The forgotten day when Ali Dia played for Pompey

Neil Sillett's former column in the Sports Mail
Neil Sillett's former column in the Sports Mail
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Through disintegrating memories, fragmenting under time’s ceaseless onslaught, the moment stands unblemished.

Almost 22 years have elapsed since Pompey reserves’ encounter with Midhurst & Easebourne in a low-key pre-season fixture staged in Chichester.

Yet the performance of triallist Ali Dia remains indelibly lodged in the mind.

‘It was awful opposition and he was as bad, if not worse, than the opposition,’ recalled former Blues physio Neil Sillett.

‘I turned around and said “What have we got here?”

‘When he turned up down the road at Southampton, we were amazed. Maybe he was tired and stiff when he came to us, so didn’t perform.

‘Still, we were proven right in the long run.’

Ali Dia represents one of the Premier League’s most curious stories, the tale of a counterfeit footballer masquerading as George Weah’s cousin to dupe Southampton.

Handed a month-long deal by Graeme Souness in November 1996, he appeared as a 30th-minute substitute for calf-strain victim Matt Le Tissier against Leeds.

Dia didn’t last the game, withdrawn five minutes from time. He also didn’t see out his contract, released after 14 days.

Yet three months previous, the attacker had pulled on Pompey colours after being invited to trial by Terry Fenwick.

The 1995-96 campaign closed with the Blues securing Division One safety courtesy of a 1-0 final-day triumph at Huddersfield.

That summer Fenwick sought to strengthen, amid a backdrop of Terry Venables’ protracted takeover from Martin Gregory.

Triallists included former England full-back Paul Parker, ex-Norwich striker Darren Beckford and Yugoslavia duo Radmilo Mihajlovic and Predrag Spasic.

There was also Ali Dia.

Sillett added: ‘Obviously, Fen arranged it and got him there.

‘I remember him coming with no gear and tried to get new boots off us!

‘When he left not long after, Gordon Neave, the kitman, was very insistent in getting the playing gear back because we had a feeling he was a rogue triallist.

‘He was only with us for two or three days, he did a couple of days training and played in that game at Chichester.

‘We all trained together in those days, we didn’t possess the staff to have split groups, so Dia would have worked alongside the first team.

‘I can’t remember too much about the reserve match he played in. It was a windy, wet night and I drove the minibus there, but I can’t recall the scoreline. I remember him.

‘With triallists, you are looking for what you need position-wise, then there’s analysing the performance in terms of someone’s body language – and very quickly it became apparent he was more at home at the opponents’ level than he was ours.

‘Then he tried his luck down the road – and it went a lot better for him!’

Midhurst & Easebourne had switched the fixture at the last minute to Chichester City’s Oaklands Park after their pitch was unavailable due to a cricket match.

So on July 30, 1996, Martin Hinshelwood’s reserves – plus Dia – faced the non-leaguers.

The existence of the fixture was never recorded in The News, although the following month’s Pompey programme carried a summary of the reserves’ pre-season.

It revealed the Blues won 3-1 through a Jamie Howell double and Clinton More, but did not detail the line-up.

Blues supporter Chris Gibbs has the programme from that evening, the anticipated team including Aaron Flahavan, Tony Dobson, Dave Waterman, Lee Russell, Sammy Igoe and Scott Bundy.

Of course, there was no mention of the late addition to the published side – Dia.

Although, in December 1996, Sillett lifted the lid in his Sports Mail column, under the headline ‘Dia’s case folded at his Chichester trial’.

Following the Southampton debacle, he was compelled to reveal the Senegal-born player’s Pompey past.

Sillett, who nowadays works as global senior scout for Aston Villa, said: ‘Modern technology and analytical websites reduce that ambiguity about someone coming in.

‘Teams don’t really take triallists like they used to without seeing them or knowing much about them.

‘I would be amazed if anything like that got through again.

‘I just wonder where Ali Dia is now?’