“I don’t remember ever being in a situation that was any more pressurised than that.”
When you think of Matt Le Tissier and final day heroics, it’s easy to be drawn to the last goal at The Dell, 20 years ago this week, as perhaps the most memorable of all Le God’s inspirational moments.
But if that was a day of celebration, with Saints eyeing a top-half finish, it was in stark contrast to events at Upton Park seven years prior.
After a three-match losing streak in early April, Alan Ball’s once-rejuvenated Southampton looked dead and buried, marooned in the relegation zone – where they had spent most of the season – with just six games left to save themselves.
“There was a point around Easter time when we played two home games against teams who were around us in the table, Oldham and Man City, and we lost both of them,” Le Tissier recalls, casting his mind back to 1994.
“That was a big blow. The Man City game was the point when we went, ‘oh, blimey. We’re in a bit of trouble here,’ because those were two games we’d looked at with the potential of picking up points.
“I remember against Man City I hit the post in the final minute from a free-kick that would’ve got us a point, which would’ve at least given us something to hang on to going into the run-in.
“But we then go to Norwich the following weekend, and that was the turning point.”
Le Tissier, so often Saints’ talisman, was like a man possessed at Carrow Road, scoring a hat-trick and assisting Ken Monkou’s last-gasp winner in a 5-4 epic that reignited the survival push.
“We won three of the next four games, scoring five against Norwich, three against Blackburn and four against Villa,” he says.
“It was a really interesting season actually, the way it panned out. From a personal point of view, it was actually quite a fruitful season for me, but on the other side of the coin it looked like it could be a disastrous one had we actually conceded a couple more goals.”
Beaten in 15 of their first 21 games, including two six-match losing streaks, it was a bleak start to 1993/94 for Southampton.
But things changed with the arrival of Alan Ball as manager in January, replacing Ian Branfoot in the hot seat.
“The 18 months under Bally was definitely the best spell of my career,” Le Tissier looks back, fondly.
“He completely changed the mindset of the players and the way that we approached games. We started to approach games much more positively.
“The formations that he picked and the role that he gave me in the team was all much more positive, and the players got a lift just from Alan turning up in the changing room.
“When you’ve got somebody there who’s won the World Cup and is a real legend in the game, sometimes that’s enough to lift people on its own, without him even having to do or say anything.”
Le Tissier, not always a starter under Branfoot, had rediscovered his mojo.
A late winner from a free-kick at Newcastle set the tone in Ball’s first match in charge, before he marked the manager’s first home game with a hat-trick against Liverpool.
By the time Saints headed to Upton Park on the final day, Le Tissier already had a career-best 23 league goals for the season – most of them since the turn of the year.
Now with their heads above water, Saints knew they must match the results of the teams below them, or risk relegation.
“As far as I can remember it was a pretty calm week,” Le Tissier picks up the story.
“Obviously we’d had the good run with the three wins in four, but we’d been beaten by Man United in the midweek before the West Ham game, which still left us in a pretty precarious position, so it was calm but focused – they would’ve been the watchwords.
“The players knew what was at stake, and it was certainly a game I looked forward to. I didn’t mind being in those situations where the pressure was on and we were up against it a little bit.
“In a weird kind of way, I looked forward to those situations. I enjoyed the chance to become the hero.
“People looked to me to score the goals and make the goals, and I was the captain of the team as well, which obviously gives you another level of responsibility. It was something I enjoyed and embraced, and took on the challenge.
“I wanted to be looked upon as the best player in the team. I wanted people to rely on me – it didn’t faze me at all.
“Certainly in those situations, where the future of the club is at stake in terms of its Premier League status, it called for cool heads.”
Whilst Saints’ form at The Dell had given them a fighting chance, Upton Park was considerably less welcoming for Le Tissier and co, who had won only three times on the road all season.
“It was always a fairly intimidating atmosphere. I got a lot of stick from the crowd there at West Ham,” he grins.
“They were always pretty quick with the wit, and quick to have a song to put you down. But I embraced all that stuff – I enjoyed the banter with the opposition crowd, it was all good fun. It gave you added motivation to have the last word.
“I think we were under a bit of pressure early on and we did concede the first goal in the game, but I don’t recall us panicking at that stage. It was probably quite nice that the goal came quite early on, so we had plenty of time to do something about it.
“The important thing was getting the goal back just before half-time. That was a big boost.”
It came from a familiar source – a Le Tissier free-kick. Placing the ball four yards outside the penalty area, left of centre, Saints’ No 7 had a familiar trick up his sleeve.
“When I get into that situation, I would always look over the wall. I’d be looking over the wall, making the goalkeeper think I’m going to whip it up and over, because I want him to take his first step behind the wall.
“It was fairly close to the edge of the box, and I knew the power that I could generate from my sidefoot. I knew that all I needed was for him to think I’m going in that other corner, just for that split-second, because by the time he sees the ball hasn’t gone that way, he hasn’t got time to react.
“As I recall, he doesn’t get that close to the ball at all. It was past him before he really had a decent chance to make a dive at it.”
Le Tissier had struck the most crucial of equalisers at a pivotal time, much to the dismay of the locals.
“I didn’t actually realise until I watched the game back on video, but when I took the free-kick to make it 1-1 just before half-time, I suddenly focused on what the crowd were singing behind the goal. They were singing a song about the size of my nose!” he laughs.
“They were doing that right up until the moment that I hit the ball. As soon as the ball hits the back of the net, the song just stops immediately. It was one of those memories when you think, ‘that shut them up.’”
Saints had their tails up, and a foothold in a game they’d trailed since the 11th minute.
“As far as I can remember, it was a team talk of just keeping things calm and maintaining our position. Be solid and try to let me create a few more chances in the second half,” says Le Tissier, who insists Ball would have guarded his players against carelessness at the interval.
The plan to get the ball to Le Tissier in dangerous areas worked a treat within seven minutes of the restart.
The maverick midfielder toyed with full-back Tim Breacker like a puppet on a string, faking to go left, then faking to go right – sometimes without even touching the ball – before delivering the perfect cross for Neil Maddison to head Saints in front.
“I know it’s a dangerous position to be in and the defender can’t really commit too much, so all I was looking for was that little gap to be able to cross it,” he recalls.
“He didn’t want to dive in because he knew that if he dived in I could dribble round him quite easily, so I just needed to throw enough shapes to get that little half a yard.
“It did take a little while and a couple of shimmies before picking out Madder in the box. He was one of the best headers of a ball at the club.
“I was aware of the position that he would be in. I knew that if I could just get it somewhere in that area, I knew that he was a really good header of the ball and that’s a really good chance for us.”
Maddison made no mistake, sparking a mini pitch invasion – not for the last time – as one Saints fan ran to embrace Le Tissier, only to slip over and land flat on his backside. A rare light-hearted moment on a day of serious tension for those of a red-and-white-striped persuasion.
If that goal had gone some way to easing the tension, it would prove short-lived. Ten minutes later, the hosts were back on level terms.
“It was a bit of a calamitous goal. I just remember our players falling over as they try to get blocks in. I do remember thinking, ‘blimey, we didn’t have that lead for long.’”
Saints’ next reply was even quicker. Straight from kick-off, Le Tissier, in typically enigmatic style, collected a flick-on on his chest, chipped the ball over a defender and lifted it into the path of Iain Dowie, who was hauled down in the box.
“It had to be a good ball because Iain wasn’t the quickest!” Le Tissier jokes. “Immediately in that situation you just look at the ref, and I just saw his arm start moving up. Then I start getting very excited, because this is going to be a goal now. I’m not missing this.”
Even the coolest of cool heads, with only one blemish on his spot-kick record, was feeling the heat.
“There would’ve been some butterflies, for sure – as there were with most penalties, to be honest. You’re expected to score, so there’s pressure with every penalty – it doesn’t matter what situation you’re in.
“With the game in the balance and with what was at stake, there were definitely some nerves there, but I just focused on getting a decent contact on the ball, because it was quite a wet day as I remember.
“I had a corner that I liked to hit it into, but I kept an open mind, depending on the goalkeeper’s movements and also strangely enough depending on the weather and the wind direction – silly things like that come into your head, which people don’t realise.
“I was never a premeditator of penalties. This one was so crucial that I probably put an extra 10 per cent of power into it, just to make sure that if the keeper went the right way, he wasn’t going to be able to stop it.
“I don’t remember ever being in a situation that was any more pressurised than that. Obviously it was in front of the Saints fans as well, so I knew I couldn’t let them down – not right in front of them like that.”
All things considered, it was perhaps the most impressive of his 47 successful penalties, both in its importance and the quality of its execution – high to Luděk Mikloško’s left, out of reach and impossible to save.
Saints had their lead back, making all other results redundant. But as the clock ticked down, more drama lay in wait.
“Because we were winning, it really wasn’t important what the other scores were, so we were playing the game out and just trying to stay solid and not do anything silly,” Le Tissier continues.
“Then the crowd invasion happened. There was a stand being demolished at West Ham at the end of that season, so the fans were getting a bit excited and they all piled on to the pitch.
“We got taken off the pitch on about 86 or 87 minutes. We then went back into the changing room, and at that point we find out the scores from all the other games.
“Most of the other games had finished, and Sheffield United had just conceded against Chelsea to go 2-1 down, which meant that they were relegated.
“At that point, we knew that as long as we didn’t go out and concede three goals, we were safe.”
Seems easy, right?
Instead Saints shot themselves in the foot, showing signs of the brittleness from the early months of the season that had put them in this mess in the first place, as Monkou inadvertently headed a cross into his own net within seconds of the resumption.
“It seemed really quick after the restart that West Ham scored to make it 3-3 – or Ken Monkou scored, more aptly! At that point, we’re looking at each other thinking, ‘two more goals and we’re relegated.’
“Thankfully, the crowd came on to the pitch again, and the referee just panicked and blew the final whistle. I’m pretty sure the game didn’t even restart, even though we’d played no stoppage time whatsoever. I couldn’t get off the pitch quick enough.”
Following another lengthy delay, the Saints players were able to return to the pitch for one last hurrah, this time to celebrate with the travelling supporters, who had stayed behind to show their appreciation of a great escape inspired by Ball and an unbreakable team spirit, but made possible by Le Tissier’s individual brilliance.