If you’re the manager of a Premier League club and your secretary wants to put a call through to you from “George Weah” odds are you’re at least going to take the call. When, to many, it quickly becomes clear that there’s doubt whether it is the estimable Mr Weah – three-time African Football of the Year, star of PSG, AC Milan and Chelsea – and you realise that the man on the other end of the line is asking you to sign ‘his cousin’ for your club, it may be time to hang up the ‘phone.
According to an article in The Guardian, in late 1996, that’s exactly what West Ham manager Harry Redknapp did, recalling that he thought it was a “wind up.” The ‘cousin’ got through the door at Port Vale, but club secretary Bill Lodey was unimpressed. “He was recommended to us by someone very important (someone claiming to be George Weah, one wonders?) and he played one reserve game against Middlesbrough. To be honest he didn’t impress, and we last heard of him at Rotherham.” Tony Pulis at Gillingham had a similar experience after hearing from ‘George.’ “We gave the lad a trial and he was rubbish.”
When the call went in to Saints manager Graeme Souness though, it was jackpot time. Apparently based on that call, or so the story goes, Souness offered the player a one-month contract, and that’s how Ali Dia, apparently a Senegalese amateur player who had been plying his trade with Blyth Spartans, hit the Premier League. Whether it was the player himself making the calls and passing himself off as George Weah, or his agent adopting the persona of the great man is unclear. What appears to be clear though is that Souness was taken in. That same Guardian article quotes the erstwhile Southampton manager as saying, “He’s played with George Weah at Paris Saint-Germain, and last year he was playing in the second division in Germany. We’ve said, come down and train with us for a week or so and see what’s what … When someone like that gives you a recommendation you tend to sit up and take notice.” You should indeed, but only if it actually is George Weah!
That to one side however, Ali Dia arrived at Southampton and Matt Le Tissier immediately thought that there was something not quite right. In an interview with FourFourTwo, he remembered that Dia, “…had trained with us the day before and we thought he had won an auction prize, he was that bad. We turned up on the Saturday and he was sat in the changing rooms. We all thought, ‘That’s nice: he’s getting to watch the game too’.” But Ali Dia was going to do more than that.
Souness was experiencing something of an injury crisis with Southampton at the time, and buying replacements was pretty well precluded by the club’s finances, so he felt compelled to put the new man on the bench for a Premier League fixture at home to Leeds United, perhaps never thinking that he would be called upon. If it wasn’t for an injury to Le Tissier just half-an-hour into the game, perhaps the somewhat less than elaborate ruse to get into a Premier League squad would have been rumbled, but sadly for the beleaguered Southampton manager, things didn’t turn out that way.
With Le Tissier waving to the bench that thigh injury would prelude him carrying on, Souness decided to gamble and played his card, not knowing he had selected the Joker in the pack. On went Ali Dia in place of a bemused Le Tissier, who said “I was very surprised to look up and see him coming on.” Nevertheless, there on the pitch, in a Premier League game was Ali Dia, late of Blyth Spartans and any number of failed trials and rejected telephone enquiries. To quote Le Tissier again, the overall impression was that “he wasn’t very good.” And yet, the story could have turned out quite differently. Not long after going on, a passage of play resulted in Eyal Berkovic playing the ball to the new man cutting into the box from the right. Hitting his efforton target, Leeds goalkeeper Nigel Martyn seemed to struggle with the shot and could only parry it out in front of him towards the Saints Norwegian striker Egil Østenstad. Tuck the rebound away and Ali Dia’s career has kicked off with an assist at least. The Norwegian’s pivot and shot however flew wide.
It was an all too brief fleeting opportunity to camouflage a reality that would become increasingly clear as time went on. Ali Dia was not a Premier League player. Not by a long way. “He ran around the pitch like Bambi on ice,” Le Tissier said. “It was very, very embarrassing to watch. We were like: ‘What’s this geezer doing? He’s hopeless.’” Souness persisted until five minutes from the end of the game when he removed the hapless Dia in a forlorn attempt to turn around a two-goal deficit.
In what was a sombre dressing-room after the defeat, not much was said, but by the following Monday Ali Dia had gone, and as time passed, to Souness’s inevitable chagrin, the story came out. He would tell The Guardian that the reality was like a “kick in the bollocks” but with so few options, he felt compelled to give him a try. “I sent him on today having never seen him play Premiership football,” the Scot confessed. “But I do not have any strikers. Am I enjoying this? Do you enjoy a kick in the bollocks? It just goes to show the state of things at the club at the moment that a player I have never even seen, let alone watched playing in a game, was able to play in the Premiership.”
To be fair to Souness, not only does he have a point, there were also a few others who were nowhere as quick as Le Tissier in sensing something was wrong. In December, The Guardian apparently said that Dia “…has played 13 matches for Senegal and scored five goals.” In reality, he hadn’t done either of those things. I’ve even seen it said that The Independent were apparently so impressed that they were marking readers’ cards as him being someone to watch out for. “Watch out for… Ali Dia (Southampton). At 30 years old, the out-of-contract former Bologna striker – the first-half substitute for Matt Le Tissier on Saturday – may have much of his career behind him, but his arrival at The Dell comes on the personal recommendation of George Weah, a former team-mate at Paris St-Germain.” Oh yes, and George Weah said he’s never heard of Ali Dia.
So, if you’re involved with any football club and especially in player recruitment, beware. If you get a call from Diego Maradona, Pelé or Bobby Charlton, asking you to take one of his relations on a trial with your club, perhaps the thoughts of Harry Redknapp, rather than those of Graeme Souness might be a better track to follow. Although, you just never know…
(This article was originally produced for the ‘Pundit Feed’ website).