For the last four years in a row, Southampton have finished inside the Premier League’s top ten. But despite being a founder member of the league in 1992, they’d only ever finished above 10th position once, and that was in 2003, under Gordon Strachan.
Indeed, since coming second in the old First Division in 1984, Saints had only finished higher than 10th in the top flight three times before Strachan’s side came eighth and reached the FA Cup final. James Beattie finished top scorer that year with 24 goals. No Saints player has scored any more in a top flight season since, and you have to go back to Matt Le Tissier in 1995/96 to find a better top flight tally.
In the context of Saints’ status as a solid if unspectacular Premier League side in the mid-90s, it’s quite clear, though, that Le Tissier is an outlier. One of the most naturally gifted players of his era, his decision to spend his entire career on the south coast when he could well have played for one of the country’s top silverware chasing sides is probably what accounts for his meagre tally of eight England caps.
He was good enough to play for his country on many more occasions than that, and indeed the fact that he – as an attacking midfielder – was his side’s top scorer seven years out of eight between 1990 and 1998 (including one year shared with Alan Shearer) speaks to his anomalous position in Southampton’s history.
After failing to score with his normal regularity in the 1995/96 season, it was his failure to score in his eight England caps that saw Terry Venables leave the Southampton man out of the squad for Euro 96 on home soil. The next year, he was back amongst the goals, but under new manager Graeme Souness and in a struggling side, who had spent the last season in a relegation battle.
After a terrible start to the season which saw Saints winless in their opening seven games, it was two Le Tissier goals in a 4-0 win over Middlesbrough at The Dell in the eighth game that started a spell of good form.
Indeed, before Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United arrived at The Dell in October, Saints were on a run of two wins and a draw in three games. They had turned their form around and didn’t fear the champions, who had been unbeaten up until the previous game. And after a 3-1 victory in April of the previous season – when Ferguson had ordered his players to change their ‘invisible’ grey kit at half time – Saints were feeling good about facing them.
That previous game may well have been a reason in itself not to fear United: a trip to St James’ Park ended in a 5-0 defeat to Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle preceded their next match, a journey to the south coast in perhaps the longest trip they could have made in the Premier League.
Saints didn’t disappoint, but the game is best remembered for one particular incident: Le Tissier’s chip.
It was beautiful, stunning, and it was a feat of magic from one of the best players ever to grace the Premier League. But what maybe matters the most about it is its context.
These days, narratives and storylines imbue every match, colouring them with a distinctive hue. Whether it’s a meeting between two rivals, two players who fell out last time, or a manager who’s under severe pressure.
For Manchester United, their length-of-the-country away trips didn’t just see eyes on them as a team because of their humiliating defeat to Newcastle, but also on Peter Schmeichel, who had let in five the previous week. Le Tissier’s chip didn’t just provide the onlooking fans with a wonderful strike to watch, not even just a case of the underdog pulling off something special, it showed everyone that even the champions could be humiliated – not just beaten. Schmeichel couldn’t just be chipped once, by Philippe Albert the previous week, but twice in two games.
Manchester United were the champions, they were the most feared team in the league, and above all else, they were winning with a group of homegrown talent who would go on to carve out an iconic identity that’s still alive today. They’d even go on to win the league by a margin of seven points even though their 75 points tally was the lowest winning total in Premier League history.
But that didn’t stop the jokes. The Danish goalkeeper, chipped twice in two games, was targeted by a gleeful Premier League, just happy, for once, to revel in the misfortune of Ferguson’s United, who were now onto their second dominant team and crafting a legacy and a dominance that would last nearly another two decades. “What’s the difference between Peter Schmeichel and a taxi driver?” they asked. “A taxi driver only lets in five at a time.”
It didn’t help Southampton much, either. After that good run of form culminating in victory over United, Saints went winless in their next six games, with five straight defeats in that run following a draw in the next game. Indeed, they would only win two more games before March.
But if they needed to go unbeaten in seven of their last eight games to stay up by just a point at the end of the season, perhaps that means they also have to look back to the United game in October as their saving grace – a game when they played the champions at a good time and came away with the points, vital ones in their survival.
It takes a special goal to transcend such a rich context, to allow everyone to forget the scene that had been set so perfectly by the early Premier League years and focus solely on a goal of huge quality. But then Le Tissier was an anomalous player who always stood out.