Football: Opposites attract praise for defensive skills

Leicester's man mountain, Matt Elliott, is ready for his first major final at the age of 30.
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LAST SUMMER, a shaven-headed, muscular giant whose every utterance betrays the fact that he was south London-born and Surrey-bred found himself in Paris wearing what many among the hundreds of millions watching may have mistaken for a skirt. But then life has become a tale of the unexpected since Matt Elliott swapped Oxford United's Manor Ground for Filbert Street, Leicester City and the Premiership.

With the rest of the Scotland squad, for whom he qualified by virtue of a deceased grandmother who hailed from Falkirk, Elliott donned a kilt before the opening match of the World Cup against Brazil. Though he and the other Anglo-Scots groaned when told of the sartorial code, he is now at ease in the costume of his adopted country. Indeed, he savours it among the "new experiences" that have transformed his career.

"The last two years have been unbelievable and I've enjoyed every minute," Elliott said of his time at Leicester. Apart from discovering he was a Scot, he has pitted his wits against the Shearers, Owens and Bergkamps, played in Europe, become a father and met the Queen. He was even lined up to appear on a television quiz show called Playing at the Venue of Dog Ends with celebrity Foxes fan Englebert Humperdink until the 60s balladeer pulled out.

Tomorrow brings another first for the 30-year-old defender, who will make his debut in a major final as Leicester contest the Worthington Cup with Tottenham Hotspur at Wembley. Having reached the Premiership after a decade spent with Torquay, Scunthorpe and Oxford, Elliott is inclined to view his fourth appearance at the Venue of Legends as an occasion to be enjoyed rather than endured.

Positivity is as much a part of his make-up as the power and composure which enabled him to settle swiftly after Martin O'Neill paid pounds 1.6m for him early in 1997. There is a refreshing lack of self-pity, for instance, when he remembers sitting out Leicester's Coca-Cola Cup success that spring because he had played in previous rounds for Oxford.

"My feeling was that I'd rather be here and miss the final than not be here at all. It was just fantastic to be involved in the build-up to such a big game."

The former schoolboy cricketer - "the Ian Botham of Epsom," he says only a little self-mockingly - displays an equally upbeat attitude to the problem of stifling the inspirational David Ginola. The Spurs winger's stunning solo winner at Barnsley on Tuesday has, admitted Elliott with tongue firmly in cheek, rated "a mention here and there" in the Leicester ranks. "When someone like him is coming at you, you have to hope your instincts and experience will help you read which way he's going to go. That's what you work at in training.

"Maybe the Barnsley defenders could have done better, though I wouldn't criticise them because it's a different matter when you're out there, and it was a wonderful goal. But it's not all about Ginola - we could keep him quiet and still not win - so it could be dangerous to become obsessed with him."

Elliott will be more directly concerned with subduing Les Ferdinand and Chris Armstrong. Neither is the nippy, low-centre-of-gravity striker that most big centre-backs would sooner not face, yet they are "not exactly slow" either and both have a "strong physical presence".

"It's a tough proposition, but we come up against international-class players every week. And, don't forget, we've got people that can cause them problems as well. Spurs are favourites because they've got the big- name players, and would be even if we were riding high in sixth place. We're underdogs in most of the games we play. It doesn't rile us. It just makes winning that much sweeter."

By an encouraging quirk, Elliott has not lost to tomorrow's opponents or to any team managed by Spurs' present manager since arriving at Filbert Street. "George Graham has changed Tottenham's style and it's evident that he has worked on making them more solid. When he was at Leeds they closed you down quickly and didn't give you time to play. Now he's got more flair at his disposal."

Talk of Leeds is both a reminder of O'Neill's decision to reject their advances and remain at Filbert Street, and of Leicester's most prestigious victims en route to Wembley. "We didn't play well and were 1-0 down when Muzzy (Izzet) got a goal out of nothing with two minutes left," recalls Elliott. "We won it in the last minute and a lot of it was down to the spirit which came from the manager deciding to stay. We didn't want him to go."

What is it like working for O'Neill? "He's very demanding and intense, with his own individual style," said the unlikely kilt figure. "Sometimes we don't see him for a few days, then we see too much of him! But he's got a lot of faith in the players. He's done well for us - and we haven't done too badly for him."