The competition for the Premier League’s worst ever signing is a strong one. Names like Bosko Balaban, Juan Sebastian Veron or modern day players like Stewart Downing or Andy Carroll feature strongly in most people’s lists, but that’s only because they’ve forgotten one man. The only real contender for this award is the former Southampton striker, (if you can even describe him as that) Ali Dia.
Yep, Ali Dia is famous in the Premier League for being the greatest conman in the history of the game and his name is one Graeme Souness would dearly love to forget. The year was 1996 and Souness was in charge of Southampton when he received a mysterious phone call from a man claiming to be George Weah, the former Fifa World Player of the Year and footballing superstar. Now any contact with a player that good is enough to get any manager excited, but instead of offering his own services to the Saints, Weah told Souness to check out his cousin, a PSG player who had won caps for Senegal.
In the days before YouTube, where a routine spot check would be enough to tell someone all they needed to know about a potential superstar, a personal recommendation from one of the game’s greats is surely enough to earn you a contract. After all, the scouts at the Dell didn’t want to lose out on a prodigious talent to their rivals, indeed only Matt Le Tissier came anywhere near the word ‘talent’ in a Southampton shirt at that time. To hoard off any interest from other clubs, the Saints offered Dia a one month contract with the club to prove his worth in the Premier League.
Unfortunately for Souness and Southampton, the phone call was a fake. Dia had never played for the Senegal, probably didn’t know who PSG were and his cousin was most certainly not George Weah. In fact Dia’s footballing career before that was no better than the average Sunday league player, he’d turned out for a few unheard-of French teams before unsuccessfully trialling at a number of lower English league clubs. He did however make one appearance for Blyth Spartans of the Northern Premier League where, by all accounts, he put in a remarkably forgettable performance.
So the fact that Dia pulled on a Southampton shirt during a Premier League game against Leeds United is one of the most bizarre happenings the game has ever witnessed. Saints legend Le Tissier has gone on record to say that Dia trained once with the first squad, showing as much skill in a five-a-side game as a man with his feet tied together. Not one member of the Southampton team thought Dia would ever be involved in a match day squad, so imagine their surprise when Souness named his new Senegalese superstar on the bench for the crunch match with Leeds.
After Le Tissier pulled a thigh muscle during the game, the number 33 went up on the fourth official’s board, signalling that Dia would be introduced for his debut. What happened next was excruciatingly embarrassing for everyone that witnessed it. Dia ran around like Bambi on ice, unable to control the ball or keep any sort of position on the field. 53 minutes later and the substitute was substituted, as Souness realised his terrible, terrible mistake, hauling Dia off for Ken Monkou. Leeds won the game 2-0 and the most ambiguous of Premier League matches went down in the game’s folklore.
Dia never showed up at the Dell again, probably catching on to the fact that he’d be in for some serious questions from the Saints hierarchy, indeed the subject has haunted Graeme Souness to this day. Unbelievably that season, Dia turned up in the Conference, making eight appearances for Gateshead where he scored twice, including a goal on his debut against Bath City.
Nothing came of that brief spell though and Dia went to Northumbria University to study business, though with his ability as a con artist, he shouldn’t have ever had to put in an honest day’s work in his life. The player has gained notoriety in the Premier League and has gone down as a legend in the game for all the wrong reasons. It’s remarkable that a club with such a complex scouting system in place could make such a blunder, but then that’s the joys of the footballing world. However, if you ever find yourself in charge of football club, the best piece of advice would be to beware phone calls from George Weah…