to work a little harder to give him possession. But if he can produce free-kicks like the one at Wimbledon, we're all happy to do that little bit extra."

This obvious camaraderie may yet prove the decisive factor in helping the Saints survive. For Brian Kidd "inmates", read Dave Jones's "soul- mates". "There's certainly no problem in the dressing room. You'll never get a completely happy camp because the manager has got 26 players and only 11 can play. But the balance seems to be working and the lads are pulling together," Dodd says. "We've had a few relegation scraps over the years, but at least it's in our own hands. If we beat Everton today, we're safe. I'd rather be in our position than Charlton's [they have a two-point advantage but Charlton have a far superior goal difference]. If you had said to us three weeks ago that we would be going into the last game of the season with a chance of survival, we would have taken it.

"We never thought it would come to this though," admits Dodd, who joined the club from Bath City in 1989. Following the relative comfort of a mid- table finish last year, and a good performance on the opening day - despite losing 2-1 to Liverpool - Southampton's season has been disappointing. "We thought we'd do really well. When you play badly, you don't mind being beat, but there have been loads of games when we've done well and lost. When we played Man Utd away, we kept Old Trafford quiet for most of the game and then conceded two silly goals in the last 10 minutes. We've lost too many games because of stupid individual mistakes. After we stay in the Premier League today, that is one of the things the management will be looking at."

If these are unbearable times for the players, the fans should not be forgotten. At the four corners of the world, Saints supporters are preparing for the desperate denouement. In Moscow, Andrei Zhezlov and his comrades will be joining to listen to the commentary on the internet. "I first saw Southampton on satellite television a few years ago," says Zhezlov in the kind of accent you would normally associate with a James Bond baddie. "I saw Le Tissier and was very surprised by him. He is a wonderful player. I hope he can score a goal like the one against Newcastle a couple of years ago and can keep us up." Us?

Tim Campbell is president of the North American Saints. He may be based in California, but he still keeps a keen eye on events in Hampshire. "There are seven or eight of us in the San Francisco area and we all keep in regular touch via the internet. We don't have live radio or TV coverage, so on match days we listen to the game on the real audio live website," says Campbell who went to his first Saints' match at the age of eight.

He has had many favourites during his 36-year love affair with club. The Alan Balls, Kevin Keegans and Alan Shearers may be gone, but it is that man Le Tissier who is in the psyche now. "He still has the magic as he proved against Wimbledon. He may be getting a bit fatter and slower but his dedication is still there and he makes an impact on the team and the fans when he plays," Campbell enthuses. "It's those exceptional moments, those goals he scores from 35 yards that I always remember. That's why we all love him."

At three o'clock, 15,000 Saints fans will pack The Dell, while their friends in San Francisco and Moscow will cram around a computer screen to follow proceedings. They all know only a win guarantees survival. They all know Le Tiss is the key man.

"Most people here wear Man U shirts. When you show up at a bar in your Southampton shirt you get laughed at," Campbell adds. "If we win today, that might stop." Sorry, Tim. Even Le Tiss can't be that influential.

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