Recently I’ve been reading a few footballing autobiographies. Although there’s been some good ones, generally they’re are the sporting equivalent of Mills and Boon romances with their rigid adherence to a formulaic plot; I hated school, but loved football, My dad was stern but supportive and bought my first pair of boots, I was let go by my first club and desperate to prove them wrong, I loved club X until a new manager Y arrived and so on. You can probably fill out a few on a piece of paper, pick half a dozen out of a hat and it’ll resemble most autobiographies out there. As a Southampton fan too autobiographies are few on the ground. Matt Le Tissier has been the only one in recent years, and that is a rather forgettable effort. All this got me to thinking about autobiographies I’d like to read, ones with the potential to be truly interesting. I narrowed it down to four. In reverse order they are….
4.) Francis Benali
Fully deserving of his cult status. Holley and Chalk’s (1992) The Alphabet of the Saints says of a young Benali:
Naturally aggressive and a stern tackler, his area of weakness is going forward and this fault has at times earned him the wrath of the crowd. Franny is, however, nothing if not a battler and his commitment to the club’s welfare cannot be doubted. With a little more thought and concentration he could yet become a permanent fixture in the side.
Franny would go on to make 311 appearances in a long career at Saints. His tally of one league goal though suggests that his effectiveness going forward never really did improve, at least in-front of goal. His other qualities though would more than make up for any deficit. On the field Franny was a shining example of passion and hard-work and while is said that it was Le Tissier’s sheer skill which kept Saints in the Premier League Franny’s heart played no small role. Off the field Franny always appeared eager to be involved with charity and community work and an autobiography could do much to educate the next generation in how a professional footballer should conduct themselves. Perhaps Franny is too nice to join in with the standard autobiography fayre of slating former managers and colleagues, but there’s plenty of things to be of interest; not least the curries (Franny had, or did, have an interest in Kuti’s Brasserie one of the best Indian restaurants in the area), but also how Franny felt finally getting that league goal against Leicester, for which I am proud to say I bore witness too.
3.) Claus Lundekvam
Claus undoubtedly has a story to tell. Signed in 1996 by Souness from Brann Bergen the defender would go on to be a key presence in the side and would be awarded the captaincy in his 12 year spell at the club. An assured cool on the pitch, always unruffled in possession, however masked what were, particularly at the tail end of his career, some serious personal issues which included issues with drink and drugs. After his retirement Claus would also make some hugely sensational claims about betting fraud in 2012 when he told the Norwegian TV station NRK: “It’s not something I’m proud of. For a while we did this almost every week. We made a fair bit of money. We could make deals with the opposing captain about, for example, betting on the first throw, the first corner, who started with the ball, a yellow card or a penalty. Those were the sorts of thing we had influence over.”Although causing a brief stir in the press and sparking the promise of an investigation by FIFA, it seems that the revelations have been successfully played down. Claus’s former colleagues being at pains to deny any knowledge, while pointing out Claus’s well known personal problems. Thankfully Claus appears to have got his life back on track, becoming a TV pundit in his Native Norway whilst living a normal domestic existence in a house by the sea with his wife, two children and a dog. Would an autobiography lift the lid on the darkest recesses of modern football, or simply reveal the alienation experienced by the player at the tail end of a career and his fight to recover a normal family life?
2) Nicola Cortese
Ian Ridley’s book Floodlit Dreams about his brief tenure as Weymouth Chairman is a real eye-opener in terms of how what goes on off the field can be more exciting and more important than what goes on on it. Almost all football clubs are the stage for battling egos and intrigue on a Game of Thrones scale. In terms of autobiographies though it’s very rare to hear from the protagonists. Of those various boardroom players at Southampton; Askham, Crouch, Wilde, Lowe and Cortese it is perhaps the latter pair whose books would provide the most interest. Lowe is still in some quarters a much maligned character who ran the club into the ground whilst making a series of disastrous managerial appointments, but others point to the stadium and youth development programme, both his legacy. A Lowe autobiography could be a chance to tell his side of the story. More sensational though would be Cortese’s story. The Swiss Italian banker who convinced the ageing industrialist to rescue the club at the 11th hour.
Cortese though would be accused running the club with a ruthlessness which made it seem as if he’d swallowed a copy of Machiavelli’s the Prince, making a hatful of enemies whether it was alienating press photographers, banning the local rag, or remodelling Franny Benali’s property with a sledgehammer. As Machiavelli said however, It is better to be feared than loved and the success Cortese delivered was enough for the fans. Just as if it looked like the ‘Don’ was at the peak of his powers, delivering Saints best campaign of recent memory and outlining his vision for the future, he was deposed by his superiors the hitherto in the shadows Liebherr family. Definitely a story worth reading.
1.) Ali Dia
He may have only played one game for Saints, but his is perhaps the most remarkable story of all. It began when Southampton manager Graeme Souness received a call from a person purporting to be George Weah, then World Footballer of the year recommending his cousin, a Senegalese international named Ali Dia. Invited for a trial, Dia failed to impress his prospective colleagues in a 5-a-side game, but nevertheless found himself named on the bench for a premier league game against Leeds Utd. Even more improbably after an injury to Matt Le Tissier. Dia found himself on the pitch. He was though a fake. It hadn’t been George Weah on the phone, but someone else, a friend, agent, or perhaps Dia himself – to this day no one knows. Dia was no international, or even a professional footballer. He had somehow blagged his way to appear in the Premier League, in the process becoming a hero to every fan who has ever dreamt of crossing over into that mystical green realm.
The best lies however, have a grain of truth, no matter how small. Ali Dia was, born in Senegal and he was indeed a footballer. His career – had, since seen him undertake a meandering a tour around Europe’s amateur footballing scene with spells in France, Germany and – according to Wikipedia – Finland taking in clubs such as: Avignon, St Quentin and Vfb Lubeck, before ending up in England with Bishop Auckland.
Despite putting in what is unsurprisingly viewed as a sub par performance in the Premier League – which saw him subsequently substituted himself – Dia did manage to get a shot in on goal leading to the crowd briefly chanting his name. Immediately after leaving Southampton Dia was signed by Conference side Gateshead – whose chairman John Gibson, would remark on Dia’s astounding pace. Dia scored on his debut and went on to play eight games, notching up another goal in the process however would once again be subbed after getting off the bench. Finally this was followed by a short spell at Blyth Spartans.
Outside of football Dia undertook a degree in Business Administration at Northumbria University, graduating in 2001. It is here that the trail goes cold; Defying attempts by various reporters and other interested parties to track him down Dia has effectively disappeared – an impressive feat in today’s social media age. This sense of mystery only makes his story more intriguing and it’s tempting to think that Dia is now a middle-manager at a respectable insurance firm, at pains to keep a lid on his moment of infamy.
Apart from the audacity of the tale and the mystery of Dia’s whereabouts now Dia’s story is of interest as it links in to wider narratives of population movement, globalisation and the development of football. Dia’s migration from Senegal and wanderings around Europe would coincide with the emergence of the Premier league and the Bosman Ruling. Dia may have been an extreme example, but as clubs began recruiting players from further afield it would seem that in general clubs and fans alike asked few questions and took claims at face value; Around the same time, for instance, newly promoted premiership side Barnsley would part with £250 000 for Lars Leese, a German goalkeeper, the club had been led to believe was 2nd choice at Bayer Leverkeusen (in fact he was 3rd choice) and whose playing experience mainly took in amateur football. Most importantly though no one at the club had seen Leese actually play.
No mistake, Dia’s has the potential to be a truly fascinating autobiography. Leaving Senegal and journeying around Europe chasing his dream just what were Dia’s feelings, his successes and disappointments? How much did he know about the infamous phone call? I’d also love to know what Dia’s feelings were as he stepped onto the pitch and then as he heard the crowd chanting his name; was it a really the kind of moment every fan dreams of, or was it a sad reminder of the success which had proved so elusive in his long and transient journey?