Le Tissier's missing link

England continue to suffer an absence of inspiration while Wednesday's opponents have recovered from a traumatic time; Ian Ridley says home hopes rest on a change for Southampton's artist

IT WAS no surprise to go to the England squad announcement last Tuesday and find that Matthew Le Tissier had been omitted. It was more of a shock to go to the Dell the following evening, expecting to see a defiant response of angry, gangling genius, only to have the coach's reservations confirmed.

The campaign continues on the South Coast. A stall behind the Milton Road end is devoted entirely to natty Matty merchandise bearing slogans such as "Are You Watching Venables?". The latest addition is a CD by a local band charmingly named the Valley Slags. Indeed, a mime of their song celebrating the "Legend of the Saint" at half-time of the match against Leeds United provided the highlight of the night. The singer was led away for taunting the visiting supporters. Two stewards did the job, but it could equally have been done by men in white coats.

Either side of this divertissement, Le Tissier loped his way through the game. Ludicrously ambitious shots flew embarrassingly high and wide. The ball was given away carelessly and he ambled around waiting for his next shy at the coconut. When he did work back, tackles were missed.

And yet. It was his wickedly swinging corner that led to Southampton's equaliser. Near the final whistle, an audacious, intricate run along the byline almost produced a winner. "The boy's delivery is so good, he can put the ball where he wants with whatever pace and swerve he wants," the Leeds manager, Howard Wilkinson. said. He did not even have to drop the name - everyone knew it.

Requests for interviews with this name that dare not speak are referred to his agent, who then tells you that Matt wants to let his football do the talking. It does not seem to be saying much toVenables, however.

Fans naturally look at what a player does with the ball; coaches also look at what he does without it. And therein lies a reason for Le Tissier's continued omission and the cause of incensed fans lighting up the switchboard of the Six-0-Six programme as Le Tissier becomes the Glenn Hoddle for the Nineties: not so much a player, more a national debate.

The England coach has gone for continuity with his squad for Wednesday's match against Colombia, he said in explaining the continued exclusions of Paul Ince and Le Tissier. He wants to work again with the group from the summer's Umbro Cup, to explain and to remedy faults. One hopes that Ince and Le Tissier are aware of their own foibles and are seeking to remedy them. Venables says that the most frustrating part of the job is not having the opportunity for full and frank discussions once players return to their clubs, which suggests that perhaps they are not.

It is not that Le Tissier's work-rate is necessarily wanting, it is that Venables, more pragmatic a manager than at one stage imagined, seeks players who will close down opposition, not waste the ball and link with others. It is why John Barnes and David Batty still find favour, why Teddy Sheringham remains preferred to Andy Cole.

Even Paul Gascoigne, whom Venables would ideally like in the role of "attack-maker", which Le Tissier covets, has to graft industry to his ingenuity. And Le Tissier's supportive manager, Dave Merrington, admits: "Finding the right slot for him is the problem and sometimes that isn't easy, even at this club." Venables probably also wants the game played at a quicker pace, to make best use of Alan Shearer, than Le Tissier does.

Against all the caveats is the oft-replayed dead-ball capability and capacity for sublime goals. Le Tissier has been well described as a highlight waiting to happen; England's are still few and far between, the latest being Graeme Le Saux's volley against Brazil.

According to a banner at that match, Brazil would pick Le Tiss. These days, that is a questionable assumption. Their summertime sensation was Juninho, a player with similar touch and vision but greater application and busyness. Brazil have learnt the new realities of the world game, which is what has made them world champions. It is true that Le Tissier often bides his time during matches, deceiving with indolence before seizing the moment, but sometimes the indolence overtakes him.

The crowd at the Dell tolerates it for the moments of ecstasy he also brings them, for preserving Premiership football for them. Other places, notably Old Trafford, would probably demand more - and that would be to Le Tissier's benefit.

Next month he is 27 and he stands at a crossroads in his career. His England prospects are receding as the European Championship finals draw nearer. The Southampton side of last Wednesday night looks set for another relegation campaign and there were signs that Le Tissier was becoming frustrated with the team-mates he captains.

Le Tissier is clearly comfortable being a big fish in a small pool. The Dell is the Premiership's quaintest remaining venue; Southampton's nostalgic new kit of narrower stripes reminding that this has always been a small club big on entertainment. And Le Tissier's one-club loyalty has an element of bygone charm.

But the days when local players stayed in one place had more to do with the iniquitous maximum wage, and Le Tissier's attitude is anachronistic. Football is about more than comfort. Fulfilment should also enter Le Tissier's equation.

It is time for a change of attitude and of location, for his and for England's benefit. Should Eric Cantona move to Internazionale this autumn, Le Tissier would be well suited to take on the role of creator-in-chief for Manchester United. The mouth waters at what Alex Ferguson, a group of vivacious players and a vibrant theatre would do for him. It might take pounds 10m, but think of all the new shirts he would sell.

According to the old arguments, to change a player is to lose what makes him that player. Yet at Old Trafford, for two years at least Cantona became less the annual leave-taker and more the committed character. Change is often for the better.

Think, too, of the effect on England. Venables's teams have usually looked cohesive and worthy, but he has lacked a busy player capable of illuminating and turning a game. Gascoigne may not yet be ready to do so again - indeed he may never be. Le Tissier could be. A new, ambitious, empowered Matthew Le Tissier, that is.

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