Players forgiven for backing off
29 March ~ The coming together of footballer and fan can be a harrowing experience, especially for the player. Southampton were preparing for a home game with Oldham Athletic when I first met Matthew Le Tissier in 1994. It was the Easter holidays and I was still at an age where it wasn't weird to hang around after training in the hope of getting autographs. Having replaced Ian Branfoot as manager, Alan Ball had quickly established a strategy to keep Southampton in the Premier League: give Le Tissier the ball as often as possible.
It paid dividends, with him scoring 15 goals after Christmas and Southampton finishing a point above the relegation zone. Eventually training ended and the players began filing out of the changing rooms to their cars. Frankie Bennett and Simon Charlton were out first but it wouldn't do to have them signing my autograph book if Le Tissier walked past so I kept my powder dry.
When Le Tissier did walk out I lost my focus and for no discernible reason sank to my knees and began praising him. This had two effects: my friends disappeared and I didn't get the autograph. Le Tissier had been bamboozling defences all season, so I was surprised at his inability to get past me as I blocked his way to the car park. Embarrassed, sheepish and maybe even a little frightened he managed a quick hello before dashing to his car.
I'd like to say this was an isolated incident but that would be a lie. Years later I was next to Jimmy Case at a pub urinal. I wouldn't say I followed him into the gents, although I did make a point of standing beside him once I was there. At the time it seemed the best way to form a bond with the no-nonsense hard man was to pick up on a very specific moment of the official review of Southampton's 1989-90 Division One season video, involving him tripping over Jason Dodd during a 4-4 draw at Norwich. It quickly became clear Case wasn't as familiar with the footage as I was and it wasn't any clearer to him on the third explanation. By then he had decided against drying his hands and was heading back to the bar.
I was at it again earlier this season when Francis Benali was watching me play. As far as I'm aware this was no scouting mission, he was simply watching his son play for the opposition. If the man has put an ounce of weight on since hanging up his boots then he hides it well. I was keen to share this with him, and maybe shower him with one or two other compliments, as I ran towards him after the final whistle. In my excitement I'd lost sight of the fact I'd spent a fair chunk of the game giving his son a mouthful as he advanced from his position at right-back to run past me at left-back.
Benali was gracious, square batting my small talk with thank yous, but the eyes never lie. In Benali's I saw a heavy sigh and a whisper of "not another one". The barriers between the fan and player have grown over the years. For that, footballers are no doubt grateful. Mark Sanderson