He may have ended his career without a senior trophy to his name, but Matt Le Tissier remains one of the most iconic players in Premier League history.
A Southampton legend who made a total of 540 appearances for the south coast side, the attacking midfielder was blessed with extraordinary natural ability that enabled him to score some of the best goals England’s top flight has seen since its rebrand in 1992.
Le Tissier made his Southampton debut six years before that landmark, and by the end of his maiden campaign as a professional he had already wowed Saints fans with his exceptional potential.
The Guernsey-born support striker had long since established himself as one of the first names on the team sheet before the decade was out, and his 20 league goals in 1989/90 – plus four more in the two domestic cup competitions – saw him win the PFA Young Player of the Year award.
Individual recognition would become a theme of Le Tissier’s career, although it is slightly surprising that he only won Southampton’s Player of the Year prize on three occasions.
Nevertheless, there was no doubt that the enigmatic attacker was consistently the most important member of the Saints squad, a fact best exemplified by manager Alan Ball’s decision to free him from defensive responsibilities and build his team around him in 1994/95.
Le Tissier duly found the back of the net 30 times in all competitions, firing Southampton to a top-10 finish – the first of only two campaigns during his career that the England international ended a Premier League season in the top half of the table.
It was around that time that Le Tissier began to be strongly linked with a move away from The Dell, with Chelsea, Blackburn, Tottenham and Manchester United all showing an interest.
He resisted all offers, though, instead opting to see out his top-flight career with Southampton (he went on to spend two non-league seasons with Eastleigh), preferring life as a big fish in a relatively small pond. His unwavering loyalty to a mid-table Premier League side only added to his legend, earning him adulation and accolades far beyond the south coast.
Ask a football fan in England to recall an incident from Le Tissier’s career and most will pick out one of his spectacular goals against Wimbledon, Manchester United, Aston Villa, Blackburn or Newcastle, or perhaps even his penalty miss against Nottingham Forest in 1993, the only one of 48 spot-kicks he failed to convert in his career.
Blight On Le Tissier’s Career
A less well-remembered episode involving a different type of set-piece is the focus of this piece, though.
In a Premier League meeting with Wimbledon in 1995, Le Tissier attempted to put the ball out of play inside the first minute after he and a group of friends placed bets worth £10,000 on the time of the first throw-in of the match.
The plan did not succeed, with Le Tissier’s nerves getting the better of him: frightened of being found out, he did not kick the ball hard enough, meaning it stayed in play for longer than a minute.
This was an example of both spot fixing and spread betting. The former refers to the placing of a wager on an event within a sporting contest that is unrelated to the final outcome.
The practice is more common in sports like cricket, often on events such as no-balls, as was the case in the famous scandal involving the Pakistan national team’s tour of England in 2010.
Spread betting, which is often associated with spot fixing, is a type of wager where the punter stands to win or lose money depending on the accuracy of his or her prediction. In the Wimbledon vs Southampton case, the bookmaker set the spread for the first throw-in at 60 seconds.
Le Tissier ‘bought’ the spread, meaning he was incentivised to put the ball out of play as early as possible to maximise his gains. The longer the ball remained active beyond a minute, the more he stood to lose.
Le Tissier, pictured centre above, would go on to score in the match (© PA Images)
Needless to say, such activity is illegal and could easily have resulted in a hefty punishment for Le Tissier had it come to light during his career. As it happened, it was only when the former Southampton man released his autobiography in 2009 that knowledge of the incident extended beyond the people directly involved.
“Spread betting had just started to become popular. It was a new idea which allowed punters to back anything from the final score to the first throw-in,” he wrote in Taking le Tiss.
“There was a lot of money to be made by exploiting it. We were safe from the threat of relegation when we went to Wimbledon on April 17 and, as it was a televised match, there was a wide range of bets available.
“Obviously I had never have done anything that might have affected the outcome of the match, but I could not see a problem with making a few quid on the time of the first throw-in.
“My team-mate had some friends with spread-betting accounts who laid some big bets for us. We stood to win well into four figures but if it went wrong we could have lost a lot of money. The plan was for us to kick the ball straight into touch at the start of the game and then collect 56 times our stake. Easy money.
‘I Was A Bit Nervous’
“It was set up nicely. The ball was to be rolled back to me and I would smash it into touch. It seemed to be going like clockwork. We kicked off, the ball was tapped to me and I went to hit it out towards Neil Shipperley on the left wing.
“As it was live on television I did not want to make it too obvious or end up looking like a prat for miscuing the ball, so I tried to hit it just over his head. But with so much riding on it I was a bit nervous and did not give it quite enough welly. The problem was that Shipperley knew nothing about the bet and managed to reach it and even head it back into play.
“Suddenly it was no longer a question of winning money. We stood to lose a lot of cash if it went much longer than 75 seconds before the ball went out. I had visions of guys coming to kneecap me. Eventually we got the ball out on 70 seconds. The neutral time meant we had neither won nor lost. I have never tried spread betting since.”
Le Tissier went on to score the opening goal as Southampton won 2-0 in front of 10,521 fans at Selhurst Park, none of whom were wise to the visiting captain’s antics at the time. The then-40-year-old almost landed himself in hot water following his revelation in 2009, but the authorities ultimately decided against pressing charges.
Le Tissier escaped unpunished despite admitting the crime in 2009 (© PA Images)
“Following discussions with the Crown Prosecution Service [CPS], a decision has been made not to investigate an alleged historic and unsuccessful spread-betting incident at a Saints football match in the 1990s,” a Hampshire police spokesman said.
“Discussions with the CPS have led to the conclusion that an investigation into the incident would not be in the public interest and does not represent appropriate use of police resources. The incident itself was bought to the attention of the police after it was mentioned in a recently published autobiography.”
The Football Association also opted against taking action, largely because almost a decade and a half had passed since the incident.
Le Tissier also had no direct involvement with football at the time, meaning it was difficult for the FA to mete out an appropriate punishment.
His reputation did not suffer too much either, with most fans able to laugh it off given that Le Tissier did not make any money or unethically influence the result of a game.
Lundekvam Revelation Refuted
The issue was rekindled in 2012, however, when former Southampton defender Claus Lundekvam claimed he was part of a coordinated betting scam involving several of his team-mates during his time on the south coast.
The Norwegian was not at The Dell at the time of the Wimbledon episode, but he did spend 12 years on the club’s books between 1996 and 2008, and told reporters in his homeland that “for a while we did this almost every week.”
“It is something I was involved in for a number of years in England,” he said. “I bet on my own matches. There were often several players who put money in the pot – several hundred pounds each, sometimes a thousand each.
“We would then give the money to one of the staff who would put the money on for us, so we did not have to do it ourselves and create suspicion. We would bet, for example, on the first throw-in.
“We would have an agreement with the opposing team that whoever had the kick-off would pass the ball back to a defender who would then play it forward down the channel where an opposing defender would kick the ball out for a throw-in.
Lundekvam was alone in an attempt to act as a whistle-blower (© PA Images)
“It is a pretty normal start to a game, no one would have suspected and it was very easy for us to control the little things like that. We could make deals with the opposing captain relating to betting on the first throw, the first corner, who started with the ball, a yellow card, a penalty.
“I am not proud of being part of this. We were far from alone in this but that does not help. I know it happened at other clubs. It was accepted in matches at the end of the 1990s.
“The bookies were open to betting on these kind of things and it was easy for us to manipulate. I do not think it was sporting or morally right for us to do what we did. But we had a chance to do it then, and that is just how it was.
“Even though what we did was illegal, it was quite fun to be part of. We made a fair amount of money on this. I cannot really remember how much. But we made money on it even though the odds were not always high. Even when the odds were not high, they were safe bets.”
Le Tissier Put On The Spot
Naturally, Le Tissier was asked whether he could verify Lundekvam’s statement, but he denied knowledge of any scams of that nature. “Aside from that one incident in my book I’ve never been involved in any betting scams and have no idea of Claus Lundekvam’s claims,” he tweeted.
Former Southampton manager Dave Jones also distanced himself from the former defender’s comments, as did Francis Benali, a fellow Saints legend who played alongside Le Tissier for most of his career. Another individual to speak out against the claims was Graham Sharpe, a spokesperson for leading bookmaker William Hill.
“We are vigilant because we are the targets,” he said. “Bookmakers are very sensitive creatures. If they have the slightest feeling they are being done over they will raise an objection.
“There is no possibility of getting away with a modest scam that wins you even a few thousand pounds. That would definitely show up on our radar. I do not recall any incidents that would fit that pattern from those days.”
Stories of spot fixing and spread betting are usually associated with football in the lower leagues or in poorer countries overseas, where the rewards on offer are more tempting given the smaller pay packets received by players.
It therefore remains extraordinary that a player of Le Tissier’s standing admitted to being involved in a scam in a Premier League match, even if the game in question took place before the division was a truly global enterprise.
It is difficult to imagine a repeat of the episode in England’s top flight today, although it would be naïve to think that an industry of football’s size is immune from attempts to gain illicit profit by rigging outcomes or influencing a specific event.