What REALLY happened to Ali Dia? On the trail of the Premier League's worst player
On a bright, cold February morning, FourFourTwo pulls into the housing development that sits squarely on the site of Southampton’s former home, The Dell. There’s no one around as we park in a space facing what used to be the Archers End of the famous old ground.
The four ‘Courts’ of the new development are named after the club’s most popular figures. At one end sits Rod Wallace alongside Mick Channon; in the other, Ted Bates next to Matthew Le Tissier. Possibly the most famous name in the club’s history is missing, though. No matter how hard FFT looks, the name Ali Dia – the player who made his calamitous Premier League cameo not far from where we’ve parked – is conspicuous by its absence.
Istvan Kozma (Liverpool)
Voted the fourth worst player to play in the Premier League (foreign or home-grown) by The Times in 2007, the Hungarian midfielder only played six games for the Reds before being shipped back home. A sign(ing) of things to come
It’s Saturday November 23, 1996, and there are 32 minutes on the clock in Southampton’s home game against Leeds United. Le Tissier signals to the bench, clutching his thigh. As he leaves the field – to a regulation standing ovation from the home support – he's replaced by a man wearing the No.33 shirt on his back, elbows flying about enthusiastically as he sprints onto the pitch. A hobbling Le Tiss is left rubbing his eyes in disbelief.
Seconds later, the substitute almost scores, with only a sprawling Nigel Martyn standing between the debutant and a dream start to his Premier League career. With five minutes of normal time remaining, though, the mysterious replacement is himself replaced as Graeme Souness’s side try in vain to claw back a two-goal deficit.
Few in the ground know it – although one or two in the press box have their suspicions – but what they have just witnessed is about to go down in Premier League history.
“I was very surprised to look up and see him coming on,” a laughing Le Tissier tells FFT. “He 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’.”
Dia would do far more than that, but his 53 minutes of Premier League fame on the south coast only tells half the story.
Nowhere to be found
Our quest to track down the elusive Dia had been long and spectacularly unsuccessful. Decades after he burst onto the Premier League scene, football’s ultimate chancer has apparently disappeared.
“Unfortunately, we are in the same position as you – we don’t have any contact details for him at all,” Natalie Heath, alumni relations manager at Northumbria University, where Dia graduated with a degree in Business Studies in 2001, tells an increasingly exasperated FFT. “Like you, we’ve been unable to track him down over the years, so have no idea where he might be.”
After that exchange with Dia the line went dead, and two days later the mobile phone number was no longer in use
Phone calls to the Senegal Football Association in Dakar and even the Senegal Embassy in London drew similar blanks. A call to the Liberian Embassy (you never know) was similarly fruitless. FFT also contacted two journalists in Dakar but neither had the first idea of who Dia was, let alone where he could be found. None of his former clubs – at least those that he'd actually played for, rather than those he claimed to have been involved with – had any clue where the Premier League’s ultimate mystery man was located.
FFT did manage to get hold of Dia back in 2008, although the conversation was as brief as his brush with footballing fame. It went something like this: “How did you come to play in England?” “It was after a phone call.” “Were you pleased to be at Southampton?” “Yes.” “Are you aware that your brief spell at the club was one of the most bizarre footnotes in Premier League history?” “I doubt that. How?”
After that exchange the line went dead, and two days later the mobile phone number was no longer in use. The trail had gone cold.