Rejecting the Divine: Matt Le Tissier’s blasphemous omission from Hoddle’s 1998 World Cup squad

FAITH is a vague and complex concept. From St. Jerome to Martin Luther to George Michael, intellects have spent millennia trying to detangle the Gordian Knot that is humanity’s relationship with the divine. Ultimately, none of us have a definite answer to the greatest of questions, but belief presents itself in various guises. Nearly 60% of the British population still identify as Christian. Stories of modern day voodoo, neo-paganism, and brainwashing murder cults litter our collective consciousness and fill us with both fascination and dread. Some members of the Yaohnanen tribe in Vanuatu even worship Prince Phillip. No joke.

But for 16 glorious years stretching from the mid-eighties to the turn of the millennium, one man from a small island in the English Channel established a church of nonchalant audacity and improbable wonder for the congregation of The Dell. With every preposterous goal he scored, he left jaws dropped and hands aloft in exaltation. The Gospel according to Matthew was a beautiful, and often flummoxing, thing to behold. Rarely has one man become so entwined with the fabric of a club, so synonymous with its mythology and legend, and so famed for doing it with such style. For 16 glorious years the Saints and their fervent disciples were in awe of the one they called ‘Le God’.

Every movement has its detractors, however, and if Matthew Le Tissier was something of a messiah, then Glenn Hoddle was definitely an agnostic. This is the story of a man who turned his back on the divine in favour of Rob Lee. This is the story of a nation deprived of joy and spectacle, the story of a manager who abandoned logic and put his belief in a barmaid-turned-mystic named Eileen. This, dear reader, is the story of Matt Le Tissier’s blasphemous omission from England’s 1998 World Cup squad.

But first, genesis. On October 14th, 1968, 902 years to the day since William of Normandy kicked King Harold Godwinson’s head in at the Battle of Hastings, on a small island 45 miles from the continental mainland, the legend of another conqueror of distinctly French persuasion was about to begin. The belief that Le Tissier could have represented Les Bleus was a common misconception, even to the point that Michel Platini himself took an interest in the playmaker’s family tree. But Le Tissier’s exotic surname and otherworldly manipulation of spherical objects would give the impression of a player cut from a different cloth to the coarse burlap of his English counterparts.

Ballon d’Or winning managerial digressions aside, Le Tissier would be the best thing to come out of Guernsey since Victor Hugo took up residency there during his exile from Napoleon III’s France and wrote Les Miserables. Le Tissier’s body of work would arguably come to represent something just as stunning.

After spending his youth career playing for the Guernsey’s Vale Recreation FC, the midfielder moved to the south coast of England and signed a professional contract with Southampton in 1986, making his debut for the Saints in a 4-3 defeat at the hands of Norwich City later that year. By the end of the season Le Tissier had notched 10 goals in 31 appearances and had taken the first tentative step towards godliness.

But his was an unlikely divinity. Le Tissier had the look and demeanour of the lovechild of Rodney Trotter and a sloth. Any unsuspecting onlooker unfamiliar with Southampton’s side would have been forgiven for thinking on any given weekend that the Saints had been struck by a bout of gastroenteritis and had thus picked a random bloke out of the front row to don a striped shirt and make up the numbers.

Despite this, the Guernsey man’s renown began to burgeon. Few, if any, players have garnered a highlights reel as dumbfoundingly resplendent as his. Compilations of effortless piledrivers and celestial lobs, of distraught goalkeepers and bemused spectators, boast a cult-like following on online platforms that didn’t even exist when they were first committed to memory. Videos get passed around, whispered about, and gasped over by grown men in a manner akin to that of a dirty magazine in a schoolyard of yesteryear. People like me, a Sunderland fan who could barely find Southampton on a map, born too late to witness the halcyon days of the early 90s, write eulogistic articles like this one. Trying to pick out Matt Le Tissier’s best goal is like trying to choose your favourite Beatles song, or the best type of dog; it can’t be done.

The virtuoso had quickly established himself as a creeping terror for Division One defences. Inanimate for the vast majority of a match, Le Tissier would rouse himself and feint his way through a forest of bodies with the presence and fluidity of autumnal mist, or pirouette on a pinhead and float an artisanal chip into the stanchion from 40 yards out with little to no warning. In 1989-90, Le Tissier’s prolific goalscoring feats were rewarded with the PFA Young Player of the Year accolade and a role in the England U21s setup.

Through a decade of relegation scares, managerial upheaval, and Ali Dia, the Saints’ talisman was a constant source of marvel and inspiration. The playmaker scored 59 times in the first three campaigns following the Premier League’s inception, and would go on to become the first midfielder to reach a century of goals in England’s newfangled mega-league.

Inevitably, Le Tissier’s domestic exploits eventually set eyebrows twitching on the international stage. Le Tissier was handed his England debut by Terry Venables on March 9th 1994, replacing Paul Gascoigne in a 1-0 friendly win over reigning European champions Denmark.  

El Tel continued to show his faith in Le Tissier, who amassed six of his eight caps during Venables’ tenure; although the last of these would turn into something of an omnishambles when, 27 minutes into a friendly against the Republic of Ireland, a trademark display of some absolute reprobate behaviour from a minority of the English ‘fans’ led to the match’s abandonment. Thankfully for Le Tiss the FA took the decision to award those involved a full cap, and his appearance tally thus stands at a healthy eight and not a paltry seven and a third.

Hooliganism aside, at the age of 25, with his prime stretching out before him like an untouched wedding reception buffet and a small collection of embroidered cloth caps already gathering dust at the bottom of his wardrobe, things were looking good for Le Tissier. As far as trajectories go, his could’ve been a whole lot worse.

Enter Glenn Hoddle; king of the killjoys, Herod in a tracksuit. For the new generation of football fans, Hoddle has come to be regarded as the Roy Cropper of punditry, a static buzz of magnolia noise stating the bleeding obvious with a doggedly dour dreariness. And yet, for a man whose oven clock is almost certainly set to the right time, he was a bloody fun footballer.

Hoddle’s highlights reel plays like a prequel to Le Tissier’s; a smorgasbord of aqueous shimmies and double-quilted touches capped off with the occasional screamer. Hoddle exuded elegance and grace with a poise at odds with the majority of his compatriots. It’s easy to see how he quickly became the childhood hero of a young Spurs fan with an eye for sublimity.

But, as the well-worn adage goes, you shouldn’t meet your heroes, and, such is the way of this cruel, cruel world, it would be Hoddle holding the sledgehammer when Matthew Le Tissier’s World Cup dream was smashed to smithereens.

To fully decipher Hoddle’s decision to leave Le Tissier on the wrong side of the channel in the summer of 1998, it is first necessary to contextualise his unorthodox regime. (Just as a preface to this, I’d like to point out that when it comes to belief systems, I’m very much live and let live. Provided you’re not hurting anyone then it’s whatever tickles your pickle as far as I’m concerned. In a footballing sense, however, I don’t think it’s controversial to suggest that Hoddle’s management style was somewhat odd.)

With regards to his managerial abilities, the former England international was evidently an intelligent and attentive footballing brain, intent on blooding young talent and getting his sides to play in the ever-mythologised ‘right way’.

His man-management skills, however, were somewhat less widely revered. In 2004, Steve McManaman described Hoddle as ‘detached and distant’; a coach uninterested in building relationships with his players. Compared to the heady buzz of Euro ’96 and the tipsy late night singalongs that characterised Terry Venables’ tenure, Hoddle was a strict boarding school headmaster, cracking canes and enforcing curfews.  

But it wasn’t just his rejection of all things fun that made Hoddle different. Writing in his 2011 autobiography, Red, Gary Neville told stories of how the manager would move around the dressing room before a match, shaking each player’s hand individually and touching them just over the heart. Neville also suggested that Hoddle made his staff walk around the pitch anti-clockwise during the game against Argentina to create positive energy, and regularly referred his players to his favourite medic, Dr. Rougier, for mysterious injections to pep them up between matches. Think Mr. Burns in that episode of The Simpsons with Mulder and Scully.

Chief amongst Hoddle’s quirks, however, was his relationship with the aforementioned Eileen Drewery. In 1976, a 21-year-old Hoddle had been dating Mrs. Drewery’s daughter, Michelle, when he picked up a knock playing for Tottenham. Eileen, at this stage still very much an amateur faith healer, offered to take a look at Hoddle, who, spooked by the bizarre offer, hobbled off with his scepticism intact. Eileen, to her credit, was persistent, and took it upon herself to practice some ‘remote access healing’ on her potential son-in-law. Long story short, the injury cleared up soon after, young Glenn’s mind was blown, and a really strange companionship was born.

From that point onwards Hoddle and Drewery became something of a dynamic duo, with the barmaid packing in pulling pints to loyally follow the midfielder wherever he set up shop in a style reminisce of Alan and Lynn.

Naturally, when Hoddle was appointed England manager in 1996 he brought Drewery with him in an unofficial capacity to act as a spiritual counsellor to his players. Receptions were mixed. Paul Merson hailed Drewery as a pivotal figure in his ongoing battles with alcoholism and drug use, while Paul Gascoigne would often call round for a cuppa and a chat. According to the faith healer, Gazza had five demons living inside of him. At the other end of the spectrum, Robbie Fowler supposedly spent the entirety of his visit to Drewery’s house watching TV with her husband. To be a fly on that wall.

Drewery’s most notorious interaction with an England squad member, however, came during an appointment with Ray Parlour. The Romford Pele, like Matt Le Tissier, was a serious contender for a place on the plane to France when Hoddle suggested he paid a visit to the spiritualist because of a minor calf strain. Upon arriving at Drewery’s room, the Arsenal man sat down and the mystic, as she often did with clients, placed her hands on his head. It was at this point that Parlour uttered his infamous quip: “Short back and sides please Eileen”. He laughed. She laughed. Everybody who heard the anecdote in the hours and years that followed laughed. Everybody except Glenn Hoddle. Parlour would never play for England under Hoddle again.

Now, you may be thinking, what does this have to do with Matt Le Tissier? The answer is that it has everything to do with Matt Le Tissier.

All of these tidbits and rumours, tall tales and absurd details, are relevant because they come together to paint a picture of a man with unwavering faith in his own beliefs, a man who liked things to be done in a very particular manner, but perhaps most importantly, a serious man who’d lost touch with the sense of childlike wonderment that he himself had embodied so effortlessly. Unsurprisingly, Matt Le Tissier, a footballing abstractionist with the work ethic of a bear in winter, did not fit into Hoddle’s straight-laced, spiritualist masterplan.

The final nail in the crucifix came on an overcast April evening at a sparsely populated Loftus Road, just two months before the World Cup itself. 5,104 of the blindest faithful turned out to witness one of the finest individual performances from an England international in living memory, albeit for the B team. The 5,105th person in attendance that night was Glenn Hoddle. Amongst the smatterings of Gallagher haircuts and Kappa anoraks, one homemade sign stood out like a plea from the heavens. Scrawled in thick red letters on a threadbare bed sheet, it simply read: ‘Please Hod… Take Le God’. By the end of the match, a nation would be at a loss as to how he couldn’t.

England’s second string swaggered to a 4-1 victory over a turgid Russian shadow cabinet, a sorry bunch of innocent bystanders whose consolation was met with a silence usually reserved for knock-knock jokes at funerals.

Their principle tormentor that night was, predictably, Matt Le Tissier. The playmaker scored a fine hat-trick, as well as striking the woodwork twice, but it was his second goal that really caught the eye. In itself, it was nothing too special; a tenacious run, an elastic-twang snap of the ankle, a mulish rifle from the weaker left foot – certainly not a patch on the peak Le Tissier of the mind’s eye. And yet it represented so much more. The uncommon grit of the dribble, the suddenness of the shifting of his body weight that leaves the Russian defender looking around in bewilderment like a lost child at a carnival, the obstinate bastardry of the finish; this was Le Tissier playing with the casual flamboyance and laid-back freedom that set him apart at club-level. When Le Tissier was in this ethereal sweet spot he was irresistible, undeniable.

It still wasn’t enough.

Of course, it would be blinkered to suggest that Le Tissier was the only creative savant to fall foul of Hoddle’s recruitment policy. Perhaps just as controversial as the Southampton man’s omission from the Hod Squad, if not even more so, was the exclusion of Euro ’96 posterboy Paul Gascoigne. Gazza had been a mainstay under Hoddle throughout qualification for France ’98 and seemed a shoe-in for a seat on the plane until an ill-informed late night kebab with Chris Evans and some paparazzi a week before the squad announcement. Gazza was so displeased with Hoddle’s decision, so the story goes, that he took it upon himself to practice some brutalist feng shui on his manager’s office before being forcibly restrained.

In some respects Gazza brought the sky crashing down onto his own head, however. This doesn’t exonerate Hoddle or rationalise his decision in any way, but one too many nights out with ginger DJs and one too many mornings plastered across the front pages of the baying red tops was never going to sit well with a manager of Hoddle’s disposition. In Gazza’s case the straw that broke the camel’s back had one end dipped in something alcoholic.

Le Tissier, by comparison, was somewhat vanilla. His diet may have left something to be desired and his heat maps may have resembled chip-pan fires, but there was no questioning his loyalty or his priorities. In an interview with The Guardian conducted 17 years later, Le Tiss claimed that his motivation at a domestic level had always been the possibility that his performances could bring recognition on the international stage. To miss out on a World Cup as he fast approached his 30th birthday would, in retrospect, become a fulcrum in his career. Without the promise of sporting those Three Lions on a shirt, where was there left for him to go? He was never the same player again.

Perhaps Le Tissier’s omission was less a reflection on his own abilities and more a signifier of the embarrassment of riches at England’s disposal in the late nineties. Alongside the likes of Gazza, Parlour, Anderton, Merson, McManaman, Redknapp, and Barmby, Hoddle also had the opportunity to take uniquely precocious talents such as Beckham and Scholes to their first major tournaments.

Perhaps it was an exhibition of Glenn Hoddle’s unexplainable snobbery towards the lesser teams of the top flight. Some years later he would openly state that he felt Le Tissier could have increased his chances of playing for England by moving to a so-called ‘bigger club’.

Perhaps it was a damning indictment of the desperately obsessive fixation on winning at all costs that has plagued English football for decades; we demand success and inadvertently lionise pragmatism. As a consequence, players of Le Tissier’s ilk are cast as frivolous indulgences that we as a nation can ill-afford to entertain.

The Italians have a word for players like Le Tissier, and indeed Hoddle; the fantasista, players who can make fantasy reality, whose imagination incarnate eclipses the defensive shackles that the Luddite masses impose upon the game. English football has never truly embraced the role, to the extent that even it’s closest heir to throne chickened out when confronted with an opportunity to unlock those manacles in front of the watching world. Le Tissier was a victim of an antiquated footballing establishment, reinforced by a clamouring public, and a manager who rejected the seraphic in favour of something else entirely.

Ultimately, Matt Le Tissier was not like other footballers. This was a man who would train on a breakfast of two sausage-and-egg McMuffins, and whose favourite tipple is Malibu and coke. This is a man whose Youtube compilations are borderline pornographic. This is a man who played for one club throughout his entire professional career and ended his playing days on a weekly wage of £3,500 when he could’ve been making five times that amount elsewhere.

Those who are different are often persecuted, labelled heretics, ostracised. Matt Le Tissier was not like you or me or Rob bloody Lee and because of that; he was punished for our boring boring sins.

May he forgive us all.

By Jason Jones with artwork by Ifrha Munir 

Ifrha’s brilliant artwork of Matt Le Tissier is available here

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