The Le Tissier conundrum

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Twelve months ago there was a clamour, now there is not even a whisper. It has not been much of a year for Terry Venables but at least he is no longer in danger of being run over by the Matt Le Tissier-for- England bandwagon.

When Venables dropped Le Tissier from his squad last March - after an undistinguished 27 minutes in Dublin - there was an outcry. When he omits him from the squad to play Bulgaria later this month it will not merit a mention. Football's chattering and chanting classes have moved on, Venables has won this debate.

Now even Southampton supporters have begun to doubt their hero. On the underground, en route to White Hart Lane on Saturday, a group of them were discussing his contribution - or lack of it.

"But," said one in summation, "without him we would have been relegated by now." Then they briefly fell silent, each one thinking the unthinkable - could Southampton this year be relegated with him?

The 1-0 defeat to Tottenham Hotspur has left the Saints in the bottom three for the first time since October. It is not hard to see why. Le Tiss is no longer doing the biz.

The normally phlegmatic midfielder hinted, in a midweek Radio 5 Live show, that this could be because he was being played wide on the right. It was then suggested that those comments, rather than "flu", was the reason for his midweek absence from the side.

That is unlikely, Dave Merrington, the Southampton manager, is not the sort of man to lie about such matters. Neither, however, is he prepared to take the blame for his protege's loss of form.

"I have not restricted him in any way," he said. "Today he floated about like I wanted him too. You do not restrict players of genius. I have handled him like that since I was 15 or 16."

Merrington's relationship with Le Tissier was one of the prime factors behind his appointment (which is not to denigrate his fine record in coaching and player development). Yet it is not working. Since he is operating within severe financial limits one wonders whether he might not be better off cashing in his prime asset.

It would be a bold step. Some Southampton fans may harbour doubts, but they still cheered and salaamed him. Merrington would also have to persuade Le Tissier to leave.

One of those Southampton fans on the tube noted, with a hint of pride, "no other club of our stature has hung on to a player like him." Indeed, but why?

With respect, any player with ambition would have left Southampton by now. Several of the biggest clubs in the Premiership have enquired, but Le Tissier has been even less receptive than his club.

While such loyalty is to be praised many in the game believe it betrays a lack of desire, a preference for the easy life. He has his wine bar, is within a few miles of Eastleigh Airport, and the Guernsey flight, and is settled domestically. He is also playing for a club which accepts his inconsistency and his half-hearted attitude to defensive duties.

Laziness is the other charge levelled at Le Tissier. The likes of Ruud Gullit, Jurgen Klinsmann and Peter Beardsley are aware that talent is not enough, not at the very highest level.

He certainly would struggle to get in a Tottenham team not over-blessed with creative talents. Gerry Francis, having praised the performance of their goalscorer, Jason Dozzell, noted that when he took over Dozzell was simply "not fit". Francis demands a high level of fitness in his midfielders, their ability to cover each other and maintain a good shape is behind Spurs' excellent defensive record. It also contributes to their impressive counter-attacking.

"You have to be fit to play the modern game," Francis said. "The players that have more ability and skill will have it that much longer if they are fit. Concentration levels will be higher - the first thing that goes when you are tired is the skill factor.

Le Tissier retained his skill to the end on Saturday, but he had not exactly exhausted himself in between. Southampton controlled the first half, overcoming the awful pitch to build some attractive passing moves, but failed to turn possession into goals. "We lacked creativity around the box," Merrington admitted.

Le Tissier, who is supposed to provide that, hit the angle of the woodwork with a corner and had a free-kick, which he had won, deflected wide. He did not waste possession, but attempted few killer balls.

In the second period, with Tottenham coming back into it, he saw less of the ball. There were moments of effort, and periods of idleness, the mix summed up on the hour when, having sprinted to pressure Ian Walker into a clearance, he ambled back on-side.

But there was also a moment of magic, the sort which helps his supporters keep the faith. With two minutes left, and Dozzell's 63rd-minute header from Andy Sinton's deflected cross looking to be the winner, Le Tissier picked out an intelligent run by Shipperley. The pass, from left flank to the inside-right position, was perfect. Unfortunately Shipperley's finish was not and the game was gone.

It is usually about this stage of the season that Le Tissier hits form and Southampton clamber away from the drop. Failure to do so again may lead to the resolution of the Le Tissier conundrum. He has often said he does not have to play for the Liverpools and Manchester Uniteds, as long if he is playing against them. Indeed, next Monday brings an opportunity to do just that as Saints visit Old Trafford in the FA Cup quarter-finals. If they are to go any further he will have to play at his best.

However, avoiding relegation remains Southampton's priority. If they fail we will find out whether Le Tissier meant it when he said last year that relegation would force his departure. Or will one of the great talents of this generation be content to spend his career in a backwater, giving pleasure to a lucky few, but never realising his potential.

Goal: Dozzell (63) 1-0.

Tottenham Hotspur (4-4-2): Walker; Campbell, Calderwood, Mabbutt, Wilson; Fox, Dozzell, Howells, Sinton; Sheringham, Slade (Rosenthal, 75) Substitutes not used: Nethercott, Day (gk).

Southampton (4-4-2): Beasant; Widdrington, Hall, Monkou, Benali; Le Tissier, Magilton, Venison, Charlton (Oakley, 65); Watson (Tisdale, 81), Shipperley. Substitute not used: Grobbelaar (gk).

Referee: K Burge (Tonypandy).

Bookings: Southampton: Benali, Widdrington.

Man of the match: Campbell. Attendance: 26,320.