COPA90 caught up with Craig David to chat all things Southampton FC. We discuss his childhood idol Matt Le Tissier, retro football kits, and putting Jaap Stam on his arse at Wembley.
Every football fan can relate to that first experience of a live game. Squeezing through the metal turnstiles, being greeted by the scent of fried onions and lager, and finding yourself totally immersed in pre-match chanting. All before walking up some concrete steps and seeing the pitch open up before your very eyes. Magical.
For Craig David, that moment came at the age of eleven back in 1993, when his hometown side Southampton welcomed Arsenal to the old Dell. It was pre-Wenger days, but the Gunners proved just as slick as they’d later become under the Frenchman, lashing four past Saints courtesy of an Ian Wright hat-trick.
The drubbing didn’t bother David one bit. He’d been hooked from the moment he left his home on Holyrood estate and started wandering down Southampton’s high street amongst a sea of red and white en route to the ground.
“Me and my Mum would sit right behind the net,” he reminisces. “So when anyone scored it just looked like it was coming through the net…you felt like you were on the pitch, which is a feeling I’ve never quite felt since.”
Now an international award-winning musician, it was football that first captured David’s heart and led him down that high street every other weekend. “Southampton gave me a real sense of purpose growing up as a kid,” he explains. “I think it’s so important supporting a team, to realise the culture. The feeling of that being home.”
In between Saints matches, the school pitch was where David would come alive, seeking to emulate his Saints heroes. “I was school goalkeeper for a while and liked to mimic Tim Flowers and Bruce Grobbelaar, then played in my local Southampton league on Sundays for Northern Rangers in midfield.
“When outfield I tried to model myself on Matt Le Tissier. In his heyday he was one of the greatest footballers I’ve witnessed. He scored some unbelievable goals – his skills were second to none.”
David’s admiration for the man known to Saints fans as ‘Le God’ stretched way beyond the markings of a pitch. “I remember winning a competition that offered the chance to meet him [Le Tissier]. He was in the local sports store in Southampton and I ended up winning it.
My excitement levels were crazy. I wasn’t feeling well that day, but I rode through regardless. I remember taking up a yellow ball I was given and he signed it and was just very elegant about the whole thing.”
Unbeknown to David at the time, this would be the start of a budding friendship with his idol, one that’s since turned into mutual admiration. “Fast forward to me going on tour in 2016, when I was doing an arena run, and Matt Le Tissier reached out and said he’d like to come to the show. I was like: ‘this is Matt Le Tissier! This is crazy to me!’
To go from being the kid queuing up and having my ball signed to him coming to one of my shows…I just thought it was such a beautiful, reciprocal thing.”
Football remained a big part of David’s life through adolescence as he started to discover a deeper appreciation for the culture and design of football attire. “I remember going on holiday to Ibiza for the first time when I was younger and seeing this top and thinking: ‘I have to have this’,” he recalls fondly.
“It wasn’t about diverting my allegiance from Southampton, I just needed this top because it looked wicked. It was an Anderlecht top, the Belgian team, and was purple with the new Adidas sign going across the top of it. I’d never have been caught wearing any top other than a Southampton one to games. It had a good vibe though.”
With fame and success becoming an increasing part of his life, opportunities started to arise which would have left an eleven-year-old David pinching himself. In 2008, he was invited to take part in Soccer Aid and fulfilled a lifelong dream by pulling on an England shirt and gracing Wembley’s turf.
“I remember going there thinking: ‘this is unbelievable, I’m putting on an England top. The Three Lions!’”
“I got a through ball from Jamie Redknapp and all of a sudden I was side-by-side with Jaap Stam and he fell over. So I’m one-on-one with the keeper and I’m getting mad tunnel vision. I was thinking: ‘please just get the ball on-target here’.
I shot and the ball started lifting. There were 50,000 people all cheering as if it was England and I’m thinking: ‘please keep the ball down!’ I can see it drifting up. It was either going in the top corner or way over. It just kept flying.”
In the end, his shot sailed helplessly over the bar, but it didn’t matter. England ran out 4-3 winners against a supremely talented Rest of the World XI, boasting the likes of Cláudio Taffarel, Paolo Di Canio, Luís Figo and Romário. It’s a memory that’s stayed with David ever since.
These days, the connection between football and music is greater than ever. Saints have always played a massive role in David’s life, and he’s been thrilled to see other artists represent their clubs with the same passion and enthusiasm.
“You see that connection more and more now, like how much of a supporter AJ Tracey is for Spurs, or you’ve got Big Zuu when it comes to Liverpool,” he explains. “You’ve got these artists who dream of playing football, then you’ve got footballers who absolutely love their music. Everyone kind of wants to feel what it’s like to be on the other side.”
“I tried to model myself on Matt Le Tissier. In his heyday he was one of the greatest footballers I’ve witnessed.”
If there’s one Southampton player school kids currently look up to, it’s almost certainly Danny Ings. The striker has been in blistering form for Saints this season, throwing his hat firmly in the ring for an England call-up.
“He’s an incredible footballer,” David eulogises. “He’s helped pull us through at times when it’s been a little bit dicey for Southampton. I would love to see him be part of the Euros, he’s proved himself to be a goalscorer and been very consistent.
I’ve got a lot of time for Gareth [Southgate], I think he’s a great coach who’s bringing the youth through and trying to give people opportunities. It’d be great for Ings personally and I think he deserves it.”
With a hectic, global schedule and new UK tour on the horizon, getting to games isn’t as easy as it once was for David. Still, if the opportunity presents itself, you’d have a hard time keeping him away from St Mary’s.
Even now, 27 years on from his first game, he still craves any chance he can get to pass through the metal turnstiles, walk up those concrete steps, and relive that feeling of seeing the ball come through the net.
Craig David's 20th anniversary 'Hold That Thought' UK arena tour begins in April 2021. Full dates and tickets are available here.