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Football: Plenty of faith left in Saint Matthew

Le Tissier has been through thick and thin at The Dell and he has no intention of giving it all up now. By Nick Harris
MATT LE TISSIER will never forget 12 February 1997. There were five minutes to go to half-time at Wembley, and England were 1-0 down to a Gianfranco Zola goal in a crucial France 98 qualifier. David Batty floated a deep cross into the box and the Italian goalkeeper drifted to leave an open net. Le Tissier rose to meet the ball and Glenn Hoddle leapt to his feet in the Royal Box, close to rapture that his faith in the Saint had paid off. The header flew narrowly wide and Le Tissier's England career was effectively over.

Fast forward to the canteen at Southampton's Marchwood training ground on a wet winter Tuesday. Mark Hughes is eating a jacket potato at the next Formica table, while Le Tissier is reflecting on a start to this domestic season that saw seven defeats and a draw in Southampton's first eight games, and, despite a brief rally, his team firmly rooted at the bottom of the table.

"There were a lot of changes very quickly [this summer] and it took a while for people to settle in," Le Tissier said. "But we didn't expect it to be that bad." It had, he added, taken some time to adjust to changes including the departure of Kevin Davies and the arrival of Hughes, Stuart Ripley and David Howells. "It was a very dodgy start and we've given ourselves a lot of work to do. But we're up for it."

When talking about the route to survival, which starts on Saturday at The Dell against Chelsea - unbeaten in 17 matches and with more than a touch of the Italian about them, including Zola - Le Tissier's voice has a levity that is not so much nonchalance as enlightened calm. "We've been in a lot worse situations than this. And we're not a worse team than we were last season."

As the scorer of more than 200 goals (many of them crucial in rele-gation scraps) in nearly 500 appearances for the Saints, he is probably entitled to be a touch blase.

"I'm a show-off," he said. "I just want to be the centre of attention. On a football pitch, I'm arrogant, in that I've got a belief in my ability, but that's as far as it goes. I'd hate to think that when I come off the football pitch I come across as an arrogant person, because that's not me."

Southampton fans, no doubt, appreciate the fact that Le Tissier has never felt the need to leave, but even they, at times, have been baffled by his loyalty. A few years ago a supporters' group even made a record, "Legend of a Saint", and pleaded through megaphones before a match for their hero to go to whichever club it was necessary to secure his England place. "It's nice that people want the best for me," Le Tissier said, but added he had simply never wanted to go, and that ultimately, it was not loyalty, per se, that had kept him at The Dell, but selfishness.

"I didn't have an ambition to play for Liverpool or Manchester United," he said, explaining why he believes his higher motives have been equally well served on the south coast. "I had an ambition to play for England and you don't get any higher than that. Where's the lack of ambition there?"

Le Tissier has always said that should Southampton be relegated, he would seek to leave the club. Only this week, he said again it would be "very difficult" for him to play in the First Division. But then he also said he believed that Saints will avoid the drop. "I would put money on us staying up."

Le Tissier sees no grounds for belief that his chosen course has been misguided. The argument that playing for a big club would have served his ambition better cuts no ice with him. Even an offer from Saturday's opponents, reportedly for pounds 8m-pounds 10m when Hoddle was the manager, did not sway him. "I love the [Southampton] area. I love the club. The fans have been brilliant to me. I see no reason to move on. I'm happy with my life," he said. "People don't understand me as a person and what I want out of my life. I'm not in it just to make a fast buck and they [critics] think I'm strange because they can't work me out. And I think that annoys people."

Surely, though, having not been picked for this summer's World Cup, even after scoring an England B hat-trick against an admittedly weak Russian B side, there were regrets that things could have been different? "I was a bit disappointed not to get in the squad of 30 he [Hoddle] announced," Le Tissier said. "But I've never given up hope." He smiled, before adding: "I've only just turned 30. I think I'm capable of it. I just know that it's not going to take a few good games, its going to take a hell of a lot. But I'll never give up hope until somebody tells me they're never going to pick me."

So what of the future then? Will the man Saints fans call "Le God" ever return to his best, the kind of form he produced for a season and a half under the tenure of Alan Ball, of all people, from January 1994 to May 1995 and that has not been consistently seen since?

"I played my best football under Bally without a shadow of a doubt because of the belief he had in me. He believed I was a good player. He popped me in the middle of the park and he said: `Son, you go and do your own thing.' And he said to the other 10 players: `Whenever you get the ball, as often as you can, give it to him.' And that made me feel like the best player in the whole world." In 60 League games under Ball, Le Tissier scored 34 times and in five cup matches he scored another 10. His efforts kept Southampton up in 1994 and helped them to 10th place the following year.

Will that ever happen again? "The manager [Dave Jones] is starting to believe in me a little bit more than he did last season," said Le Tissier, adding that last season's 12th position could have been better. "I think we took the foot off the pedal a bit because we knew we were safe. You never know, we might get in that position again."

The only time Le Tissier answers a question hurriedly is when asked if there is anything in his career he would like to have done differently. "One thing," came the instant response. "The header I had against Italy would go just the other side of the post. And then it's a whole different game."

A local taxi driver has the last word, oft repeated about Le Tissier. "He doesn't run around a lot but he can still turn a game," said the cabbie. "And he's one of the nicest blokes you could ever meet.

"I picked him up once in Bedford Place [300 yards from The Dell], and he asked to go to The Dell.

"I said `You're 'avin a laugh aren't you?' and he said `It's a long way round that corner'."

Short distances, whether the length of a walk to The Dell or the margin of that missed goal at Wembley, are obviously the bane of Saint Matthew.