26th October 1996
Southampton 6-3 Manchester Utd
Although Southampton made their grand return in memorable fashion by running the champions so close in a breathless game at Eastlands, nothing hammers home for promoted sides the surreal ‘showbiz’ trappings of the Premier League like the visit of Manchester United, who travel to St. Mary’s on Sunday. The sides are no strangers to each other, and the 1990s boasted a number of incident-packed contests between the two. It was a decade in which Saints enjoyed a short-lived ‘bogey team’ status over the Red Devils. Southampton were the visitors to Old Trafford when Massimo Taibi had his, erm, ‘defining’ moment as a united player in 1999/2000, and it was their 3-1 defeat of Ryan Giggs and co. that Ferguson so famously blamed on his team’s grey away kit rendering his players invisible to each other. In between, the teams played out a contender for the most balls-out mental game in Premier League history.
It was October 1996, and the week before their trip to The Dell, Fergie’s reigning double winners had been humbled 5-0 by title rivals Newcastle – a thrashing that prompted the ever-prescient Kevin Keegan to proclaim: “it’ll be a long time before someone puts five past them again”.
Southampton had appointed Graeme Souness that summer, fresh from making friends in Istanbul, and the Scot had demonstrated a willingness to wheel and deal in the foreign market as he sought to make the most of a limited transfer budget. His signings were surprisingly shrewd, for a man who once decided that Scott Minto was the answer to Benfica’s left-sided problem. Striker Egil Ostenstad, signed for £800,000, would be rated at £7m by the end of the season; defenders Ulrich Van Gobbel and long-serving club hero-in-the-making Claus Lundekvam would vastly improve the team’s rearguard – even if the latter wasn’t always trying to. Best of all, in came brilliant Israeli schemer Eyal Berkovic on loan, a real find and one of the most underrated players of the era. Of course, not all of his gambles paid off – Souness was famously the man who took “George Weah” at his word and handed the most notorious debut in Premier League history to one Ali Dia.
It was a strong United team that visited the Dell, including the likes of Cantona, Keane, Scholes and Beckham. Jordi Cruyff got a rare start in attack, while the presence of David May in their back four perhaps makes that six goal shellacking a touch easier to understand. Arguably rattled by the previous weekend’s hammering, the away side started slowly, and Berkovic rattled in a close range volley after just six minutes to give Saints the lead. After 20 minutes, Keane was sent off after collecting his second booking. He had been detailed to shackle Le Tissier, and with him gone, “Le God” from Guernsey was given the breathing space he needed to exert an influence. Just 15 minutes later, he pulled out the party piece featured here, collecting the ball 30 yards out, casually strolling past two defenders and, without even looking up, sensed Peter Schmeichel off his line and instinctively lofted a precise but powerful lob over the Great Dane, making him look not a little silly in the process. It was a typical Le Tissier goal – one that came almost from nowhere and hinted at a natural talent that seemingly allowed him to pull off the most outrageous pieces of skill without even trying.
Saints led 3-1 at half time, a Beckham free kick briefly halving the deficit before an Ostenstad strike restored the two goal advantage. A May header made it 3-2 early in the second half and, unbelievably, that was how it stayed until the last ten minutes, when Berkovic (involved in no less than five of Southampton’s goals that afternoon) added a second and Ostenstad two more to complete his hat trick, with Scholes notching a consolation in between.
Ultimately, the game had little lasting impact for either side. United would stroll to another title that season, while Southampton, despite Souness having assembled a talented side, would still need to pull off their customary Houdini act, surviving on the last day by a single point. Souness would quit within weeks of the season’s end, after a fall out with Chairman Rupert Lowe about what Souness felt was the board’s lack of ambition (“how many football people are called Rupert?”, he asked, not unreasonably).
1996/97 was a big year for Le Tissier, too. For years he had been the main man on the south coast, scoring some of the finest goals the top flight has seen. He had a skillset that was utterly unique among English players of his generation, and while that might have made him the centrepiece of other national teams, here it made him just another one of a long line of supremely talented ‘mavericks’ – dating back to Hudson, Bowles and Worthington, and before that, Shackleton – to not be trusted by England managers. Of course, the perception that he was a ‘lazy’ player, while overstated, was not entirely invalid – it was a common complaint at the time among supporters of opposing teams put to the sword by the Channel Islander that the wondergoal he had struck against them was the only time it was evident he was on the pitch. “”If you want someone to defend AND do what I do, they would cost about 25 million pounds,” was his riposte to such accusations.
Just months after he helped to annihilate the reigning champions however, Le Tissier would be handed his chance – ironically by another creative genius all too often snubbed by his country. As England prepared to take on Italy in an important world cup qualifier at Wembley, Glenn Hoddle decided that the Southampton maestro would be his secret weapon, operating with Steve McManaman in a free role just behind Alan Shearer. However, the team was leaked days before the game – supposedly by Le Tissier’s brother Carl in a radio interview (although Le Tissier maintains he was stitched up). Hoddle and the FA were less than impressed, one official branding the player “an idiot”. Worse, Le Tissier did not deliver on the night, perhaps trying too hard with the pressure on and making little impact on the game. England lost 1-0, and Hoddle dragged him off after an hour. He became something of a scapegoat for the defeat, with the Mail on Sunday even dubiously claiming that the Italians stocked up on champagne when they learned that Le Tissier was starting. He never played for England again.
Though MLT would continue to turn on the style for his club the following season, he did not make Hoddle’s world cup squad, and this came as a hammer blow to him – by his own admission, he struggled to find his best form again. Even on the wane however, he would still have his moments, not least popping up with a trademark rocket in the last minute to seal an emotional victory over Arsenal in the last-ever game at The Dell. One of the best ‘pure’ footballers England has produced, no less an authority than Xavi cites him as his boyhood hero.
A one-man highlight reel, there are any number of Le Tiss screamers that could be featured here. But this one has Peter Schmeichel making an arse of himself. Enjoy.