Le Tiss, don't say goodbye

As Hoddle maintains faith in immediate future of his most creative force, England usher in an era of promise
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The Independent Football

Kevin Keegan frequently despairs at how exhausted English mines have become when it comes to the unearthing of creative ballplayers. Yet a visit to his former club Southampton to witness the spectacle of those masters of invention, Glenn Hoddle and Matthew Le Tissier, on the training pitch together is a graphic reminder of the exquisite talents of England's not too distant past.

Kevin Keegan frequently despairs at how exhausted English mines have become when it comes to the unearthing of creative ballplayers. Yet a visit to his former club Southampton to witness the spectacle of those masters of invention, Glenn Hoddle and Matthew Le Tissier, on the training pitch together is a graphic reminder of the exquisite talents of England's not too distant past.

Four years ago this month, in Moldova, for instance, England's squad for the World Cup qualifier contained Paul Gascoigne, David Beckham - then a 21-year-old making his debut - and Le Tissier.

Gascoigne's self-inflicted troubles have been well chronicled, as has Beckham's progress. But what of Le Tissier? Then 27, he should have been in his prime. Yet it transpired that his emergence as substitute in the 3-0 victory was his penultimate England game. The single-goal defeat by Italy at Wembley the following February was the Channel Islander's valedictory appearance, under Hoddle.

Le Tissier concluded his international career (surely only a super-optimist would predict a second coming?) with eight caps, and five of those were as substitute. It was such a criminal under-use of talent that many would consider that he should have been indicted on charges of neglect, though in mitigation he would attribute his lack of international fulfilment to a succession of injuries and lack of fitness. Both factors have contributed to "Le Tiss", as his devotees laud him on the south coast, becoming too often a peripheral, if still inspirational, performer for his club - as he displayed last Saturday. Then his half-hour substitute's appearance coincided with Southampton's transformation of a 3-0 deficit against Liverpool into a 3-3 draw.

His scoring record over the years has been exemplary. Last season he completed his century of goals since the Premiership started, appropriately enough from a penalty. Only once in 50 attempts has he failed from the spot, but he remains, with that audacious eye for goal, just as lethal from 30 yards as 12.

Yet after a season punctuated by injury and a hernia operation in the summer, those familiar handicaps are still evident. Just as Jeffrey Bernard was Unwell, so Matthew Le Tissier is Unfit. It may say much about the constancy (some have suggested absence of ambition) of Le Tissier that he has just begun his 15th season at the Dell, his only club. However, a glance through Rothman's annuals over that same period reveals a damning statistic, a weight increase from 11st 8lb to his current published load of 14st 4lb.

Although Hoddle insists that a shedding of pounds might not go amiss, his faith in the player's abilities is unshaken. "Some people have got better fitness levels than him. But then most can't pass the ball like he can. We need to get Matt back because a talent like that can always change the game," says the coach. "Get the ball to his feet at the right moment and he will always be likely to make the difference. It's how many times that can happen. You want fitness levels that will allow him to do it 20 times a game, rather than five or six."

Hoddle maintains a vicious circle is involved. "He's had too many injuries. We hope now that we can keep him injury-free so that he can get fit. That's what he hasn't had, not for three or four years. In the past, he'd get to a certain stage where he was thrown in too quickly and he'd just get injured again. He was always chasing his tail. What we've tried to do is give him a plan of action.

"We've given him fitness programmes, we've given him supplements, we've given him aims and goals to work to. While he works on that, we can use him from the bench like we did on Saturday. But nothing would please me more than for Matt to say, 'Yeah, I'm there, available from the start of the game'."

Looking at Hoddle and Le Tissier, a cynic might suggest that you would be hard-pressed to distinguish which was the fitter - the lithe, 42-year-old manager or his player, 11 years his junior. "There are other aspects to football than just your ability," maintains Hoddle. "It's about your mental and physical state, too. Maybe he hasn't had the right coaching or guidance over the years he's been at Southampton. Who knows?

"I had my eyes opened when I went to Monaco to play at the age of 29. When I was abroad, I learned that it was not just about tactics and training with a football. You had to look at your whole lifestyle. You are never too old to learn and take on new ideas. That's what we're trying to do with Mattie. Improving his agility, getting him stretching, on a better diet, concentrating on hisrecuperation."

Indeed, Le Tissier's regime has been in keeping with that of his team-mates. "I've changed a lot of things here already in the way we work with the players, but it takes time to get the benefit from it," explains Hoddle. "It takes a season." Le Tissier will have to play an integral part if Hoddle is to improve Southampton's status as perennial relegation trap-door johnnies.

Having arrived in February, when Dave Jones was relieved of his duties pending a forthcoming court case, Hoddle guided his adopted team comfortably clear of the drop. "The next port of call for us is to become a club that can lose the mentality of being a relegation team and climb into mid-table," says Hoddle. "We've got to set our minds higher than mere survival, although it's going to take a lot of hard work. If you do that, you can get the confidence to go on and win a trophy, similar to what Leicester have done."

However, he adds: "They say the Premiership is getting harder to win; it's also getting harder to stay in. I think this year is going to be a real challenge, I really do, for all the teams who financially can't compete with the top echelon of the Premiership. And not many have the financial constraints that we have got. Don't forget, we've had to live with 15,000 maximum crowds. People misinterpret our position a little bit. Because Southampton have been in the Premiership for so long, it hasn't been realised that even the likes of Wimbledon have had bigger gates. Fortunately, all that will change next year."

Southampton's new 32,000-seater stadium opens in August 2001, possibly with a testimonial for Le Tissier. Few of the Dell faithful would begrudge him that honour. The only question would be whether he was fit enough to turn out in his own game. Hoddle, the perfectionist, will regard it as a personal failure if he doesn't.

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