As a fan of Southampton the Premier League era got off to a painfully slow start. Stuck in a ground with a capacity of barely more than 15,000 we lacked not only the financial clout, but also, it seemed, the prestige of many of our peers. The greatest hope we had then was merely to keep a seat at the top table, all the while casting envious glances at the visiting sides with their exciting foreign stars such as Cantona, Ginola, Bergkamp and Gullit.
Often too even the modest aim of survival seemed perilously close run, not least in the 1995-96 season when we were fortunate to avoid relegation only on goal difference – survival being secured by a 0-0 draw against Wimbledon. Were it not for the occasional moment of Le Tissier magic things would have been bleak indeed.
It is hard therefore to overstate the impact the managerial appointment of Graeme Souness, ahead of the 1996-97 season, had on the mood of the fans at the club. Fresh from adventure – and controversy – with Turkish giants Galatasary the appointment of Souey, then still a ‘big name’ manager, hinted strongly at a hitherto missing sense of ambition.
For his part the moustachioed one wasted little time in making promises to bring in crowd-pleasing players from across Europe. Such a proclamation was also undoubtedly music to the ears of the local press too who after a very lean year were free to churn out endless stories around potential new targets, trialists and new signings.
Amongst the splurge of newsprint though was one particularly curious tale, which stood out even then. The basic details have been told so many times in the past two decades as to hardly need repetition, but it started with reports of a telephone call Souness received from AC Milan star and World Footballer of the year George Weah. In this now infamous call Weah – or as we would later find out someone impersonating Weah – personally recommend his cousin Ali Dia, a Senegalese international, who’s CV apparently included a stint alongside Weah at Paris St. Germain.
Souness’s interest suitably piqued he agreed to take a closer look and so it was Ali Dia arrived at the club. The arrival of a triallist – even one with a supposed international pedigree – was at the time relatively unremarkable, but the fact that a world-football star like Weah had even heard of Southampton – hardly a fashionable club – was enough flattery in itself to ensure the presence of local TV crews at the clubs Staplewood training ground.
For us fans this only added to the feeling we had at the time that we were at long last joining the mainstream of the Premier League. In reality though the squad was so threadbare that Souness’s barely had enough fit players to field a team. This, along with a postponed game for the reserves he had been due to figure in, meant that Dia found himself on the bench for a Premier League game against Leeds. An injury to star-player Matt Le Tissier then saw Dia take the final step onto the field. Although untested at Premier league level having purportedly scored twice for Senegal in a recent international expectation was nevertheless high. Almost immediately it seemed well founded. My seat in the Dell’s Milton Road end providing me the perfect vantage point when as the freshly-introduced Dia tested the keeper with a powerful low shot towards the near post.
From some standpoints this was the waste of a golden opportunity, but the crowd, myself among them, seemed happy enough with the effort at the time to be chanting Dia’s name. This brief moment of adulation was though as good as it got for Dia who failed to make any further mark on the game. His Premiership career ignominiously halted just short of the final whistle when he was himself substituted off for defender Ken Monkou.
In fairness to Dia, the Saints performance that day was hardly a vintage, but the question increasingly being asked was what had the world’s best player seen that we’d missed?
A few days after the Leeds game Dia made another appearance in the red and white, coming on as a substitute for the reserves in a game against Chelsea in which the Saints lost 2-0 on Wednesday the 27th. There is little record of Dia’s performance on that occasion, but despite the clubs programme for the next home game against Aston Villa on the 7th December boasting Dia’s arrival at the club brought the number of full-internationals at the club to 12 it seems clear that Dia’s saints career was at an end.
Meanwhile scrutiny of Dia’s back-story, particularly around his link to Weah, was growing and the Sunday Mirror duly provided an expose on the 15th of December which revealed that all was not what it seemed. By this time Dia had returned to the North East (immediately before joining Saints Dia had made one appearance for Blyth Spartans) where he turned out for Gateshead the day before the Mirror’s story broke, getting on the scoresheet in a 5-0 win over Bath City.
Dia’s career would however never really take off and after graduating with a degree in Business in 2001, he appears to have quietly slipped away. Over the intervening two decades the story of Ali (or Aly – according to more recent reports) Dia has attained legendary status. In part this has been because Dia, in an increasingly social media saturated world, has enigmatically kept a remarkably low-profile – though more recently attempts to track down Dia appear to have made some headway.
The story is compelling for another reason too; Whatever his own personal motivations, or circumstances Dia lived out every fans dream of getting onto the pitch. It was a dream I understood well, particularly as the Dell was one of those old-style grounds which provided you with a seat so close to the action. So close, in fact, that it didn’t seem such a leap to imagine being on the pitch yourself. It seemed crazy, but I’d often wonder if I could somehow score a crucial goal just by being in the right place at the right time? Was it possible? Aly Dia very nearly did.