TV & RadioPodcast review

Dara Ó Briain and Josh Widdicombe gleefully dive into the story of the ‘worst footballer ever’

Podcast review on 53 Minutes: On their way to recounting Ali Dia’s brief appearance for Southampton, the comedians tell a complex, compelling tale

53 Minutes is a nostalgic, highly entertaining romp through 1990s Premier League soccer, and that’s why it works

Ever heard of Ali Dia? If you have, it might be because he has gone down in history as the worst soccer player the Premier League has ever seen. Back in the mid-1990s, when Southampton were battling relegation, the legendary Liverpool midfielder Graeme Souness came on board for a season to manage the team. And in that time he got a phone call from another legend: George Weah, who had just become the first African player to be awarded a Ballon d’Or. Weah asked Souness to give his cousin, a little-known striker with a lot of energy, a try.

Souness took a punt on the young Senegalese footballer when his striker Matt Le Tissier was injured during the team’s game against Leeds. Cue 53 minutes of Dia astounding pundits and fans alike with a performance that has gone down in history for all the wrong reasons.

That’s the 53 minutes after which the comedians Dara Ó Briain and Josh Widdicombe named their highly entertaining new podcast about this anomalous moment in football history. They’ve got a cracker of a story on their hands, but you still might wonder how they could possibly stretch that 53 minutes out to six half-hour episodes. What could there be to say beyond what we already know and what pundits and fans have already gone to town on after that fateful game? “He’d later be described as having been everywhere the ball had just been,” Widdicombe says in the opening episode of 53 Minutes, summing up the frequent narrative about Dia’s performance that day. And that could have been it.

Shocker: Widdicombe and Ó Briain have more to say, and they dive gleefully into the world of Premier League soccer in the 1990s, replete with dodgy agents, double-crossing, European club trades and the rise of a number of brilliant African players.


They begin their wild and winding tale at what we can all agree was the best Fifa World Cup of all time, Italia ’90. Dave O’Leary gets a mention, of course, but it’s Cameroon that we’re here for, and their upset against Argentina that paved their way to the quarter-finals and opened the world’s eyes to African footballers. That’s the kind of broad and brilliant context we get from 53 Minutes, laying the groundwork for a moment on which Widdicombe claims the beautiful game turned, becoming something much less appealing, at least to this podcast host.

He’s not wrong. We’re no longer in the world in which a university student who tracks down Peter Ndlovu for a bet can become the Zimbabwean striker’s agent, nor where someone has to borrow train fare from his mother to manage the transfer of Samassi Abou to West Ham. Most importantly, perhaps, it’s a different world from the one in which somebody got through to a Premier League team manager claiming to be a soccer legend and persuading him to take a punt on a plucky striker. (Spoiler: Weah was not the one who called Souness and is no relation of Dia.)

Ó Briain and Widdicombe are funny, have a clear rapport and are on to a cracking yarn. More surprising is the fact that they dig in to make some discoveries, find delightful subplots to spin out from the central hustle, and ultimately tell a story far more complex and compelling than the “worst footballer ever” headlines might suggest. Was Dia the worst of all time? These two reach their own conclusions, but the story is really a nostalgic romp through 1990s Premier League soccer, and that’s why it works. If you have fond memories of Roger Milla’s corner-flag dance, Ndlovu’s Coventry City debut or even O’Leary’s generation-defining penalty kick, then settle in for 53 Minutes. Wherever you land on the particular player at its centre, you can’t help but love the game.

Fiona McCann

Fiona McCann, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a writer, journalist and cohost of the We Can’t Print This podcast