Let me take you back to the Summer of 1996. It was a different time. Robson & Jerome were stunning us on a regular basis with their reworked classics and we were still the best part of a year away from Tony Blair and Cool Britannia taking the country and turning it on its head. It wasn’t all grim though, England had just put in a credible performance at a major tournament on home soil and were a Gazza boot lace away from a major final. There was an air of optimism, especially for this Isle of Wight student about to embark on a miserable (self-inflicted through lack of effort) A-Level campaign.
That last statement was somewhat of a contradiction I admit, but let’s be clear, my A-Levels were the least of my priorities and I was happy. The 90’s was a fantastic decade. From a musical, political and sporting point of view. Education? Who needs it?
At this time I was a season ticket holder in the lower East stand at the Dell. Saints had been on a turbulent run of late, only finishing above 14th once in the decade so far. Often surviving by the skin of their teeth, it was never dull at the South Coast’s premier club and despite the lowly league positions, there was an air of contentment far removed from the heightened expectancy you will experience at St. Mary’s today.
We all like to dream though right?
The club had not long been taken over by a new regime, headed by Chairman Rupert Lowe. Dave Merrington had been replaced by Graeme Souness as manager and what followed was a plethora of exotic foreign signings. On the surface this was a new ambitious direction for Southampton Football Club and optimism levels were at an early 80’s high.
In what seemed like an overnight transformation, our primarily English squad had been revamped to include the likes of Claus Lundekvam, Egil Ostenstad, Eyal Berkovic and Ulrich van Gobbel. For all intents and purposes we had the right to be excited. We now had a manager with international pedigree as both a player and a manager, who had the pull to attract a better standard of player from around the globe. His famed no nonsense approach that he carries into his punditry to this day would surely see him convert a team of also rans into a top half contender.
We had a dreadful start. Two points from the opening seven league games to be precise. Something wasn’t right but then it clicked. A run of home games which culminated in the famous 6-3 victory over Manchester United (we lost 1-7 at Everton two games later, but this is, understandably, much less celebrated) saw us pull nine points out of nine and score 13 goals in the process. The new team was gelling and had found it’s scoring touch.
An outsider looking in may have pointed out that we didn’t really need anymore forwards. Gordon Watson, Neil Shipperley, Egil Ostenstad and of course Matt Le Tissier had all contributed in terms of goals. Enter Ali Dia.
I remember the conversation I had with my fellow fans at school reasonably well.
‘Chris, Saints have signed Ali Dia’.
(Excitement level growing) ‘Ali Daei, the Iranian international who gets bags of goals?’
‘No. Ali Dia.’
(Slightly puzzled) ‘Mohamed Al-Deayea? The Saudi Arabian goalkeeper?’
‘No Ali Dia’
‘George Weah’s Cousin apparently.’
Now let’s begin this tragi-comedy with a little bit of a reprieve for Souness. He is only human, and my friends and I were impressed by the potential of a man none of us had ever heard of and his superb genetics, so why shouldn’t Graeme be?
What follows though must leave him colder than a highlands breeze drifting up his kilt (for poetic license I think we can all safely assume that Souness is a ‘proper’ Scotsman).
It’s a cold November morning. Souness is still wearing 80’s style shorts as he sits in his portacabin office at Staplewood. He is in a reflective mood. After a brief upturn in form Saints have just been thumped 1-7 at Goodison Park. ‘Come on Graeme. You can do this. You’re a Tiger. Grrrr.’ he says to himself as he prepares to take to the training pitch and lift his troops after such a sound beating.
The phone rings. Souness answers and slowly as the conversation grows the push broom on his top lip curls as the smile takes over his face. He hangs up, punches the air and skips out on to the training field.
I think most people know what was discussed in that phone call, but for clarity somebody with a French accent claimed to be the agent of a footballer called Ali Dia who just happened to be the cousin of 1995 Balon d’Or winner George Weah or Weah himself, that isn’t entirely clear. Souness was sold either way and the player was on his way to Hampshire.
We have to assume, that despite the fact, that at this time Saints were an established Premier League club, one of two things happened. Either, Souness’ weight of personality is so great that nobody dared to question his judgement or nobody checked.
Nobody did the due diligence. I think my first question would have been how a French Senegalese man is the cousin of a Liberian man. Not impossible of course, but an alarm bell straight away. Then I might have asked one of my many contacts (I’m Graeme Souness) to speak to Weah himself and see what he thinks about his cousin. Or maybe, even dial 1471?
None of this happened, and within days Ali Dia was training with the club. In a recent interview Le Tissier was asked (the gospel according to Le God) what Dia had been like in the one session he was part of ‘He wasn’t very good, he wasn’t going to make it’. Now this is where our earlier reprieve for Souness expires. Once he has seen the guy training he only has himself to blame.
Souness signed him, and after just that one training session named him as a substitute for a Premier League Home fixture with Leeds United.
At this point you have to admire Dia. I would have thought that when Souness announced the squad for that game even he must have been shocked. Blagging your way into a trial at a Premier League Club is one thing, securing a contract another. Being named in the first team squad? Unbelievable.
Surely he wouldn’t get on the pitch?
While his fellow Saints teammates may have been bemused at his inclusion, us fans were not. We hadn’t seen him train, we were oblivious to anything being amiss and the internet was not the mine of information it is now so we had no way of clarifying who are new striker was. We were excited to see him play.
This is George Weah’s Cousin. And he is a Southampton player And we got him for free. The rest of the Premier League is going to have egg on its face when they see him in action.
And they didn’t have to wait long.
After 20 minutes of the game with Leeds, disaster struck. Our long serving talisman was injured. You never want to see that as a fan, but this could be the ideal opportunity for Dia to burst from the shadow of his successful cousin and make his own claim for stardom.
The Southampton bench was a hive of activity, the linesman held up the numbers 7 & 33. Le Tissier off. Ali Dia on.
Initially he impressed. He almost (and should have) scored, drilling a shot wide of the Leeds goal. It went downhill from there.
I watched on trying to assess what qualities he had in parallel with Weah. It wasn’t finishing, not positional sense, nor touch. He hasn’t even got a moustache. Dia’s con was unravelling fast.
It makes you wonder what it is he thought he could achieve in his own mind and at what point once he was on the pitch he could see that he had deluded himself. He wasn’t only a poor footballer for Premier League level, he was a poor footballer full stop. Le Tiss described his performance as ‘Bambi on Ice’, he was withdrawn after 53 minutes on the pitch and replaced by Ken Monkou. By Monday morning he was gone and never to be seen again. Eventually turning out for non-league Blyth Spartans who were also less than impressed.
The fall out is difficult to assess. At the time it was of course highly embarrassing as a Saints fan, but it must have been worse for Souness. Subsequently managers of other clubs revealed that they had had the same phone call. Dia was obviously a decent raconteur, he had secured trials at both Port Vale and Gillingham before his brief stint with Saints, both had rejected him as soon as they saw him play though.
Over the years for Saints fans, what originated as embarrassment tuned into self deprecation and cult status. Many people over the years have tried to locate the elusive Dia without luck and now there is almost a sense of admiration of the man. After all, how many of us dreamed of turning out for a Premier League club? He did it. For 53 minutes.
What followed was more turbulence for Southampton Football Club, I only passed one of my A-Levels but football, music and politics changed forever.
This story is proof that fact is often far less believable than fiction. A man phoned a Premier League Football Club, convinced them he was someone he wasn’t, got a trial, got a contract and made it on to the pitch.
If this story wasn’t fantastic enough in its lack of probability, Ali Dia, the worst player in Southampton history replaced Matthew Le Tissier, the best player in Southampton history. You couldn’t make it up.
That is the story of George Weah’s Cousin.
by Chris Rann
You can follow Chris’ work on his aptly named blog http://georgeweahscousin.com/