This week’s Summertime Madness looks at the incredible story of how Ali Dia lied his way to Premier League football with Southampton, and ultimately ended up at Gateshead.
Ah yes, those two famous words in English football, Ali Dia. The name is synonymous with one of the biggest scams in recent Premiership history and is perhaps one of the funniest stories of mistaken identity in football.
Dia’s legend was made at Southampton and has been told ad nauseam but little is written about Dia’s move from Southampton to Gateshead, a move equally as strange as his time with the Saints. Gateshead signed Dia even after the footballing community exposed him as a conman. Surely this is stranger than Souness signing him for Southampton?
Since the story of how Ali Dia ended up at Southampton has been done to death, we’ll instead examine how Dia ended up at Gateshead, a tale far more revealing about the inner workings of football than Dia’s brief time with the Saints.
For those unaware, Ali Dia is a former Senegalese footballer who garnered great attention in England during the 1996/1997 Premiership season for conning his way into the Southampton football team and yes conning is indeed the right term. It all began when Southampton manager Graeme Souness received a phone call, allegedly from World Footballer of the Year, George Weah, informing him of his cousin, a Senegalese international who played for PSG, Ali Dia.
Dia was supposedly on the lookout for a new club, wanted to play in England and best of all, he was available on a free transfer. Souness was asked if he was interested in Dia and why wouldn’t he be? Dia sounded too good to be true and was receiving an endorsement from a footballing legend.
Southampton promptly snapped Dia up on a one-month contract. Southampton fans were ecstatic. It seemed to everyone inside and outside Southampton that the Saints had signed an unknown foreign gem. How foolish right? Well not exactly. We must remember that this was in the days before YouTube; therefore word of mouth carried with it an enormous weight.
Souness had placed a high value on the information supposedly given to him by Weah. He was explicit about this. TV interviews with Souness at the time saw the Scotsman gushing over Weah’s cousin. It all seemed to good to be true. Southampton had signed a potential footballing superstar. This was of course a complete fabrication but truth rarely matters in footballing transfers.
Unfortunately for Dia, he was soon found out and in a major way. Dia was scheduled to play in a reserve game for Southampton against Arsenal but this was cancelled due to poor weather conditions. Instead Dia’s first involvement with Southampton was a place on the bench in a Premier League match against Leeds United. It was the big time.
32 minutes into the match against Leeds Dia was subbed on. Saints fans silently scrutinized their new signing. This silent scrutiny soon turned into audible shock. Dia was not up to standard, any standard. 53 minutes into the match Dia was subbed off. 22 minutes of footballing ‘glory’ in England’s highest league in which Dia had shown himself completely out of his depth.
Southampton legend Matt Le Tissier later said of Dia’s début:
“He ran around the pitch like Bambi on ice; it was very embarrassing to watch.”
Dia was out of his depth. Southampton fans and more importantly, British newspapers soon began investigating his backstory. Where had Southampton found this player and why had George Weah spoken so highly of him? The truth emerged quickly and in a devastating manner.
George Weah was interviewed and responded emphatically that not only did he not call Souness but also that he had no idea who Ali Dia was. Not only was Dia not George Weah’s cousin, the papers soon discovered that he was in fact a lower-league player. He had only played in the French and German lower leagues and was far from the PSG player Souness had believed him to be. In England he had only played non-league football.
Souness had been conned. Southampton had been conned. The whole transfer had been based on a lie, and a large lie at that. Dia became a cult story, his name synonymous with pulling off one of the most daring scams in Premier League history. His legacy continues to this day. Saints fans still sing, “Ali Dia is a Liar, is a Liar”.
Dia left Southampton soon afterwards and seemingly faded into obscurity. Newspapers eventually stopped writing about this strange transfer and Dia’s name only emerged in Pub Talk about the worst ever signing in Premiership history. Life moved on, but crucially so did Dia’s career.
Two weeks after his Southampton debut, the club released Dia from his contract. He once more became a free agent but this time interest in him was unsurprisingly low. Who would dare sign a conman of limited ability? Within a month Dia had found employment at Gateshead. Incredible.
What would lead a club to sign a con man?
The answer appears to stem down to agents in football, specifically the links between agents and football clubs. Gateshead’s chairman John Gibson was a friend of Dia’s agent, Peter Harrison, a Geordie who had once played central defence alongside Philippe Albert in Belgium. Gateshead were in desperate need of footballers and Gibson contacted his old friend Peter about any available players that Harrison was representing.
Having seen Dia flounder at Southampton, Harrison had been frantically trying to find Dia a home in England’s lower leagues. Gibson’s call had come at the right moment. Dia had been scheduled to go on trial with Carlisle United but Harrison promptly brought Dia to Gateshead instead. Could Harrison convince Gibson to sign Dia? Dia would be a hard sell for any agent.
Harrison admitted to Gibson that while Dia may have been out of his depth at Southampton and had indeed conned the footballing world, that he was still a good player who could put in a shift for non-league Gateshead. Anyone who has read John Gibson’s newspaper columns will know he has a shrewd footballing mind but it seems that he was soon won over by Harrison’s charm.
Convincing a Chairman to sign Ali Dia is surely the footballing equivalent of selling ice to an Eskimo. Did Gateshead really need players that badly? Surely there was a better option available?
Regardless of such questions, Gibson was interested in Dia. So strong in fact was Gibson’s faith in Dia, that Gibson convinced his Board of Directors and Gateshead’s manager, Colin Richardson that Dia was worth taking a gamble on. Dia was soon signed up on a match-to-match contract as a precaution. He had conned one manager and Richardson certainly didn’t want history to repeat itself.
In the space of two months Dia had gone from Southampton to Gateshead. For many this would have been a fall from grace, but considering how Dia conned his way into Southampton, it is incredible any other club would touch him afterwards. Yet Gateshead needed players, and Harrison had promised Gibson that Dia was the perfect solution to Gateshead’s woes. Gibson had signed a con man. Recalling his thinking at the time, the Gateshead chairman later explained:
“Gateshead weren’t Southampton. They didn’t play in the Premier League but the Football Conference, which was a very different standard of course.”
Dia admittedly was not devoid of footballing ability; he was fast, very fast and did have some footballing experience, infamously in the Premier League. So Dia somehow became a player at Gateshead. The footballing world took little interest this time. This was a shame for Dia because for a brief moment it appeared that he had found his level in football
Dia kicked off his post-Southampton career by scoring on his début against Bath City. Not a bad start and a great way of quickly gaining the fan’s attention. Gateshead supporters had been justifiably wary of the signing of Dia but were soon thinking that he was up to scratch.
Why wouldn’t they be? Soon after opening his account for Gateshead, Dia had scored again. Things appeared to be looking up for Dia. Eight appearances into his Gateshead career and it seemed that Dia was more than just a conman. He was also a footballer. Sure it wasn’t the glittering lights of the Premier League but for a player who had previously struggled to find work, it was a significant step up. His agent Harrison had seemingly done Gateshead a massive favour in bringing Dia to the club.
As is so often the case in football, fortunes soon changed. A change in managers at Gateshead signalled the end of Dia’s time at the club. Jim Platt, the former Middlesbrough and Northern Ireland goalkeeper, replaced Colin Richardson at the helm. Platt was less enthused with Dia as Richardson had been and soon began squeezing Dia out of the club.
Dia’s first match under Platt saw Dia subbed onto the field and quickly subbed back off again, a repeat of Dia’s brief Southampton debut. Days later Dia was released from Gateshead. He spent a brief time at Blyth Spartans but soon retired from football.
His agent Peter Harrison had done as much from Dia’s career as he could. Dia moved on just as football has moved on since Dia. Dia’s days in football are over and his post football career is still in its infancy. In 2001, Dia received an undergraduate degree in Business from Northumbria University in the UK. Little is known of his whereabouts since.
Like so many tales from the footballing world, Dia’s star burned bright and burned fast. He may be remembered for conning the footballing world at Southampton but his time at Gateshead does remind us that he was just a footballer looking for work.
His time at Gateshead reveals two things about football; agents matter and football is a cruel game. Dia’s time at Gateshead had started promisingly but a change in managers saw Dia leave the game indefinitely. Yes people may snigger about Dia’s comeuppance and job security in football’s lower leagues was and is an issue.
Dia’s move to Southampton has been the focus of much, much attention but his time at Gateshead is surely as interesting. Dia was signed by Gateshead despite the evidence that he was a con man of very limited ability. Frank Sinatra once said:
“If I can make it here, I can make it anywhere.”
The same seems to apply to football, and that’s what makes it impossible to look away from the transfer market.
Conor Heffernan, Pundit Arena.