I have just finished reading an autobiography by former Southampton legend Matthew Le Tissier titled “Taking Le Tiss” and thoroughly enjoyed it. This is something of an anomaly as it is part of that new and ever popular genre of book titles that I would typically avoid like the plague. The reason, to paraphrase Simon Kuper in his excellent book The Football Men, is that “Footballers’ autobiographies are a much derided genre – ‘Is there a more debased literary currency?’ asks the game’s chief historian David Goldblatt”.
For those of you who may be unaware that there are football teams outside of Chelsea, Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal (and more recently Manchester City), Matt Le Tissier was born in Guernsey in October 1968 and signed for Southampton Football Club when he was 17 years old. Before Ryan Giggs began hogging the limelight, Le Tissier was probably one of the more famous one-club players around making 540 appearances for the club, scoring 209 goals and providing numerous assists during that time.
Thanks to the wonders of the internet, you can see a couple of examples of why Le Tissier was so famous here, here and here. Le Tissier, the player, was a particularly creative and matched this with exceptional technical ability which enabled him to score some spectacular goals throughout his career. Although he made a huge impression at Southampton he garnered a mere 8 caps for the England national team which was largely attributed to the fact he was considered a “luxury” player and didn’t work hard enough for his team mates.
In his book, Le Tissier eschews the Hersechelle Gibbs “kiss and tell” approach from the opening sentence of his introduction. “If you are hoping for smut and scandal from this book then look away now. A lot of ‘celebrities’ rely on revelations about their personal lives in order to sell books, but I have always been a very private person so there’s no sleaze here.” True to his word, the book contains a lot details about Southampton Football Club, about football holidays and getting boozed as well as some amusing anecdotes about former teammates and some about himself.
The most salacious revelation in the book is an incident where Le Tissier tries his hand at the fledgling business of sports spread betting. This is the idea which allows punters to back anything from the final score to the first throw-in. Le Tissier places a bet that the first thrown in of the game between Southampton and Wimbledon will take place within 60 seconds (or less) of kick off. Should this event occur Le Tissier will win a specific amount of money based on the odds, but should this take over 80 seconds he will have to pay the bookie. Unfortunately, his attempt to kick the ball into touch fails and he spends the next minute trying desperately to get the ball out of play. Luckily for him, the ball goes out of play after 60 seconds but before the 80 seconds and he neither wins nor loses money.
Throughout the book, Le Tissier appears to present an image of himself as an average Joe – an easygoing fella who just happened to be exceptionally gifted at football. Although there are famous people who try very hard to appear ordinary, Le Tissier genuinely seems to be a likeable man. When talking about his book signing he states “I couldn’t believe that so many people had turned out and waited so long in the cold. I made a point of signing proper named greetings and taking a few minutes to chat to each of them – even though it meant I was still there four hours later”. It is difficult to imagine the typical modern footballer being so conscientious and giving of their time to their fans.
I was always under the impression that all famous people know each other and maintain this cool factor when they bump into fellow celebrities. Perhaps the highest level of excitement one might show would be a curt nod if one is not good friends with the fellow celeb. Le Tissier dispels this myth and happily admits that he gets star struck like the rest of us normal people. Following the conclusion of his playing career Le Tissier helps out a golfer friend of his, Richard Bland, with some caddying at a European Tour event. During the tournament, Bland takes him along to the driving range to watch and Le Tissier sees his golfing hero Ernie Els practising. Le Tissier admits to feeling like a kid as he approaches Els and says “Sorry to interrupt you but I think you’re a fantastic golfer” and is stunned when Els recognises him and returns the compliment by saying “And I think you’re a fantastic footballer”.
Perhaps part of Le Tissier’s appeal to a wide audience (Southampton and non-Southampton alike) is the fact that he has a dry and self-deprecating sense of humour. Having been blessed with a large nose, he accepts the ribbing he receives from fans, teammates and opposition players with good grace and doesn’t lose his temper.
He was also aware of his shortcomings as a player with his major one being a lack of physical fitness and an unwillingness to do anything to address his weakness. Le Tissier states “I am acutely aware of my own failings, so I’m not going to gloss over the fact that I didn’t have the best diet and was never the greatest runner. I was once carried off in training after a fainting fit caused by eating too many sausage and egg McMuffins before we even started.” Former teammate Iain Dowie sums it up perfectly. “He (Le Tissier) was a good athlete. He could run well; he just chose not to”. This is something that most ordinary people can identify with – a lot of us have some natural ability or skill but just cannot be asked to put in the effort to do anything with it. I believe a lot of Le Tissier supporters could see a little bit of him in themselves and liked him all the more for it.
Le Tissier is almost sanguine when he reflects upon the (lack of) financial remuneration he received during his playing days. “I did feel the club probably took advantage of me over the years knowing that I didn’t want to leave. From a business point of view I can understand it but when you consider what I did for the club, I do feel they could have offered me more generous terms.” Contrast that view with that of Ashley Cole (whose reaction is now well-documented) who describes the following phone call with his agent Jonathan, telling Cole that Arsenal are offering him peanuts. “When I heard Jonathan repeat the figure of £55k, I nearly swerved off the road. ‘He is taking the piss, Jonathan!’ I yelled down the phone.”
Most modern sports stars do not appear to enjoy the constant public attention and media scrutiny, unless it happens to coincide with some form of fiscal reward and then they are only too happy to be of assistance. Part of this celebrity culture is due to the insane amounts of money that footballers in particular are paid, which makes them feel they are above “ordinary” people. Part of it is also due to the innumerable hangers-on that come with fame – the agents, handlers, gold diggers and various other parties that are attracted to the smell of money.
It is understandable, then, that sports stars like Le Tissier who are genuine, down-to-earth, normal people are practically extinct. It is understandable but it is a shame.