by Noel Draper
It takes a special kind of footballer to be called “not very good” by the eternally laid-back Matt Le Tissier. Ali Dia is that special footballer.
Ali was born in Senegal and found his way to these shores via a handful of French clubs, a couple in Finland and a third tier German side called VfB Lubeck. That he failed to stand out at any of them was not a portent of things to come. After a series of unsuccessful trials at clubs such as Bournemouth and Port Vale, Ali joined Blyth Spartans in 1996 and managed one whole substitute appearance before moving on.
Any normal person would have given up at this stage, with the dream of becoming a professional footballer turning into a nightmare of rejection and single appearances, but not Ali Dia. He was made of sterner and cheekier stuff. He would not give up. He was 31 and this would be his last shot at greatness.
Southampton FC were struggling in the Premier League in 1996. Graeme Souness had been appointed the manager at the beginning of the season and although they had gained a few notable victories, beating Manchester United 6-3 being one, they were still struggling to stay up. Perhaps it was for this reason that when Souness took a call from a certain George Weah informing him that his cousin was available on a free transfer, instead of checking the story out for himself, he jumped at the chance to sign him. “George” also informed Graeme that his cousin, a certain Ali Dia, had played for his country 13 times and had just been released by the mighty Paris St Germain.
What Souness didn’t know was that ‘George Weah’ was not the real George Weah and was actually Ali Dia’s friend from the same university he was studying at. What Souness also didn’t know was that Ali Dia was not related to Mr Weah, had never signed for Paris St Germain and had never played for his country. Graeme Souness signed Ali Dia on the strength of one phone call. No checking. No ringing around to see if anyone else had had this remarkable offer. Nothing.
He was, according to Le Tissier, “comical, and didn’t really have a position, he just wandered everywhere”.
Ali Dia was signed on a one month trial contract and began training with the first team immediately. Alarm bells rang straight away with the senior players who had been told that Dia was a new trialist. It became apparent to them that Ali was not what he had made himself out to be. Matt Le Tissier thought at the time that “he’s probably not going to make it” and yet not one of them voiced their concerns to Mr Souness probably because he was a volatile manager. When the team was announced for the game against Leeds United the next day, Ali Dia was named as one of the subs much to the amusement of the rest of the first team squad. Ali took his place on the bench and his big moment came when Le Tissier was substituted after 32 minutes with a thigh strain and Souness called for Ali to replace him. This was it. This was his big chance to shine, his big chance to prove to the world that he could make it as a professional football player.
Ali was substituted after playing for just 55 minutes. He was, according to Le Tissier, “comical, and didn’t really have a position, he just wandered everywhere”. A Southampton fan who witnessed Ali’s cameo appearance said afterwards “I was in shock. I thought that if Ali could get a game then there was hope for us all.”
Amazingly, nothing was said to Ali after the game but I suspect he knew the game was up. After checking in with the physio on the Sunday morning, no-one at the club ever saw Ali again. Southampton ripped up his contract a week or so later. Graeme Souness was left more than a little bit embarrassed especially as the story had now got out to the nation’s and the world’s press. He was a laughing stock. Ali signed for Gateshead soon after and played 8 games for the non-league side, remarkably scoring two goals, before leaving them and football altogether in February 1997.
Ali Dia, through a combination of luck and someone else’s stupidity, had managed to do what every armchair football fan has always wanted to do. To play at the top level of professional football and you can’t take that away from him. Ever.