Wednesday, May 20, 2015
The name Ali Dia doesn’t ring a bell for many of you out there, but for those who watched Premier League football back in the 1990’s, it is a name that is mainly remembered as one that’ll go down in the league’s folklore.
Ali Dia is famous in the Premier League for being the greatest conman in the history of the game and his name is one Graeme Souness would dearly love to forget.
It was November 1996, when Southampton’s manager at the time, Graeme Souness, received a phone call from someone claiming to be George Weah (one of the greatest African footballers of all-time and World Footballer of the Year at the time) recommending his cousin, a certain "player" called Ali Dia to Southampton Football Club.
This person on the other end of the phone (who obviously wasn’t George Weah) told Souness that Dia had played for Paris Saint-Germain, was currently at a German 2nd division club and had been capped by Senegal 13 times.
Souness was told that he should consider giving him a trial at the club. Unfortunately for Souness and Southampton, the phone call was a fake. The phone call to Souness was made by a fellow university student of Dia's at Portsmouth. Dia had never played for Senegal or PSG and his cousin was most certainly not George Weah. In fact Dia’s footballing career was no better than the average Sunday league player - he’d turned out for a few unheard of French teams, before unsuccessfully trialing at a number of lower English league clubs. He did however make one appearance for Blyth Spartans of the Northern Premier League.
Putting things into perspective a little bit, there was no internet at the time or anything high-tech that could possibly have allowed Souness (right) to know whether or not this was true (though the fact that Weah is from Liberia and Dia is from Senegal should have been a good clue).
The Southampton manager took the risk and was convinced by the phone call. After all, the scouts at the Dell didn’t want to lose out on a prodigious talent to their rivals - indeed only Matt Le Tissier came anywhere near the word ‘talent’ in a Southampton shirt at that time. To hoard off any interest from other clubs, the Saints offered Dia a one-month contract with the club to prove his worth in the Premier League.
Saints legend Le Tissier had gone on record to say that Dia trained once with the first-team squad, showing as much skill in a five-a-side game as a man with his feet tied together. Not one member of the Southampton team thought Dia would ever be involved in a match day squad.
Dia was given the nod to play a reserve game the week he joined, but due to poor weather conditions the game was postponed. So when Southampton faced Leeds at The Dell the following day imagine their surprise when Souness named his new Senegalese superstar on the substitutes bench for the crunch match with Leeds United on 23rd November 1996.
After Le Tissier pulled a thigh muscle during the game, the number 33 went up on the fourth official’s board, signalling that Dia (right) would be introduced for his debut in front of 15,241 football fans.
He came on as a substitute after 32 minutes, but his debut was so poor that he was later substituted himself (for Ken Monkou) in the 85th minute, as Southampton lost 2-0, and the most ambiguous of Premier League matches went down in the game’s folklore.
In the words of Le Tissier:
"His performance was almost comical. He kind of took my place, but he didn’t really have a position. He was just wondering everywhere. I don’t think he realised what position he was supposed to be in. I don’t even know if he spoke English – I don’t think I ever said a word to him. In the end he got himself subbed because he was that bad."
Peter Harrison, who managed Dia while he was with Blyth Spartans, even spoke of his shock when he saw his former striker playing against Leeds: "Next thing I knew I was watching him on ‘Match of the Day,’ playing for Southampton, which was pretty unbelievable at the time."
The following day Dia went to the physio with an ‘injury’ and then never showed up again. He went on to play for non-league side Gateshead, but then vanished again. His whereabouts are unknown today, but his name is still sung by Southampton fans to remember his story: “Ali Dia, is a liar, is a liar.”
Most people in football probably think what Dia did was a bad thing. The most notorious player ever and number one on several lists of the most woeful transfers in history.
But I tell you now that Ali Dia is a legend!
Most of us untalented footballers will never play for a Premier League side, or even get close. Ali Dia managed it with a massive amount of luck, but with balls and with persistence, and with the help of a friend. Ali Dia is the fan in the crowd supporting his beloved team who is suddenly called upon by his manager to get stripped, warm up and and get ready to take the field and play.
Dreams are made of what Ali Dia built.
His ’fifteen minutes of fame' actually lasted 53 minutes, but he can tell his kids that he played for a top, top side. He can pretend that he was that good. Hell, he could tell them the truth, and say he pulled the greatest hoax in history, and it would still be amazing!
If this were a movie, of course, the audacious young hero would have scored the winning goal. It may not have been a movie.........but it is very much a true story!
Southampton starting line-up that day:
Goalkeeper: Chris Woods
Defender: Jason Dodd
Defender: Ulrich Van Gobbel
Defender: Richard Dryden
Defender: Claus Lundekvam
Defender/Midfielder: Graham Potter
Midfielder: Eyal Berkovic
Midfielder: Matt Oakley
Midfielder: Jim Magilton
Midfielder/Forward: Matt Le Tissier
Forward: Egil Ostenstad
Aly Dia for Matt Le Tissier on 32 mins
Robbie Slater for Matt Oakley on 72 mins
Ken Monkou for Aly Dia on 85 mins