Merrington harnesses the hurt

Norman Fox studies the man who must channel the genius of Le Tissier
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The Independent Online
THE gossip in Hampshire is that a couple of weeks ago Southampton Football Club's ship came in and went out again on the same tide. It took the form of a pounds 10m offer for Matthew Le Tissier - the highest bid yet made from anyone at home or abroad. The rumoured temptation, obviously from Blackburn, stayed on the table long enough for the spasmodically exceptional Le Tissier to give another of his frustratingly unexceptional performances. Whether turned down or withdrawn, Jack Walker's galleon of gold set sail for another port.

Southampton seem convinced that Le Tissier will see out his footballing days at the Dell. They accept that "Matty" plays at least two indifferent games each month which, they hope, has the effect of putting off bids for a talent that on other days can be sublime. But if he stays, you have to wonder in which division he is going to see out his career.

This afternoon Liverpool are at the Dell and the game is likely to end with the Saints deeper in trouble and a manager probably wondering about some of the things his predecessors said about the club's "niceness" being a thing of the past.

The one thing that Dave Merrington is not going to do is follow the Terry Venables line and ignore a player who is capable of brilliance but prone to flicker. "When you have someone with his ability, you have to stick with him and let him play his way back," Merrington said. This long- serving club worker who took over as manager from the semi-successful Alan Ball knows that if Le Tissier continues to play more disappointing matches than wonderful games, his job is over.

In a way, he blames England's failure to gamble with Le Tissier for the player's inconsistency, the club's struggle and his own tenuous grip on the job. "He's not playing the way he can. He's hurt very deeply. He doesn't show it because he knows he doesn't have to prove anything to anyone." As players with similar skills have discovered over the years, England's international managers are against building teams around inconsistent men who may or may not sway the balance of a match with one swing of the foot. Southampton themselves could do with some consistency.

Ball came close to reviving their past - the days when he, Mick Channon and Peter Osgood used to make Southampton wonderfully entertaining. He took over from the unpopular Ian Branfoot, who the majority of fans thought lacked ambition. Branfoot remembers many of them as "nasty and vindictive" - vindictive to the extent of threatening his life.

Ball's memories of Southampton as a player and as manager are marginally more pleasant. He felt that the vindictiveness came from the board not the supporters. "I still say I did a good job there, but they made no attempt to keep me when Francis Lee made an approach." Working with Lawrie McMenemy, one of the club's more successful previous managers, he got the team into the top 10 before the one-man band got found out.

When Merrington was appointed he was as anonymous as one of Le Tissier's more reclusive performances. For 10 years he had worked out of sight with the Southampton reserve and youth teams. He was 50 before many people outside Hampshire knew of him. As a player he had never got beyond Bristol City and Burnley before coaching at Sunderland and Leeds.

Fifteen years ago he had no future in football, and after a year on the dole he trained and worked as a probation officer in the North. He had never considered moving south until McMenemy contacted him with a view to tapping his combined knowledge of football and his ability to deal with youngsters.

Merrington is not your normal football coach. Although he is no bible- bashing, knock-on the-door evangelist, he became a committed Christian after hearing his dying grandmother talk about her confidence in an afterlife. Talks with other Christians in football convinced him that they had more purpose in their lives than he felt, especially when football seemed to have kicked him in the teeth.

Curiously, his idea of geeing up Southampton is not offering a quiet prayer. His voice carries for miles and can be inspiring. But when Le Tissier's shoulders droop, Merrington knows that nothing can raise him to the level at which he beat Newcastle virtually single-handedly last month.