Lazing through a Friday at the office and getting fish and chips on the way home was routine to innumerable inhabitants of the coastal city of Southampton in September 1993. The problem for one of them was that he had to report to work the following day for what was his most important shift, and that traditional English dish was the quintessential muzzle for the duties he would be charged with performing. The soon-to-be 25-year-old’s boss consequently slapped him with a temporary demotion.
Matt Le Tissier’s response to being dropped wasn’t to exert himself in training – “I hated the running, the fitness drills” he’d later confirm – or to improve his eating habits in an attempt to persuade Ian Branfoot to promote him back into the Southampton starting XI. However, as the fans’ favourite was wolfing down his fish supper one Friday, six weeks later, Branfoot was eating humble pie. The Saints were propping up the Premiership, having won just one and lost eight of their 11 league matches of 1993/94. Desperate, Branfoot required victory at home to a recently-promoted but rapidly-emerging Newcastle United to save himself from a probably sakcing. Grudgingly, he restored Le Tissier to his side in place of Paul Moody – a decision that was met with ample applause when it was announced at the Dell before kick-off.
The maverick attacking midfielder injected a breath of fresh air into an aging team – the 37-year-old Peter Reid was one of five of Southampton’s outfield starters in his 30s – but the first hour nevertheless went by goalless. Then Le Tissier got what, according to striker Iain Dowie, “wouldn’t have even been a chance to any other player on the planet”, but was to him.
Dowie attempted to nod a long ball forward back into the path of his onrushing team-mate, but it bounced a yard behind Le Tissier. Somehow, the man from the island of Guernsey resuscitated the move from the dead, arching his left leg back and divinely flicking the ball up and over his body. Instantly confronted by the charging Barry Venison, Le Tissier produced another breathtaking touch, this time with his right boot, to knock the ball around the blond-maned defender. The No7 then handsomely dinked the ball over Kevin Scott and left himself one-on-one with goalkeeper Mike Hooper, before slotting the ball home on the half-volley. Four first-time touches; one of the most unique goals in world football history.
“I’d just got back in the team after the manager had dropped me for five games, but I had this unbelievable feeling inside me that I could just do anything,” recalled Le Tissier. “The ball came to me and I had this feeling it was going to be a goal. I started doing these tricks, juggling, and I always had this belief it was going to be a goal and it was.”
Dowie added: “It was a miracle that he even managed to keep possession in the first place – my header to him was a very bad one – yet alone score. But somehow he back-flipped it over his head, juggled it over and side-footed it in. It was simply unbelievable, but that was what he was capable of.”
Ten minutes later, however, Andy Cole got what was a habitual goal in a record-breaking season – he finished it with 34, an existing Premier League record he shares with Alan Shearer – to restore parity for Newcastle.
But three minutes from time Le Tiss had the final say – in stereotypical style. When a Neil Maddison header fell his way, he ridiculed its awkward position by controlling it sublimely on his thigh before, with minimal movement of his right leg, unleashing a looping volley into the back of the net.
Southampton had emerged 2-1 victors. Le Tissier’s game-winners came first and second in October 1993’s Goal on the Month and remain two of the greatest goals in Premier League history.
Branfoot, who it was adjudged didn’t know how to get the best out his star pupil, didn’t last much longer. His successor Alan Ball instantly identified the benefit in building his team around Le Tissier.
“My diet was poor, there’s no hiding that," Le Tissier said. “I used to have fish and chips and other unhealthy stuff the night before a game, and I didn't enjoy fitness at all. But with Bally, as long as you were performing on a Saturday, he didn’t care what you ate or what you did in training. One time he even caught me coming in from a nightclub in the early hours. I was expecting a [scolding] but he said, ‘The way you’re playing you can do what you like!’
Le Tissier doing what he liked certainly benefitted the Saints. The future England international finished the season on 25 league goals from the tip of the midfield, including two equalisers in a 3-3 draw at West Ham United on the final day, which ensured Southampton survived relegation by the skin of their teeth.
Had Le Tissier not pulled off even one of his brace of belters at the Dell 20 years ago to this Thursday, the beloved club he stayed devoted to throughout his career, despite the overtures of Chelsea, Tottenham Hotspur and other more prestigious suitors, would have began 1994/95 in the second tier.
24 October 1993 will, by contrast, infinitely be remembered by Saints fans as the day ‘Le God’ was christened.