His career at Leicester City does not begin in earnest until Bolton's visit launches another Premiership campaign this afternoon. But already, without a midfield adversary or even a London taxi driver in sight, Dennis Wise is making his point with an aggressive swing of the elbow.
Asked whether his £1.6m move from Chelsea owed anything to an acquaintance with Peter Taylor during the Leicester manager's sojourns within the England set-up, the much-carded Wise breaks into his familiar, street-urchin grin and jabs out the arm in a mime which says: "He gave me the elbow." Taylor dropped Wise from his squad for Italy last November when he had caretaker charge of the national side, although not, it transpires, before ringing to explain why. That courtesy cemented the player's positive impression of the former England Under-21 coach, influencing his decision to decamp to Filbert Street this summer.
The transfer, after 11 eventful years at Stamford Bridge and six historic seasons with Wimbledon beforehand, marks a sea change in Wise's professional life. Now 34, and contracted until 2004, the Shepherd's Bush boy is playing outside London for the first time since an unfulfilling apprenticeship at Southampton. He has also exchanged an exotic football culture, seemingly awash with money, for a more parochial existence where they watch the pennies.
Wise left behind a world of England caps, Champions' League adventures and front-page headlines, in which he moved among the Gazzas and El Tels, Viallis, Hoddles and "monster" agents. No more will he enjoy the genius of Gianfranco Zola at training; no longer will he and some of Europe's finest savour victories in Roberto Di Matteo's ritzy restaurant.
Yet to suggest to Wise that Leicester represents a downward step might be to risk igniting his notoriously short fuse. True, he experienced a culture shock when he discovered that players' banter and team-talks were not conducted in Italian. However, without advocating the ritual burning of shoes or shredding of ties he knew at Wimbledon, he is also relishing a return to a kind of Crazy Gang camaraderie.
"It's like it was at Plough Lane," he says. "There's a similar thing of wanting to help each other out. When you do that, the quality comes through. There's a real togetherness and they've made me feel part of it. With all the British players here, it's as if I've come full circle. They like to enjoy themselves and have fun." Nor, with a few exceptions -- most obviously Zola -- does Wise see his old colleagues as conspicuously superior. "Some of the boys here underestimate themselves," he argues. "I worked with several world-class players at Chelsea but you look around here and think: 'Yeah. We're not a million miles behind'.
"I was watching Matt Elliott the other day, for instance. First he did a 'Johan' [the Cruyff turn], then he dinked the ball over someone and another trick. I said: 'Matty, I don't think Marcel [Desailly] could do what you've just done'." Elliott, it should be remembered, is a central defender. Another whose technique has caught Wise's eye is Muzzy Izzet. Last September, Wise seized Izzet around the waist and was himself grabbed by the ears, but their heat-of-the-moment antagonism masked a long-standing mutual admiration.
"Muz used to clean my boots at Chelsea," recalls Wise. "You could always see he had a talent. He just needed to fill out; he was very slight and often looked like a boy against men.
"Maybe they should have given him more time to develop, but a lot of clubs make mistakes with players -- it happened to me at Southampton. For 800 grand, Leicester have had great value out of him." Wise may well slot in alongside Izzet in the enforcer's role which Leicester have struggled to fill since their former manager, Martin O'Neill, lured Neil Lennon to Celtic. Taylor hopes he will also bring know-how and leadership to a youngish team, much as an old Foxes' favourite, Gary McAllister, did to Liverpool's trophy-laden season at 36.
One job he will not be undertaking is that of captain, which Elliott will retain as long as he stays out of Celtic's clutches. "It's not going to be difficult for me," the former Chelsea captain explains. "Matty's a major character in the dressing-room and he's got the respect of the lads. He's also bigger than me! I can still be some sort of captain on the field anyway. I'll shout whether I've got the armband on or not."
Over the next three years, Wise also plans to advance his long-term managerial ambitions by finding time to work with "the kids" at Leicester. He has been impressed by the standard of their Academy graduates, in particular a 19-year-old left-back, Jordan Stewart. "But," he cautions, "we've got bigger things to worry about than me trying to be a coach." Such as, he might well have added, ensuring that his new employers do not pick up where they left off in May. At the midway point of the season only Manchester United and Arsenal stood above Leicester. In the second half they won just four of their 19 fixtures (completing a double over Wise and co in the process), lost nine of the last 10 and limped in 13th.
The opening run was, Wise trusts, a truer indication of their potential. "They showed they were capable of being up there until a few key players got hurt. That's where the difference lies. Clubs like Chelsea and Arsenal can go out and spend £30m to £40m, but Leicester can't. The team has quality but they don't have 28 or 30 players." Neither have Ipswich, yet they qualified for Europe, finishing a place above Chelsea and thereby hastening his exit.
On the prospects for Claudio Ranieri's team, he will say only: "With the money they've spent, they need to be very close to Manchester United." As for Leicester, being this year's "surprise package" would represent success. Starting against Bolton, Wise's aim is to create elbow room at the top.Reuse content