Football: Le Tissier's last shout at fulfilment

'I have only ever wanted three things: to be a professional, to play for England and to go to a World Cup finals'; Ian Ridley meets the enigma of English football on a mission to deliver
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The Independent Online
Two years ago a video of Matthew Le Tissier's "greatest hits" was released. It was entitled Unbelievable! and much of it was. Take your pick: personal favourites here were the brace against Newcastle United when he volleyed one from 20 yards then dribbled and caressed home the other as a two-pronged gesture to the then Southampton manager Ian Branfoot who had relegated him to substitute.

Now there is another compilation of Le Tissier's Goalden Goals on sale, and one magazine reviewer has been less impressed with this one: fast- forward the first 70 minutes of penalties and tap-ins, he instructs; only the last five minutes live up to the billing.

Le Tissier's career has idled at best, taken a downturn at worst in the period between the two releases. He admits that the stuffing may have been knocked out of him, when he was discarded by Terry Venables and his Southampton form slumped for the first time in a decade. Even when recalled to England colours by Glenn Hoddle, he was roundly criticised after the 1-0 defeat by Italy last February, since when injury has precluded him from responding on the field.

"Very much so," he says when you put it to him that these may be the most important six months of his career. "I desperately want to play in the World Cup finals and I will be 33 by the time the next ones come around. This is probably going to be my only chance."

England's squad to face Cameroon is announced on Friday and Le Tissier could do with a TV eye-catching performance in today's match at Everton, only his fifth game of a stop-start season in which a hamstring tweak followed a broken arm. "I will be a little disappointed if I don't make this squad but I haven't got that many games under my belt," he says. "I know time is running out. though I can't afford to miss any others."

"Disappointed" seems to have been Le Tissier's permanent state when it comes to England. Under Graham Taylor, he only ever made a squad and belatedly began his international career under Venables in 1994 when in rich form. "Like a gambler on a hot streak in a casino," is how he himself described it. He was given three substitute appearances in quick succession and finally it seemed as if there might be a place for his brand of match- turning individualism - "a highlight waiting to happen," one critic described it - when he was chosen to start against Romania.

"I've considered it a lot," he says with a rueful smile on his face when you ask if he has ever wondered what might have been had an early volley dipped under instead of just over the crossbar. "I was so confident at the time, which was why I was flicking it up and trying a shot from 25 yards."

His next start came in that infamous 27-minute match against the Republic of Ireland in Dublin in February 1995. "In my opinion, I was given starts in the two most difficult friendlies that England had in the run-up to Euro 96," he says. He pauses, clearly wondering whether to say it. What the heck, he is a big boy now, 29 a fortnight ago. "When I look back on Dublin, I think I was put in to fail," he adds.

Venables may indeed have wanted to find out whether, as he probably suspected, Le Tissier would flounder in the most demanding of circumstances. Despite inconclusive evidence, he was left out of the next squad anyway. "That was the lowest point," says Le Tissier. "I just couldn't understand it. It may be fair to say it knocked the stuffing out of me. It probably did put my career back a year."

The previous two seasons had yielded 25 and 20 Premiership goals; this time it was seven, though three came in the last six matches, two of them winners, as he stirred himself to keep Southampton up. The rehabilitation began last season with 13, though a hernia injury hampered him and kept him out of Le Tournoi, Hoddle rekindling his self-esteem by giving him a substitute's appearance in Moldova at the outset of the World Cup campaign.

Then came Italy. When Le Tissier headed a gilded chance wide, a scapegoat presented himself. "I've thought about that chance a lot as well," he says. "I didn't realise the goalkeeper was coming off his line. I was just concentrating on getting above the defender and nodding it into the corner of the net. If I had only known, I would have just guided it on target into the centre of the goal."

It was never fair, on a night when injuries and an over- adventurous selection and approach were the main factors, that Le Tissier, taken off after an hour, personally took the blame. Hoddle himself acknowledged as much. "He rang me on the Friday to apologise for substituting me. He said that he had just watched the video and that I looked more likely than most to get us a goal. It's rare that a manager does that kind of thing. I really appreciated it." Clearly, the coach bore no grudge that Le Tissier's brother Karl went on radio to talk about the team on the day of the match.

Clearly, too, there is a kindred-spirit bond between Hoddle and Le Tissier, both outrageously talented as players, both regarded as either lazy or lackadaisical and both now undergoing broken marriages. As a boy on Guernsey, Le Tissier followed Tottenham, admired Hoddle in particular. His debut for Southampton was against Spurs. "I played on the wing," Le Tissier recalls, "and I think I spent too much time watching Glenn when I should have been tackling him."

When Le Tissier broke his arm in pre-season, Hoddle phoned again to tell him he still figured. It was significant that the coach went to watch Southampton's match against West Ham, in which Le Tissier returned, on the Saturday before the recent game in Rome rather than check on any of his squad members. "I only found out afterwards. I did find that encouraging," says Le Tissier. "Glenn is sympathetic to me and I have appreciated that but he is also tough. Much tougher than I expected."

You put it to Le Tissier that Venables's reasoning for omitting him - probably ultimately vindicated - was that he did not fit the team pattern of hunting the ball down in pairs, of working when not in possession. "Well, it is a fair point," he admits. "I'm not that type of player. But I would like to think that with three midfield players behind me I can bring something extra to a team. I believe I can play either off a main striker in a 4-4-2 like Teddy Sheringham - and I'm probably about the same pace - or behind a front two, like Gazza. In that, I probably fit better into Glenn's thinking."

As Chelsea manager, Hoddle once tried to buy Le Tissier, as have several others including Tottenham last week apparently - "that story's being doing the rounds for about 10 years," says Le Tissier. "I'm still happy here," he adds. "Quality of life is important to me and this is a lovely part of the country."

He has ready, and mostly convincing, answers for those of us who would have enjoyed seeing him in the shirt of a bigger club competing for honours and not fighting a relegation battle every season. "I actually quite enjoy a relegation fight," Le Tissier declares. "I think it keeps my game sharp. That may not happen if I was playing for a team in mid-table.

"As for finishing my career not having won anything, I can point to PFA Young Player of the Year and I still hope that I can do something with Southampton. I am realistic enough to know that we won't win the Premiership but I would love to win a cup. Leicester have shown that a club of our size can."

It should also be remembered that he is playing against better teams, rather than with the best, every week - and has scored consistently at the biggest stadiums, as his record reveals. "It's certainly not the easy option at Southampton that everyone thinks it is," says Le Tissier. "And if people say I lack ambition, well isn't it ambitious to want to play for England? I have only ever wanted three things in football, to be a professional, to play for England and to take part in a World Cup finals. Now I want the third."

For all Hoddle's empathy, to achieve that it is going to take some hard work - and despite appearances, they shouldn't be dirty words to Le Tissier - to get into physical shape and recover his form of two seasons ago.

Today, less than two weeks ahead of the next England game, would be a good starting point, even if three points are more important than anything personally spectacular. But then he is used to that two-pronged necessity. "Both would be nice," he says.