"It was unbelievable. He ran round the pitch like Bambi on ice, he was so embarrassing to watch Graeme Souness actually had to take him off again after half time: he was that bad.”" - Matt Le Tissier
Touted as one of the greatest managerial blunders of the Premier League era, the signing of Ali Dia in the ‘95/96 season was nothing short of a disaster for Southampton FC. It was even worse news for their manager Graeme Souness, whose authority and job was already under immense pressure from the club.
The story began when Souness (among others including Harry Redknapp and Tony Pulis) received a series of calls from a man claiming to be George Weah - FIFA World Player of the Year in 1995 and often cited as the ‘African Pele’. ‘Weah’ said he had a cousin named Ali Dia, a natural born finisher who was available to play immediately. With Southampton’s squad dwindling due to injury, Weah’s endorsement and the information that Dia was a Senegalese international was all Souness needed to take the gamble and sign him to a one month contract. Hopes for his debut were high.
“I was shocked to receive a call from someone claiming to be George Weah recommending a friend of his. I wouldn’t have thought a man like Weah would have heard of Gillingham, but we gave the lad a trial and he was rubbish.” – Tony Pulis
On the 23rd November 1996, Southampton’s cult hero Matt Le Tissier suffered an injury late in the second half. With few options available to him, Souness called upon Ali Dia, praying that the stories were true. But after being introduced in the 32nd minute against Leeds United, it became immediately obvious they weren’t. Both manager and players alike immediately recognized his ineptitude, describing Dia’s performance as being “an embarrassment to watch”. The infamous Ali Dia didn’t even get an opportunity to see out the rest of his debut: he was replaced in the 85th minute and was forced to face his perplexed teammates in the dugout.
Graeme Souness quickly realized the error of his ways – especially when he was forced to fork over £2000 to the faux footballer. Incredibly, Ali Dia’s antics later earned him a place at non-league side Gateshead, where he managed to become the highest paid player at the club – despite only making eight appearances during his single season there!
“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.” - Graeme Souness
If only Graeme Souness had done his due diligence, it would never have happened. And who knows? Maybe Southampton wouldn’t have come so close to the relegation that forced Souness to resign at the end of the season. Footballing history could have looked very different indeed.